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Highest number of former special advisers apply to reduce one-year 'cooling-off' period for lobbying - Sipo report

The Standards in Public Office Commission has released its 2020 report on the regulation of lobbying.

EIGHT FORMER SPECIAL advisers to ministers last year applied to waive or reduce a requirement to wait one year before engaging in lobbying activities, a new report from the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) has said. 

Sipo’s annual report for 2020 on the regulation of lobbying said this was the “highest single-year count to date” for these applications. 

The commission was set up in 2001. It oversees legislation governing ethics in public office, electoral finances, spending of State funding, and the regulation of lobbying. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to connect the dots between the State and former officials turned lobbyists. Support this project here.  

Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, certain ‘designated public officials’ (including special advisers to ministers and ministers of state) are subject to a one year “cooling-off” period after they leave their roles. 

The commission said that during this time, they “cannot engage in lobbying activities in specific circumstances or be employed by, or provide services to, a person carrying on lobbying activities in specific circumstances, except with the consent of the Commission”.

Last year, eight former special advisers applied for these provisions to be waived or reduced. 

The report said: “The general election in February 2020 resulted in many former Designated Public Officials (DPOs) seeking alternative employment when the new government formed in June 2020.

Several of these DPOs sought employment in positions that required them to seek the consent of the Commission for a reduction or waiver of the cooling off period.

The commission said there were two instances in which it became aware of former DPOs who “in the view of the commission” should have sought consent to take up a certain employment. 

“The Commission made inquiries of the individuals, and, based on the information available to the Commission, formed the view that consent should have been sought,” the report added. 

Under the 2015 Act, lobbyists must provide details every four months of the politicians and State officials they have engaged with and on what issues.

The Act is intended to provide greater transparency on how organisations try to influence policy-making decisions and when they provide lawmakers with information about their business activities.

Sipo’s annual report found the number of lobby registrants increased to 2,089 last year, an increase of almost 7% on 2019.

The number of returns submitted between January and April last year was 3,324.

The number of these returns increased “quite significantly” in the other return periods of the year, the report said. There were 11,600 returns in total in 2020. 

“The increase in returns submitted likely reflects lobbying due to the pandemic,” a statement on the report said.

“Returns submitted for 2020 include 1,378 specifically referencing the pandemic (using the terms Covid-19, Covid 19 or Coronavirus), across most public policy areas.”

The commission said it carried over nine investigations into possible non-compliance with the act into 2020. It launched three new investigations last year and closed 11. One investigation was carried over into 2021.

Four files were proceeded to prosecution for offences under sections of the Act.

Head of Ethics and Lobbying Regulation Sherry Perreault said the widespread impact of the pandemic “also shows up on the Register of Lobbying”. 

“It has prompted unprecedented volumes of lobbying in virtually all policy areas – health care, economic development, recreation and sport, social supports, mental health and more have been the subject of Covid-related lobbying,” Perreault said in a statement. 

She said the pandemic has shown “not only the importance of lobbying, but the need for transparency about it”.

“With so many engaging with public officials to advocate for a particular outcome, it is critical that the public have access to information about how decisions are being made.”

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