Opinion | Lobbyists' influence in regional spotlight

INFLUENCE QUESTIONED: Does lobbying need reining in?
INFLUENCE QUESTIONED: Does lobbying need reining in?

The neglect of Newcastle reached a new low last week when NSW Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Andrew Constance made a big deal of a six-month trial of a dawn rail service to Sydney. Travellers from Hamilton could stay in bed another 20 minutes he trumpeted. The reason? The train will stop at fewer stations en route. And that was it.

Meanwhile Sydney continues a spending spree on transport infrastructure, gobbling up the proceeds from the sale of public assets. It’s a familiar story: Sydney with two thirds of the state’s population devouring the whole NSW cake.

There are many reasons for Sydney’s ruse as an only child. It is the capital city. It houses the parliament. It is an Australian icon. It wears suits.

Another reason – not given enough scrutiny – is the influence of lobbyists. Concern over the influence of lobbyists is growing. Last week Newcastle academic Kypros Kypri released research exposing the inadequacy of Australian regulations in stemming the influence of lobbyists for the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries.

A look at the register of lobbyists held by the NSW and Australian parliaments shows how little we are told. A problem is that the registers don't identify who the lobbyists meet with and why.

But we can guess. On the registers we see the lobbyists are national firms employing influential former politicians and mandarins, not surprising given the art of lobbying starts with getting access to people in power. Then we see the lobbyists represent those who stand to make or lose big bikkies from government actions. So the prominent clients of the lobbyists are property developers, mining companies, gambling and alcohol interests, and banks.

But there are omissions from the registers, notably private sector entities with a keen interest in infrastructure spending. There is no requirement for ‘government relations’ staff of, say, major property developers like Meriton and Lend Lease, and infrastructure operators like Sydney Airports and Transurban, to be registered as lobbyists. Likewise private sector industry associations, such as the Minerals Council of Australia and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, have free run of Macquarie Street without public scrutiny.  Missing too are the representative associations like the NSW Business Chamber and self-proclaimed think tanks like the Committee for Sydney that are underpinned by corporate donors eager for their interests to be advanced.

The NSW infrastructure honey pot is an historic opportunity for the private sector to make big bucks. A railway line through a large rural holding delivers a windfall rezoning opportunity. A new metro or light rail through an old industrial estate is pay day for high density apartment builders. A new outer urban motorway sees logistics firms lining up for prime positions.

The lobbyists – registered or not – generate an endless flow of expert reports proclaiming the merits of their chosen projects, which are propagated at big name conferences at swanky venues with select ministers on the podium.

Traditional sources of advice from government departments get sidelined by folders full of glossy facts and fly-in fly-out experts endorsing the lobbyists’ pathway to a prosperous future.

The result is a hearty menu of choices for government, with the winning lobbyists lining up to sing the praises of a minister that has delivered the goods.

The losers, of course, are the general public who rely on making representations to their local members, who think democracy is about electing a parliament to act dispassionately for the greater good.

The regions are the losers too. Their voice isn’t heard, just like a scream inside an empty carriage on a dawn service to Sydney.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.