16 April 2024

For democracy's sake, we need a gatekeeper on the corridors of power

| Peter Strong
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Should we limit access to the corridors of power? Photo: Pressmaster.

I have an orange pass to access Parliament House. Why is it valuable? Because it gives the pass holder access to the non-public areas of Parliament House.

There is currently a debate about the issuing of these passes to lobbyists and others.

Some politicians don’t like it when people with agendas visit their offices unannounced or camp outside their offices, trying to meet and influence them and their staff.

I have never camped outside anyone’s office. I have, however, sat in places where I know certain politicians will need to pass on their way to or from question time. Then, at times, ministers and backbenchers would come over and say hello and discuss an important issue. Not being pushy but being visible seemed to work.

I believe that certain lobbyists and advocates should be forever banned from APH. Particularly those from tobacco companies, the gambling sector, Clive Palmer, the mining industry, the supermarket duopoly, etc.

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If we banned all lobbyists and advocates, politicians could go about their daily duty, free of direct influence, relying only upon what they read, what they hear and what the public service provides.

Of course, those same groups would also need to be banned from visiting electoral offices. We’ve seen all sorts of groups and individuals camped out in front of any number of electoral offices, holding up placards calling for justice for one thing or another. Good on them, but to ban them from doing so would be like, I don’t know, Russia?

The fact is that people want access to politicians and those in charge. It’s been thus since well before Cleopatra rolled out from inside a carpet to work her spell on Julius Caesar.

Politicians do want to meet their constituents and those with knowledge and influence. However, like anything, some people don’t want to meet because they represent an industry or group the politician doesn’t like, or they don’t like that particular advocate or lobbyist.

We also know that many politicians who do not have people camping outside their offices and do not have the balance of power might be somewhat miffed at all the attention others are receiving. After the next election, there is a chance that the independents in the lower house will have the balance of power while the independents in the Senate will not. Problem solved for the Senators and a problem created for the lower house members. I think they’ll cope with it very well.

Which would I prefer?

I’d always prefer to have influence. I could manage people who camp outside my office. I’d provide coffee and cakes because some would be waiting a long time for a meeting.

In my experience, most lobbyists and advocates are fine, honest people doing their job, which is often essential. The real issue is the number of lobbyists representing those with money and muscle.

Often, I would walk out of a meeting with a minister or an independent with clout and bump into a group from the biggest businesses or the most powerful unions waiting their turn.

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I would then bump into many other orange pass holders as I wandered through APH. These people represented community groups, aged care, disadvantaged people, the education and health sectors, etc. They were often also poorly funded, so we would cross notes and provide each other with information and intel that may help our causes.

We don’t want to ever stop these groups from having influence.

So, what’s the solution? Do we make it harder to get an orange pass? Or make a new type of pass for annoying lobbyists and advocates – maybe the colour puce?

Maybe we could have an APH Pass Lotto? People must buy tickets with any funds raised for the MPs’ Christmas party. The winners will receive APH passes for the next 12 months, and then we will do it all again. It would be limited to 100 passes per year, and the winners would be so powerful for that year.

Democracy, however, demands access to our politicians. Those politicians will then need to manage who visits and who doesn’t.

The fact is that the cross-bench, the independent members, are under-resourced. They need at least one more adviser to manage their meetings. That is fair, especially for those with the balance of power. Limited resources mean limited access to important information or differing views. That does not help those who have a deciding vote.

Limited resources may mean that the richest and pushiest win the day to the detriment of the majority. Also, the parliamentary pass office does a highly professional job and should be left to continue to do that.

Finally, if I had my way, only small business advocates and true community representatives would be allowed into the nether regions of APH. The world would then be a much better place.

But until that great day, independent MPs and Senators definitely need more resources.

Peter Strong has announced his candidacy as an independent in the 2024 ACT election.

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Interesting opinion piece, Peter. While I agree there needs to be transparency over who gets access to our elected representatives, It seems a major point in your argument is that only “nice guy” lobbyists like yourself should be allowed unfettered access in APH. A lobbyist is a lobbyist – irrespective of their approach and cause, they are all, at the end of the day, trying to push an agenda.

On a totally different matter, I would have thought, that 6 months out from the ACT election, as a wannabe ‘independent with influence’ in the next ACT Legislative Assembly, you might consider using “your space” on forums like RiotACT to spruik you credentials.

I’m definitely a voter who is very open to the idea of independents having the balance of power, however I’m afraid articles about your views on lobbyists and independents in the federal parliament are not doing a lot to court my vote.

From the various comments on RiotACT you can guage the local issues which are front and centre in people’s minds. Maybe an article or two about how you would use your ‘balance of power’ to progress those issues would be a positive step towards giving your candidacy some credence.

People representing different groups of society (lobbyists) need access to politicians. This process however needs to be transparent, fair and publicly available. We, as voters need to know who is accessing our politicians at what times, and what/who are they representing. As the author states as well, only money should not buy you access. All groups from society need lobbyists representing them. This includes all the way from large corporations to representatives of casual workers down to representatives for people on centerlink and ndis. Groups that are not represented should likewise be able to get a lobbyist in without tooany hurdles.
Rather than having direct access to the offices and politicians on their way to the cabinet, would it be better to have scheduled times where lobbyists can access the individual politicians? This would be less sisturbing for their work flow.

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