‘IT IS a concern that one of the legacies of the economic and political events of the past few years has been a significant loss of trust in Government, in politics and in the institutions of the State.”
So said Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin when opening a conference examining the Government’s regulation of lobbying policy proposals at Farmleigh yesterday.
Over the course of the last year, about 60 organisations submitted views to the department on the commitment in the Fine Gael-Labour Programme for Government to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists and rules governing the conduct of lobbying.
The Fianna Fáil/Green government also committed itself to introducing such regulation but nothing happened. So why now has the impetus to introduce such regulation come to the forefront?
As a result of a long consultation process, the department has produced a strong policy document which, if it sees the light of day as legislation, will make Ireland one of the most robust systems in the world for lobbying regulation.
According to the 19th century American political dictionary, “the lobby” is a term applied collectively to men — lobbyists — who make a business of corruptly influencing legislators. Alas, the pejorative connotations of lobbyists as a profession still exist.
However, lobbyists, while maybe not held in the highest regard by the public, nevertheless often provide invaluable and entirely legitimate services to policymakers. They are an accepted element within society that provide the necessary input and feedback into the political system, thereby helping develop policy outputs which drive political and economic aspects of our daily lives.
Demands for lobbying regulation in Ireland have been growing. Labour introduced legislation designed to regulate lobbying twice in 1999, and again in 2000, 2003, and 2008. In 2007, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland called for the setting up of a credible registration system under which lobbyists would regularly declare the clients on whose behalf they were working; in return, it was suggested that those registered lobbyists would receive an official pass in order that they could freely access the Dáil. Fianna Fáil also published a bill last January.
The regulation of lobbyists in essence involves the idea that democratic political systems have established rules which lobby groups must follow when trying to influence government officials. And although some institutions in the EU operate on a voluntary system, the evidence from the US and Canada is that lobbying regulation is much more effective when it is not a matter of voluntarily complying.
The regulatory system should be codified and entail formal rules passed by government and written in law that is subsequently enforced and must be respected.
The two key aspects of lobbying activity in democratic societies are access to decision makers and the expectation that lobbyists have as a result of that access. What the regulation of lobbyists achieves is that it allows citizens to openly see what lobby groups are doing and who in government they are talking to, with the result that over time, citizens become less cynical about the work and nature of lobby organisations, and indeed politicians.
It also tempers the unreasonable expectations that some lobbyists might have given that their activities are available for public scrutiny.
Registering lobbyists is not about regulating speech, but about preventing undue influence, including abuse of dominant financial position of some interest groups. The key point is to have a system as transparent as possible. Regulation should be something that gives all stakeholders confidence in the system and, in that context, it must be kept simple initially.
Enforcement is the key. Any such register should be controlled and monitored by an independent agency. Legislation regulating lobbying will shine a light into the black box of Irish policymaking, something which will have very positive results for democracy and society, providing us all with a better understanding of how our lives are governed.
* Gary Murphy is associate professor of politics at Dublin City University and co-author of Regulating Lobbying: A Global Comparison