The New South Wales corruption watchdog has declared secret meetings or exchanges between lobbyists and government officials should be prohibited.
The Operation Eclipse report released on June 22 by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found that reform of the current Lobbying of Government Officials Act (LOGO Act) or new legislation is needed to protect the public interest against the risks of corruption and undue influence.
Operation Eclipse was conducted differently from usual investigations by the commission. It examined the particular aspects of lobbying activity and the corruption risks involving public authorities and officials rather than looking into an individual involved in shady conduct.
The ICAC Chief Commissioner Peter Hall said that while lobbying could lead to positive outcomes in the public interest if conducted ethically and honestly, Operation Eclipse and other investigations have found that it can also lead to favouritism and corrupt conduct under the current inadequate regulations.
“The LOGO Act, while a step in the right direction, falls short of implementing all of the 17 recommendations made by the Commission more than 10 years ago in its previous lobbying investigation, Operation Halifax,” Hall said. “In Operation Eclipse, the ICAC has made a further 29 recommendations to address this shortfall and to better regulate lobbying practices in NSW.”
In addition to banning secret or undocumented meetings, Operation Eclipse recommended that the documentation of all communications with lobbyists and lobbying groups, including those held outside of government grounds, become an obligation.
It called on the state government to create a dedicated NSW lobbying commissioner whose primary purpose would be to regulate the LOGO act.
It also recommended that any fundraising event where an attendee pays for exclusive access to a minister should be called a “scheduled meeting” and be published in ministerial diaries irrespective of whether actual lobbying occurs.
Furthermore, it recommended that a broader range of lobbyists be required to register and follow regulations, particularly the professional in-house lobbyists, after the commission found that only third-party lobbyists were required to register and subject to regulation despite the fraction amount of lobbying carried out by this group.
A similar investigation, Operation Halifax, was done one decade ago and made several recommendations that were never implemented.
This recommendation from ICAC comes as a mayoral candidate for the upcoming election in Sydney faced increasing scrutiny over two loans she took out during her last political campaign from a Chinese businessman.
The Australian reports the loans, which amounted to $11,700, came from a Sydney man Yuxing Li, with one loan allegedly being taken out eight days before the election and a second in July 2017. Scott listed both in her donations disclosures in 2018.
The candidate Linda Scott has refused to explain the reason for the loans.
Scott has also said The Australian’s report was misleading.
“It is common for candidates in many elections to take loans … it’s a very normal thing to do,” said Scott.“These were loans, declared, in line with the rules.”
But the loans raise the spectre of ICAC’s previous investigations into allegations of corruption between the NSW Labor Party and the Chinese Friends of Labor. In the investigation, titled Operation Aero, one of Scott’s former running mates Jonathon Yee, was alleged to have used straw donors—a person who illegally uses another person’s money to make a donation to a political party in their own name—to disguise large sums of cash that were donated to the NSW Labor Party by alleged Chinese political influencer Huang Xiangmo.
Huang was later expelled from Australia by the country’s intelligence agency ASIO.