Elbow-tuggers stay in shadows

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From the Sunday Independent

‘We’ve been told not to email the department but to do everything by text,” a corporate lobbyist told me over lunch in a discreet bistro.

This would explain an awful lot about dealings between government and big-business lobbyists. The shadowy world of “public affairs” and slick-suited lobbyists is not accustomed to scrutiny.

At the start of the summer, the Sunday Independent dispatched a series of Freedom of Information requests to three government departments seeking details of emails between some of the country’s top lobbying or public affairs companies and the Department of Finance, Department of an Taoiseach and the Department of Communications. We wanted to know what kind of schmoozing had been going on between the lobbying parts of firms such as Edelman, FTI, Q4Pr, Murray Consultants, Insight and Drury Communications.

The responses were startling. Michael Noonan‘s Department of Finance demanded  €167.60 in fees to conduct the request. In went the cheque. Some weeks later, the Department of Finance subsequently refused the request, claiming that it was too onerous. I sought clarification. All I got was mandarin- flavoured waffle. The “spirit” of the FOI Act didn’t extend to emails, spoofed the official. That was new to us…and probably to the legislators who wrote the act. I offered to refine the request and limit it to the emails of certain top mandarins. The civil servant handling my case asked me to email in the tweaked request. Then there was silence. Not a squeak.

Last week, an email arrived from the Department of Finance accounts division notifying us that the fees had been refunded to the Sunday Independent. No explanation, but simply go away and here’s your money. Hardly transparency at work and certainly miles away from the promises in Fine Gael‘s March 2010 ‘New Politics’ policy document, which promised to do away with this sort of thing.

Enda Kenny‘s civil servants at the Department of An Taoiseach were more forthcoming. From the formation of the new Government back in March 2011 until July 2012, the Taoiseach’s department received 33 emails from lobbyists working on behalf of Dell, the Irish Taxation Institute, Microsoft, Liberty Global (owner of UPC), Adobe, Betfair, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland and Euromedics.

Most of these emails referred to requests for meetings or arranging visits for the Taoiseach at ribbon cutting events. That’s 33 emails — some of them just bouncing backwards and forwards on the same topic — in 500 days. It’s one every 15 days. The most powerful person in the country, sorry most powerful person in the country not called Fritz, had his elbow tugged by big business lobbyists every two weeks? Pull the other one.

Pat Rabbitte‘s Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was lobbied harder. Last week, I opened an email from the department looking for  €147 in fees to cover the cost of digging out emails from selected lobbyists.

The department revealed that just eight of its 26 divisions had received any emails from lobby firms. The department’s ‘Communications, Business & Technology Division’ — the bit that looks after all the big telecoms and internet companies — turned up 128 pages of correspondence from lobbyists. The press office received 94 pages, with Rabitte’s office receiving 21 pages. That’s about 250 pages for the first 500 days of government. Or a page of lobbying almost every two days. Pull the other one.

This means one of two things. Big business and vested interests are paying their lobbyists — often former politicians or political insiders — quite a lot of money for doing very little. Or else lobbying of politicians and top civil servants is being done well outside the realms of transparency. There’s no paper trail.

There’s nothing wrong with lobbyists. Nothing much anyway. But the lack of transparency is plain wrong. Decisions on everything from alcohol advertising to corporate tax breaks or employment rights are made without us knowing what is happening behind closed doors. That stinks. A powerful elite is still able to pay for access to the key decision makers.

Moves to regulate lobbyists have been ‘imminent’ for more than a decade. Brendan Howlin is the latest to take it on. A register of lobbyists will be created. But behind the scenes, holes are being poked in the proposed rules already. Details of lobbying that is legally sensitive or commercially sensitive may end up being excluded. This could mean a slick law firm could potentially lobby away for its clients without anybody knowing about it. The loophole is so big that a blindfolded elephant could drive a tank through it.

But given the reluctance of the civil service — notably the Department of Finance — to play ball on transparency, it’s hard to imagine how any new rules will bring about change.

The elbow tuggers will keep schmoozing in the corridors of power.

Away from public view.