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Tony Abbott and Clive Palmer share an opinion on lobbyists – now

Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell are leading the charge against lobbyist conflicts of interest. AAP/Alan Porritt

Alexander Downer, a federal vice-president of the Liberal party, is quite happy to quit that post in compliance with Tony Abbott edict that people who hold party positions can’t be registered lobbyists. Downer, from Bespoke Approach said, “The federal executive of the Liberal party has no power at all. Whether I’m on it or not is immaterial to me. I just do it as a favour”.

The state executive is more important, Downer says, because of its role in preselections. The new rules will stymie a plan for Downer to become South Australian president.

The other Liberal federal vice-president affected is former federal minister Santo Santoro, who said he was waiting to find out more detail. (One of those details is that there will be a period of grace to get one’s affairs in order.)

Video caption here.

Anyone who wants to lobby the government commercially must be on the federal register, and meet certain conditions. This week’s planned new requirement relates to office holders across the political spectrum, not just in the Coalition parties.

It has been driven in part by the increasing convergence of political actors and lobbyists. There used to be more separation between the players, campaigners and staffers on the one hand, and lobbyists on the other. Now there is a morphing of the two worlds, and much interchange. Lobbyists move in to help with elections; political staffers move out and use their contacts to earn a living. Downer and Santoro both raise funds for the Liberals.

While the convergence is obvious on the Labor side, ALP-oriented lobbyists are less likely to be found on party administrative bodies. The Abbott decision will have greater consequences on the Coalition side - anyway, it will be Liberal-aligned lobbyists mostly knocking on the ministers’ doors. Even before the ban comes into effect two lobbyists, Michael Photios and Joe Tannous have resigned from the NSW executive.

There is a touch of irony in Abbott taking this decision because last year, in a heated session with Clive Palmer (then still in the Liberal National Party fold), he rejected the mining magnate noisy advocacy of such a ban. Palmer was particularly agitated about the influence of Queenslander Santoro; at least some of his concern related to his own business affairs.

When the Queensland LNP later moved a motion for a ban at the Liberal federal council its delegates found themselves isolated, with Abbott among the overwhelming majority against.

Abbott sources are adamant the new PM has thought for some time that such a prohibition is desirable in government. Quite why he was so against it when Palmer put it up is unclear – except that Palmer was seen generally as trouble.

(Since then, Palmer has turned into trouble with a capital T. His party will have a Queensland senator from July 1; it has a good chance of a Senate place in Tasmania and some chance in Western Australia. His own prospect of winning Fairfax remains on a knife edge.)

Also this week NSW premier Barry O'Farrell has announced a similar ban to the federal one. The roles of Photios and Tannous in relation to the NSW government have been very controversial. West Australian premier Colin Barnett says he will bring back a bill that has been stalled: it would ban “success” payments.

Abbott said on Thursday: “I know that all Coalition Governments right around Australia are determined to try to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest, real or apparent.

"I’m determined to ensure that as far as the new Coalition Government in Canberra is concerned, not only is it clean and fair but it’s seen to be clean and fair, and that’s why I’m determined to ensure that you can either be a power broker or a lobbyist but you can’t be both.”

Lobbying has become big business in Canberra. As the political cycle shifts, so does the business cycle for some firms. The industry rearranged itself in the run up to a Coalition government: Liberal-oriented firms preparing for an upturn; some businesses protecting themselves with strategic partnerships or more Coalition-oriented staff.

The Abbott move is a sound addition to the existing rules. People holding party offices do often have a special access to ministers and can be privy to information not generally available; there can be the reality or appearance of a conflict of interest.

Downer told the ABC he had not ever seen such a conflict. “But as they like to say in the media these days, perception is everything and so new and more stringent rules are introduced every time the government of Australia changes. And then there are always debates about whether those rules have been adhered to or whether they haven’t.” 

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