Push for pollies to make diaries public

Politicians should be forced by law to make public their diaries to reveal who they are meeting and why to ensure "rent seekers" and special interest groups don't have undue influence over our lives, a leading public policy academic has said.

Former Coalition Attorney-General now Australian High Commissioner to London, George Brandis made a mockery of FOI laws by spending three years and more than $50,000 of the public's purse in legal fees fighting to keep his diaries secret, only surrendering in 2017 after a Full Federal Court Bench ruled he was not justified to keep it secret.

Prince Harry meets Australian High Commissioner George Brandis at the Natural History Museum, London. Picture: Facebook
Prince Harry meets Australian High Commissioner George Brandis at the Natural History Museum, London. Picture: Facebook

Now as a parliamentary inquiry looks into press freedoms including the misuse of terror laws and FoI laws to shut down reporting, leading ANU Economics professor and Crawford School of Public Policy fellow Quentin Grafton said it was time for a rethink.

Professor Grafton said "rent seeking" - a term popularised in American politics and referring to lobbying by companies to make economic gains through government action - was clearly in play in federal and state governments.

He said you only had to look at the water crisis and the fact the NSW Government in the four years till 2018 held 25 meetings with high representation irrigator groups and only from a one non-industry group to show the problem of regulatory capture - bureaucratic decisions that favour interest groups.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and wife Jenny with Prince Charles at Clarence House last June. Adam Taylor
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and wife Jenny with Prince Charles at Clarence House last June. Adam Taylor

"There are special interests and they have privileged access and those special interest groups are able to get their views, their perspectives and interests in terms of legislation and in terms of that decision making," he told News Corp Australia.

"Rent seekers applies to any group outside of government, non-state actors that are seeking to influence governments and governments will provide them, the non-state actors, with some benefit in the form of a license subsidies or in any form of protection to that non-state actors. "If you've got a big government that makes lots of expenditures, lots of decisions, if you can influence them in some way that will help you or protect your particular industry, you go ahead and do it and the payoffs can be substantial in the energy sector, in the water sector, in all sectors you could name where people can make rent seeking behaviour."

He said some state laws, notably NSW and Queensland, were better than others but a blanket federal requirement should force all ministers to reveal their meetings.

"It you have transparency, then at least you can have disparity of influence and I think the ordinary citizen voter would understand that most of us don't have access to ministers," he said. "It is clearly a problem because in a democracy you want to see who is seeing who and who has influence then of course the issue is what decisions that leads to."

He said he knew one very senior public servant who didn't meet their minister for considerable time then joined a lobby group and saw them within a week.

"That gives you some sense of access."