Orange is the new hack: 891 more lobbyists gain inside access to Parliament House

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Federal authorities are being asked to reveal the names of the politicians who give lobbyists full access to Parliament House after growing frustration over hundreds of people who can wield influence in the building without disclosure.

A crossbench alliance is pushing for new rules to reveal the people who have gained unfettered access to the building’s private corridors with sponsored bright orange passes signed by federal politicians under a system that keeps their identities secret.

Nearly 1800 people have access to Parliament House with passes sponsored by parliamentarians.Credit:

But the push is raising concerns over privacy and security because the sponsored passes include family members and other people who are not engaged in lobbying, which means parliamentary authorities are likely to reject the blanket release of all the names.

One politician has approved 55 of the special passes but cannot be identified, according to new details uncovered by a question from independent Senator David Pocock to the officials who supervise the security passes for politicians, staff, the media and visitors.

Pocock will issue a call for greater transparency on Wednesday with a letter signed by fellow crossbenchers and asking the presiding officers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to disclose the passholder names and their sponsors.

The number of sponsored passes reached 1791 in February and included 891 issued since this parliament began in July, although the total number has been higher in the past.

A key concern among crossbenchers is that lobbyists and others can walk unannounced into the offices of all ministers, backbenchers and independents at any time because they have full access to the building around the clock.

Some crossbenchers are so frustrated with surprise visits from lobbyists that they have begun locking their doors, said one adviser who was not authorised to speak on the record.

“People want more transparency and accountability from politicians,” Pocock said.

The sponsored passes can be issued to anyone as long as the applicant agrees to a security check and is approved by a member of parliament.

“While sponsored passes serve a legitimate purpose, Australians deserve to know who their representatives are granting unfettered access to Parliament House.

“Disclosing sponsored passes is a small but meaningful way we can build trust and strengthen our democracy.”

Pocock has raised the issue over several weeks in meetings with House of Representatives Speaker Milton Dick and Senate President Sue Lines, the presiding officers in charge of Parliament House, but he has encountered serious objections to his call for full disclosure.

One concern is the challenge of defining the lobbyists who should be disclosed when many policy advocates use sponsored passes so they can speak up on issues in Parliament House, sometimes as guests of politicians at press conferences.

A potential compromise is a review that considers greater disclosure for people on the federal government’s public register of lobbyists, although this has raised separate concern about the strength of the regime because in-house lobbyists – such as public affairs officers at big companies – do not have to be disclosed on the public register.

Parliament House operates with several pass categories including blue for ministerial staff, white for parliamentary staff, green for commonwealth department employees and yellow for press gallery journalists.

The sponsored passes, which are orange, can be issued to anyone as long as the applicant agrees to a security check and is approved by any senator or member of the House of Representatives, making them the only pass category for lobbyists and others who want to influence those in power. The passes are valid for three years.

Those who hold the orange passes can include union officials, a politician’s family members, diplomats, business executives and advocates for causes ranging from climate change action to industry development and protection from domestic violence.

Pocock has gained support for his call from independents including Helen Haines, Zoe Daniel, Zali Steggall, Allegra Spender, Kylea Tink, Monique Ryan and Kate Chaney in the lower house. Supporters in the Senate include Lidia Thorpe, Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell of the Jacqui Lambie Network as well as Ralph Babet of the United Australia Party.

“We ask that you enact greater transparency around sponsored passholder arrangements,” they say in the letter.

“We are of the view that the names and organisations of sponsored passholders should be published on the biographical pages of the sponsoring members and senators on the website.

“The UK, New Zealand and Canadian parliaments, and the US Congress, all have arrangements in place to allow scrutiny of passes granted by parliamentarians. There’s no reason Australia shouldn’t do the same.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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