What do the current high levels of interest in integrity in politics mean for the for-purpose sector? Neil Pharaoh explains.
In a survey conducted by The Age ahead of November’s Victorian state election, integrity in politics and government was the top ranked priority for all age demographics. At the recent federal election, we saw a similar trend with the election of many “teals” with platforms focussing on strengthening integrity in politics.
The question that remains is what should we be doing in the social purpose, for-good and not for profit space around integrity and government?
The establishment of the federal government’s Integrity Commission should herald the start of a new regime in this space. Third parties, such as lobbyists, will be subject to the rules around the commission. This means lobbyists will be able to be called in front of the corruption commission, like any other political actor or stakeholder.
Bringing lobbyists into the fray of these regulations is a great step towards increased accountability in several key areas:
- Lobbyists increasingly using social purpose/NFP clients as a “halo effect” for their less ethical clients, including via probono and lowbono engagements
- Internally conflicted lobbyists and “communications” firms working both sides of the same issue politically
- The lack of accountability as to when a lobbyist firm is talking about you and the downstream impacts it may have on your advocacy
- The very public declaration that you are using a lobbyist – appearing on the register.
Those who have read Happening on the Hill for a while, you will know that the entire reason we were the first to start using the term “government engagement” was to try and begin a structural shift away from the lobbying and “gun for hire” approach that was becoming increasingly common in our sector – these integrity reforms will further shine the spotlight into the murky space of lobbying.
Let’s step through how these increased integrity reforms may impact “communications” and lobbying in the for-good, and social purpose sector.
Reducing the “halo” effect – a quick scroll through the Federal lobbyist register will show you the list of who is who of Australia’s lobbyists, as well as their clients. What we are increasingly seeing with some firms is that not-for-profit and social purpose clients are always listed first or highest on the register, creating a “halo” of doing good as a lobbying firm. Even if lobbying firms are doing probono or lowbono work, they are commercialising this halo effect to secure other, high fee-paying clients. Increased transparency and integrity provisions will start to poke and probe at these sorts of activities, and in addition people will be able to make their own submissions to the commission – potentially unravelling some of this halo.
What should also be worked through is the conflicted nature of a large number of lobbyists, who are in effect working both sides of the same issue. For instance, environmental groups seeking an end to fossil fuel companies, and fossil fuel companies both using the same lobbying firm – it is well worth searching on the NSW register, as there are quite a few of these conflicted client situations which are easily seen. Doing a quick search of your organisation on the register in each state and territory is another way to make sure you aren’t being conflicted, nor used as a halo. Keep in mind that using a lobbyist once will sometimes keep you on these registers for life (in NSW for instance) – it is always worth doing a regular check as well, as we know of some organisations who have been added to the register within them being informed.
Accountability is another reform area, which we think will be sharpened. At the moment lobbying and communications firms can say they raised your issue with a MP or senator, but are under no actual obligation to be factual or forthright: did they raise your issue along with many others? Was it in passing? Did they mention you but spend most of the time talking about another client of theirs? All of these things require a bit of focus and I certainly am hoping the Integrity Commission may be able to get to the bottom of this as well.
Finally, and of most risk for many for good, social purpose, or not-for-profit organisations is just the fact that you are seen to be using a lobbyist – sometimes this can turn off donors, on other occasions it means people think you have too much money (and thus do not need government funding). Working through these issues around integrity and lobbying will be a key step now that third parties will be captured under the federal integrity scheme.
As the details and minutiae of the integrity watchdog continue to be released, it will be worth keeping an eye on how they may impact your organisation. While most organisations won’t have anything to worry about, being aware of not just your own responsibilities, but also those of people and organisations you work closely with, can save you potential headaches in the future.