Ban secret lobbying

Our concerns about lobbying should be directed, not against lobbying itself, but against the arrogance of secret lobbying. Citizens have a right to be heard but none have a right to lobby in secret.

Lobbying stays because all of us have a right to lobby public officials (MPs and ministers, public servants and ministerial advisers), to argue for or against new laws, to support or oppose government policy on this or that. However, public officials ought never treat these exchanges as confidential, as though discussing a private matter with a member of the public. Because, by definition, laws and policies affect everybody; they are public matters. Parliament needs to make this distinction absolutely clear.

Parliament needs to make clear that we have a right to privacy only when responding to private concerns, like the health and legal worries about which we consult our doctor or lawyer. What we then decide is nobody’s business but ours and we expect professionals to work with us in confidence. We lose that right when we engage with a public official about a public matter, for example, when we press government for something that others will pay for. Or propose a regulation that others will have to comply with. In that case, public officials must do right by all with a legitimate interest, which requires that the proposition go on the public record.

That would make lobbying more like presenting a petition to parliament. Petitions are public documents that list the petitioners by name, the gold standard for coming into the open on public matters. Professional lobbying needs to be more like that, obeying the rules that apply to ordinary petitioners.

Forced openness will discourage some from taking their concerns to a public official but the greater danger is that secret lobbying provides cover for bribery, cronyism, conflicts of interest, deception, unjust law and bad policy. We cheat others when we advocate changes that affect them but then work to keep them in the dark. Telling them early is the decent public-spirited thing to do. Logically, the obligation to put proposals for public action on the public record should extend to candidates for public office, parliamentary candidates in particular. Voters should know who is lobbying the candidates who seek their votes, and what they are lobbying about.



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