IVAN YATES: We won’t get a receipt for this, but that’s the price of public life

WHO really exerts influence in this country? Is there a golden circle of insiders that dominate decision-making in government? Is opinion manipulated by a select cohort of furtive authoritative figures?

Attempts to expose and regulate such a coterie of powerful people are in gestation in the corridors of power. Last week, 50 submissions were published in response to Government plans to enact a statutory register of lobbyists. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland invited opinions on a Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality, which will oblige presenters and producers of radio and television programmes to declare any interests in a new public register. These measures imply that hidden forces wield power behind closed doors.

Interaction between government and business is a complex, often subtle, coexistence. Public policy-making and executive decisions are fundamental to many enterprises. Elimination of smog wasn’t great for coal merchants. Deregulation of the taxi industry reduces taxi drivers’ income by way of additional capacity. Location for a new IDA factory or state office confers benefits to one local community over another. Specific taxation measures can diminish consumption or sectoral revenue. Investment returns can be dictated by daily decisions on public procurement. Smoking bans impact on tobacco profits. Laws regulate many sectors of economic activity. Appointments can make or break individual’s careers. There is no avoidance of the extent to which business needs decision-makers on its side.

Human nature the world over is based on streetwise cunning. The ability to win in a world of persuasion adds real shareholder value. Presentation may not succeed on the merits of the case. The right contacts are more important in smaller countries, where a village mentality leads to informality and direct personal associations. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform intends to put in place a register of all professional lobbyists or public affairs consultants. This will oblige around 20 existing firms to reveal their operational details at least annually. What will we glean about the modus operandi of Frank Dunlop, PJ Mara, Jim Glennon, Stephen O’Byrnes, Liz O’Donnell, Alan Dukes, Martin Macken and other former politicians and public servants? Maybe their ability to organise face time with ministers and mandarins is overrated and oversold to gullible clients.

Any register must be accompanied by a code of practice. There is little benefit of knowing the lobbyists if we don’t know who their clients are and who precisely they are seeking to persuade. We need to know the scale of their fees and whether they relate to a successful outcome. If they are on a “no foal, no fee” remuneration they are dependent on favours. Documents pertaining to representations on behalf of applicants for licences may need to be published, so that validity of lobbyists’ arguments can be assessed. All data relating to campaigns waged on behalf of paymasters may have to be put in the public domain. Once you travel down this road, there are few justifiable limits. Even with 100% transparency, there is no record of what may happen on a golf course or in a corporate box at a rugby or soccer international match. As Gogarty infamously asked: “Will we get a receipt for this?” No chance.

The Institute of Public Administration published a detailed analysis in 2005 of what other democracies do to safeguard parliamentary systems from improper lobbying. I presumed all states had compulsory statutory registers, along with public inspection of their activities. In the EU, it transpires that the following countries have no rules or procedures regulating lobbyists: Austria; Belgium; Denmark; Finland; France; Greece; Italy; Luxembourg; Netherlands; Portugal; Spain and Sweden. Britain has no specific rules or regulations concerning lobbyists and their activities. The approach is to regulate the lobbied. In 1994, then prime minister John Major established the Nolan Committee, which led to a House Select Committee on Standards in Public Life, with a code of practice for MPs, the key point being that lobbying will always be endemic: it’s the responses to it that need to be observed and controlled.

In Australia, they established the Lobbyists Registration Scheme in 1983. This was widely acknowledged to be ineffective and rarely enforced, resulting in its abolition in 1996. The Howard government replaced it with strict prohibition on ministers having retainers, directorships or external interests, along with tough enforcement.

Definitions of lobbyists are deeply contentious. It can be so wide to include every type of trade or representative organisation.

The Law Society, Institute of Chartered Accountants, IFA, trade unions, Ibec, charities and NGOs lobby politicos incessantly as part of their raison d’être. Just because they may represent many members or an entire sector doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what they are up to in private. States with the widest definition of lobbyists have found it to be impracticable. What seems black and white has 40 shades of grey.

USA has the most elaborate regime of lobby regulations since 1946, updated in 1995. Lobbyists must register with the House of Representatives if they receive more than $5,000 (€3,777). This includes all who seek to influence Congress. Instead of eliminating the industry, it means you’re nobody unless you’re visible. Their system has more active vested interests than any other, with lobby dollars financing election campaigns. Surely banning corporate political donations is more effective at eliminating bribery. Ticking boxes of transparency doesn’t ensure malpractice is prevented. EU institutions have formal regulatory frameworks for lobbyists, while the most powerful body, the Council Of Ministers, has none. There is no silver bullet to ensure integrity anywhere.

Ireland has the Ethics in Public Office Act (1995), Standards in Public Office Act (2001) and consequent codes of conduct that are overseen by the Standards in Public Office Commission. The essential ingredient is to expose hidden agendas into the public domain. Conflicting interests are unavoidable when it comes to privatisation of state assets and licensing competitions. Resolutely accepting the highest bidder avoids beauty contests. We have to start with realism rather than the naïve belief that trust and ethical behaviour can be assured by legislation. Ensuring no personal gain for those making decisions is vital. A cooling-off period of two years whereby former officeholders cannot take up private sector posts is necessary to stop gamekeepers becoming poachers.

The BAI can insist that all connected with programming reveal external financial connections. But are academics and bureaucrats set to impose their template of public debate upon the national conversation by eliminating opinion? Supernanny state cultures shouldn’t impose limits upon analysis and opinion based on their own prejudices. Everyone is biased, depending on their background. This should be visible to the listener or viewer — for agreement or disagreement. Many believe my FG past infers a blueshirt partisanship, while FGers believe I overcorrect any imbalance. The ultimate opinion of the punter is your own responsibility. In eliminating the stroke merchant, let’s not become clones of a narrow political correctness. Discourse is separate to decisions by those in authority. Agendas will remain, just not hidden ones.


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