Lobbying and the levers of power – Carmel Cacopardo

When discussing the politics of lobbying regulation, what is known as the ‘revolving door’ policy is frequently discussed. This is normally understood to mean the accelerated passage of a politician, generally from a senior political role, to a leading role in the corporate world.

The classic example of this was the recruitment by multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs of José Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission. An EU ethics panel described Mr Barroso’s behaviour as morally reprehensible, even though it concluded that he was not in breach of the EU Integrity Code.

Such behaviour is considered to be an integral part of the lobbying process which requires adequate regulation.

In Malta we do it even better than that, because no rules governing such behaviour exist! This is the result of no agreement on lobbying regulation being reached when the Standards in Public Life legislation was discussed by Parliament. As a result, they postponed the discussion and conveniently added the requirement of formulating lobbying rules to the duties of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, George Hyzler.

In Malta it has already happened in the recent past, not just in John Dalli’s recruitment by the Marsovin Group but also when the Corinthia Group recruited, at different times, both John Dalli and outgoing EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella. No rules were infringed, bypassed or ignored here as, to put it mildly, regulating ethical behaviour has never been Malta’s strong point. Rather, the local reaction was: why not?

It stands to reason that some would think that if Malta does not regulate the use of ‘revolving doors’ to catapult politicians into the corporate world, why on earth should we regulate it for businessmen intending to do away with the lobbying middlemen and take the levers of power directly into their very hands?

After a long silence, it was very ‘thoughtful’ of Minister of Education Evarist Bartolo to warn us of the perils we face in one of his recent early morning thoughts for the day posted on facebook. Together with his Cabinet colleagues he has had to face Keith Schembri for almost seven years at the Office of the Prime Minister, to name just one such appointment.

When the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life finds time to draft rules regulating lobbying, the issue of ‘revolving doors’ should undoubtedly be high on his list of must-dos. In line with lobbying regulations in other jurisdictions he will, hopefully, be proposing a cooling-off period as a brake on such appointments. This would mean high-level appointments from the corporate world to the political world (and vice-versa) would need to wait until 18 to 24 months have elapsed between ceasing activity in one sector and entering the other. This is normally intended to dampen the negative lobbying impacts which such appointments lead to. It is inevitable and is intrinsically linked with these types of appointments.

It is also about time for the regulation of lobbying in general. Applying transparency to lobbying is the basic antidote needed.  

Lobbying, if done properly and above board, should not lead to bad governance. It is perfectly legitimate for any citizen, group of citizens, corporations or even NGOs to seek to influence decision-taking. It is done continuously and involves the communication of views and information to legislators and administrators by those who have an interest in informing them of the impacts of the decisions under consideration. 

It is perfectly legitimate that individuals, acting on their own behalf or on behalf of third parties, should seek to ensure that decision-takers are well-informed before taking the required decisions. However, lobbying should not be the process through which the decision-takers make way for the representatives of corporations to take their place.

Lobbying requires a considerable dose of transparency: it needs to be unchained from the shackles of secrecy. In other jurisdictions this is done through actively disclosing information on lobbying activities, thereby placing them under the spotlight of public opinion. The timely publication of Minutes, as well as documents and studies relative to meetings held by holders of political office, is essential. The public has a right to know who is seeking to influence the decision-taking process. This helps ensure that lobbying is not used as a tool to secretly derail or deflect the democratic process leading to political decisions.

This is one of the major issues resulting from the political crisis currently engulfing the Maltese Islands: essentially an absence of ethics in the public sphere which should be addressed forthwith.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 15 December