Labor and Coalition combine to vote down stricter lobbying rules

The government and opposition have combined to vote down a motion calling for stronger lobbying laws.

The Greens moved a Senate motion late on Tuesday afternoon calling for a five-year ban on lobbying by former ministers. The motion also called for “meaningful penalties” for former ministers who breach the ministerial code of conduct.

Labor and the crossbench senator Derryn Hinch said they supported the principles behind the motion but could not support the wording.

“Like the ALP, the opposition, I do support the general feelings in this motion,” Hinch said. “But I think five years is excessive, if they come back with three years, something like that, I could support it.”

The motion, moved by the Greens senator Larissa Waters, cited Guardian Australia’s reporting on the fundamental failings of the lobbyist regime, which is weak, covers only a narrow section of lobbyists, lacks any independent oversight, and is barely enforced.

The current rules – set out in the lobbying code of conduct – prohibit ministers from lobbying on anything they had official dealings with for 18 months after leaving parliament. The rules are designed to prevent them using inside knowledge or obtaining an unfair advantage for their clients.

Senior public servants, ministerial staffers, and defence personnel face a 12-month cooling-off period. The bans, already weak by international standards, are rarely enforced, easily avoided, and attract little serious punishment.

Labor senator Anthony Chisholm said the opposition supported the general principles behind Waters’ motion. But he said without proper enforcement, there was little point in extending time limits.

“Labor believes that unless ministerial standards are effectively enforced, adjusting the time limits on post-ministerial employment will have no effect,” he said.

Waters had earlier expressed little hope for her motion, saying the current lax lobbying regime suited both major parties.

“The whole reason for us being concerned about this revolving door of lobbyists and politicians in this place is the wholesale takeover of big business of our democracy,” she said. “We have a litany of examples of it. We have the donations that are flowing, regularly and generously to both sides of politics from all sorts of industries with vested interests.”

Earlier this week, Guardian Australia revealed more than half of all federally-registered lobbyists worked within government at some point. One in four worked in the offices of politicians.

There is no suggestion that the majority of lobbyists, who serve an important democratic function, are doing anything other than complying with the rules.

But academics say the flawed oversight regime is effectively leaving the sector to police itself, and that the lack of enforcement is leaving little incentive for lobbyists to comply with the rules.

Other lobbyists – including those who work directly for big business, rather than as consultants – are simply exempted from the rules and transparency measures.

That leaves them to effectively work in secret, and keep their clients’ names out of the media without repercussion.

(This reporting is supported by the Susan McKinnon Foundation through the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust)