Christopher Pyne and the Canberra revolving door

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(Caricature courtesy Bruce Keogh / keoghcartoons.com.au)

Even in the world of the revolving door of politician-turned-lobbyist, Pyne’s announcement of his new role with Ernst and Young was something of a record, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark. 

The former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne might well have left his seat in Parliament, but he has hardly left the heavily ploughed, furrowed scene of Canberra’s politics. 

With the election result still fresh, Pyne has thrown in his lot with the advisory firm, Ernst and Young (EY), after being the Liberal Party Member for Sturt for 26 years. 

Eyes might have focused on the reputation of Ernst and Young, which, along with Deloitte, KPMG and PwC, face a set of challenges Ian Gow from Melbourne University deems “existential”. These include disruptions caused by 'digital analytics, blockchain and big data'. These monsters of auditing and accountancy, known collectively as the "Big Four", risk a severe trim. 

That is not all: such companies parasitically feed on collapse and loss, and find having a bet either way irresistible. In 2018, it was found that EY was not merely advising the UK’s HS2 high-speed rail line on the health of the doomed construction company, Carillion, which collapsed in July 2017, but Carillion itself. 

As accountancy academic Atul Shah pointed out:

"EY knew Carillion was in financial difficulty so it should have immediately raised concerns with [the] government.” 

EY remained stonily silent on the matter.

As Pyne told The Australian,

“I’m looking forward to providing strategic advice to EY, as the firm looks to expand its footprint in the defence industry.” 

In the world of the revolving door of politician-turned-lobbyist, which spins quickly in Canberra, Pyne’s announcement was something of a record. EY, for one, is tooting its oversized horn on the ex-Minister’s role in advancing the company’s presence in the defence industry in Australia, leading 'conversations about what all states need to do to meet the challenges and opportunities this defence investment will bring'.

The Statement of Ministerial Standards, which remains a document of aspiration rather than principle, outlines the conditions of post-ministerial employment under section 2.25: 

'Ministers are required to undertake that, for an eighteen month period after ceasing to be a Minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last eighteen months in office.'

The provision also sets out the undertaking that a minister will not, on leaving office,

'take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a Minister, where that information is not generally available to the public'.

The provision furnishes us distinctions without a difference. 18 months is the magical formula that supposedly does away with bias, favouritism and relevant material that might advance the interest of an ex-minister or relevant employers to be. As such, it is weak. But even in such watered down, symbolic form, Pyne comes out poorly.

An EY spokeswoman has claimed limits to Pyne’s role. 

“He will not be lobbying or meeting with public sector MPs, public service or defence in his EY role.  He is supporting the private sector side of the business.” 

Yet another laboured and spurious distinction — one made meaningless by the entangled nature of the defence industries, with public and private sectors being fairly ad idem with each other. 

The appointment is a salient reminder that the line between a member of parliament’s time as a representative is often a form of currency: establishing contacts, ensuring self-promotion and feathering future nests of enrichment. The idea of service is less important than the idea of payment as a reward. 

While much can be said against cutting the salaries of politicians – since well-remunerated politicians might have fewer incentives to plunder the public purse – there is a case to be made against the "lobby incorporated" feature of Canberra. Even those in office risk being stained by the lobbyist’s magic. 

In 2017, when then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce assisted an elderly woman from a shallow pool in the Members’ Hall of Parliament House, Canberra lobbyist Michael Kauter of Strategic Political Counsel Pty Ltd was at hand to promote the story on Facebook

'Barnaby Joyce steps in to help. How many politicians would you expect to do that?'

Then comes the incentive:

'Need to speak to Barnaby? Speak to Strategic Political Counsel Pty Ltd!' 

The equation offered here is crudely undemocratic in mocking – and not very gently at that – the idea of the general voter: We offer access to the Australian Deputy Prime Minister for a price.

The lobbyist is the herpes of democratic politics — an irritant reminder and intrusion upon the daily functioning of government. Kauter’s additional string to the bow was not merely being from Strategic Political Counsel Pty Ltd, but also being a family friend of the Joyce family. His access to Canberra’s political class has yielded a good number of boasts on social media, be it his “love” of chatting to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann or his enjoyment over a “lovely little cocktail party with Nick Greiner”, the Federal Liberal Party president.

Senator Rex Patrick of the Centre Alliance is keen to press matters on Pyne’s retainer, urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison to advise his former Minister to leave his EY consultancy. 

“I get along well with Christopher… I’m positive that he won’t pass on any sensitive information but he can’t unknow what he knows when he gives advice to EY.”

Sensibly amusing, but the Senator might get more purchase by reminding Morrison about the dangers other governments have faced when dealing with EY. Corporate self-interest is often the enemy of the commonweal.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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