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

Austrian Parliament at Night

Austrian Parliament is starting to make lobbying more transparent (Photo: Markus Bernet, © CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Active citizenship

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.

Why differentiate?

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?

Positive reinforcement

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.

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Feri Thierry, CEO of Thierry Politikberatung

Feri Thierry

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.

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Comments

7 Responses to “Austria’s proposed lobbying register”
  1. Feri – thank you for the post. I tend to agree with you that a limited registry is by definition of limited value. I am also interested in the perspective that seems to imply those who are “professional” lobbyists need to be “controlled” in some way, whilst others with an interest in the issue are presumably not engaged in PR/lobbying but expressing a view. Which makes me wonder if such registers look at an issue from the wrong angle. Rather than lobbyists having to register, perhaps the register should be for a particular issue. Then anyone with an interest in that issue – who is expressing a view direct to parliament/politicians (or possibly in other ways, eg via media or grassroots campaigns) should have to register that interest.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Anybody who expresses a view on a choice relating to an issue facing society is a lobbyist. Anybody who cares enough about an issue or decision or choice in society can lobby fulltime (as can paid advocates). Who is to decide which of them genuinely believes in what they promote or who does it merely for the dosh? And should we care either way? Do we need a committee of “experts” for that? People should be free to lobby for whatever they believe in – or are paid to promote – so long as they stay within the law. A register of lobbyists is a restriction on freedom (a good cause might benefit from having professionals on board who are paid a fee – like lawyers are – regardless of their personal views). Often, campaigners become professional campaigners as things develop… but making them register and thereby giving control to third parties over who is legitimate or who is entitled to become legitimate, or deserves to be listened to (put another way, who gets or deserves access to decision-makers) would be a retrograde step….it would be a restriction on the freedom of both decision makers (who are often elected) and lobbyists….like I said, anybody who expresses a view about a choice in society is a lobbyist…

    Let’s campaign for the freedom to lobby Yes, that means standing up for those paid by the defence, banks and the oil industries as much as for Greenpeace and the campaigners who want to keep open the local library. Lobbying requires less red tape, not more.

    As for transparency…I say it is the new opaque. But in the interest of transparency…I declare myself a lobbyist for the freedom to lobby.

  3. Bill Huey says:

    While it is true that if lobbyists didn’t exist, they would probably have to be invented, it is also true that lobbyists have no natural predators, and will proliferate like rabbits unless checked.

    In the United States, there are 11,674 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., which works out to more than 20 lobbyists for each member of Congress. And that’s just the registered ones.

    From 2008-2010, these lobbyists raked in $10 billion, despite the U.S. undergoing the severest financial crash and recession in nearly a century.

    The only way to stop this is to take the money out of politics, which is like removing the oxygen from ocean water.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      I’m glad you mentioned those points, Bill, because I was surprised to read in Feri’s post that the USA has possibly the strictest lobbying rules in the world.

      Isn’t that why so many associations are based in Washington, DC–so they are right there to lobby politicians?

      Just think what it would be like if there weren’t strict rules.

      Question to Feri: is the average Austrian lobby group nearly as powerful as an American counterpart?

      • I’ve always been fascinated by the role of lobbying in supposed democracies. If democracy involves “rule of the people” (to cite its Greek antecedents), and therefore, relates to a form of representative government, there should be no need for lobbying of politicans or expression of vested interests, particularly by covert means, financial or other pressures and so forth.

        Although one can view lobbying as being part of the democratic process – ie the organization of people to advocate a particular perspective – the way it is practised will always involve a dimension of power, money and influence that belies the benign view of its value in society.

        I suppose we come back again to that old chestnut of “public interest” here also. Lobbying is all about the private interests of various publics, and any attempt to operate government in the democratic public interest raises the many issues we’ve debated on PR

      • Feri Thierry says:

        The USA have a different culture in so many ways: transparency especially on financial issues is much more common and usual than in Europe (except scandinavian countries). Every dollar going to a party or to a politician has to be made transparent. We don’t have laws like this in Austria.

        To lobby for your interest regardless of the issue is part of a modern democracy. We only can make it transparent and let the voters decide, whether they prefer the parties supported by the industry or by a trade union or a human rights NGO.

        To answer your question, Judy: The austrian political system is governed by chambers (chamber of commerce, chamber of labour…) with compulsory membership. They have special rights and strong basis in the parties including members of parliament. Could there be more influence?

  4. verluci says:

    Great article, I just given this onto a co-worker who was doing a little research on that. And he in fact purchased me lunch because I discovered it for him

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