Austria’s proposed lobbying register
Why there is nothing to gain from treating some advocacy groups more equal than others
Guest post by Feri Thierry
In March 2011, the Sunday Times published an article on how their journalists posed as lobbyists and successfully bribed Members of European parliament in return for amendments to proposed EU regulations that would suit the interests they claimed to be representing. Ernst Strasser, former Austrian Secretary of Interior and head of the Austrian People’s Party delegation to the European Parliament was one of the MEP who agreed to this deal. He was caught on video accepting about 100,000 Euro. He resigned within hours after the video was published.
Outrage and general debate
The affair caused huge outrage and sparked a general debate on lobbying and transparency in Austria. While some commentators resorted to the old stereotypical categories of good vs evil there were – probably for the very first time in Austria – rather fruitful discussions about the democratic merit of lobbying with a strong focus on how to ensure a maximum of transparency while enabling political stakeholders to make their voices heard.
Proposed mandatory register for all lobbyists and advocacy groups
In response to Strasser’s spectacular fall and rising pressure from the public the Secretary of Justice put out a draft of a lobbying-transparency act that would introduce a mandatory register for all lobbyists and advocacy groups. It is set to enter the parliamentary process this autumn.
In case the proposed Act passes, it would prove to be the strictest regulation of the lobbying industry anywhere in the world, apart from the United States. The Sunday Times affair also had an impact on EU regulation, with the EU Parliament moving quickly to unify the previously separated registers of the Commission and the Parliament.
The advocacy of interests is a legitimate way of exercising active citizenship. It is based on constitutional principles and serves as a preceding impact assessment to regulatory initiatives. Of course, more transparency is needed to allow citizens to track who influences which political decisions. That’s why I welcome the idea of creating a mandatory register. It should, however, incorporate all kinds of lobbyists and all kinds of lobbying activities.
Currently, the draft equally addresses all organisations and persons who advocate interests professionally – companies as well as trade associations, lobbying firms and NGO. But when it comes to disclosure requirements we can clearly see that some are more equal than others.
Only lobbying firms have to fully disclose which issues they are working on, while all the other aforementioned have no such need. Although this part of the register is not intended to be accessible to the public, the proposed rules on access to this information seem very lax.
Effectively it would be public information.
Moreover the draft prohibits “office-holders” – meaning politicians and public servants – to conduct a lobbying trade commercially. Again this does only apply to lobbying firms. The same “office-holders” are free to lobby for companies, trade associations, chambers of commerce or NGOs, while holding office.
If it is not ok for an MP to be employed by a lobbying agency, why would it be just fine if he or she is chief lobbyist of a telecom company or a pharmaceutical trade association?
Finally, besides fines and the threat of being expunged from the register, I think we also need an element of positive reinforcement. The enrolment in the register should be
- linked to a right to access the parliament and the ministries
- as well as special consideration in the official review process of new regulatory proposals.
That would not only serve to make the register more attractive, but further enhance transparency.
The register could strengthen democracy and create more sensitivity in a politically significant industry.
However, only a truly equal treatment of all lobbyists and advocacy groups can lead to an actual rise in transparency of political decisions. And let’s not forget: the register itself is not the right measure to fight political corruption.
Many more measures are needed to address the incompatibility of holding a political office while engaging in secondary employment, party financing and corruption itself.
Feri Thierry is a lobbyist and political consultant in Vienna. He is the founder and CEO of Thierry Politikberatung, university lecturer and academic director of a Master’s programme on public affairs. Follow Feri Thierry on twitter.