A register of lobbyists is about preventing undue influence

 

OPINION:Ireland needs a register of professional lobbyists – essential components of a democracy but unregulated here, writes GARY MURPHY

THE GREEN Party’s 2007 general election manifesto pledged to “establish a national register of lobbyists . . . detailing the company, clients and interests being represented”.

This pledge found its way into the Fianna Fáil/Green Party/Progressive Democrats coalition programme for government which on its very last page committed itself to “consider legislation to regulate lobbyists”.

Within a month of taking office, Minister for the Environment John Gormley was reported as having officials working on lobbying regulation. Two years later, however, not a peep has been heard from the Government about lobbying regulation.

Demands for lobbying regulation have been growing in recent years. The Labour Party has actually introduced legislation designed to regulate lobbying on five occasions; twice in 1999, then again in 2000, 2003 and 2008. In 2007 the Public Relations Institute of Ireland called for the establishment of a credible registration system under which lobbyists would regularly declare the clients on whose behalf they were working. In return for this it was suggested that those registered lobbyists would receive an official pass to access freely the Dáil. These proposals have so far gone ignored by Government.

The truth is that lobbying is a central and legitimate part of the policy process in all democratic political systems, including Ireland. The work of lobbyists is essential because these actors offer input into the decision-making process. Lobby groups may include those with economic interests, professional interests, and civil society interests. Means by which these groups seek to influence officials and politicians include formal contact, such as official presentations, and informal liaising, such as telephone conversations.

Notwithstanding the importance of interest groups to democratic societies, less than 10 political systems in the world have regulations concerned with lobbying activity: the US, Canada, Germany, the EU (specifically the European Parliament), Australia, Taiwan, Lithuania, Hungary and Poland.

Regulations refer to “rules” which interest groups must follow when pursuing lobbying activity, including, for example, registering with the state before contact can be made with any public official.

Ireland has not formulated and implemented lobbying legislation but in the review of the programme for government currently under way it would certainly aid public policy in the State for the commitment to regulate lobbyists to be enacted.

One misplaced assumption which often seems to be accepted without question by the public and journalists is that lobbyists themselves oppose any form of registration system. But in fact in those jurisdictions that employ lobbying regulation the overwhelming evidence is that lobbyists are not averse to states having registers of lobbyists for a number of reasons.

Primarily it tends to legitimise lobby groups as actors in the policy process and gives a certain transparency. Equally, it allows citizens to see what lobby groups are doing and to whom in government they are talking.

The result is that over time citizens become less cynical about the work and nature of lobby organisations, lobbyists and, indeed, politicians.

From examining regulations in other jurisdictions there can be little doubt that in designing a system of regulation of lobbyists it is crucial to write into the legislation why the establishment of a register of lobbyists is taking place and what it covers. It should also explicitly point out what it does not cover.

One of the arguments against such regulation, and one that was put forward by the Nolan report in Britain in the mid-1990s, is that it may impede citizens contacting their representatives as they may feel that they need to employ lobbyists to do so.

To suggest that citizens would feel that they needed to go through a lobbyist to contact their elected representative on an issue which affects them would be in many ways to try to dismiss nigh on a century of Irish political culture.

While some lobbyists themselves might try to advocate such a scenario, the reality is that any regulatory system of lobbyists needs only to regulate for professional lobbyists. This should be explicitly written into any legislation.

The key point is that lobbyists are different to ordinary citizens as they are interacting with government officials and elected representatives and getting paid for doing so.

A comprehensive system of regulation should try to capture the information of who is accessing whom, what for, and what monies, if any, change hands.

In principle lobbyists should not be against having such a register and governments should want it as it keeps transparent what is a legal entity; lobbying of government. In that context what is being regulated is behaviour by interests who have potentially the money to have their expectations met by the access they have.

Registering lobbyists is not about regulating speech but about preventing undue influence, including abuse of dominant financial positions of some interest groups. The key is to ensure that what is written into the regulation does not hinder the average citizen from doing what they have always done, which is lobby their representative.

Regulation should be something that gives all stakeholders confidence in the system. It must be kept simple initially and not overburden lobbyists with legislation.

Finally, enforcement of legislation is the key. Any such register should be controlled and monitored by an agency such as the Standards in Public Office Commission. This should ensure public confidence in the process.

In an age where disenchantment with certain aspects of life has been a feature of Irish politics and where tribunals of inquiry have opened up all sorts of questions about the influence of lobbyists in Irish public life, being proactive in establishing a register of lobbyists would be a good initial first step in ensuring that the perception of undue influence is something that is not an issue in modern Ireland.


Gary Murphy is associate professor of politics in the school of law and government at Dublin City University. This is an edited version of a paper presented at a recent conference, Political Reform in Ireland: Are our Institutions Fit for Purpose?

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