When Barnaby Joyce rescued a damsel in distress, a lobbyist swooped

On an autumn morning this year, an elderly woman clutching a walking stick was ambling across the Members' Hall of Parliament House when she slipped and fell into a shallow pool.

Standing nearby was Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who ran over to help the woman from the ground and out of the fountain. The incident was captured on camera and made the news that day, where it was noticed by 37-year-old Canberra lobbyist Michael Kauter.

He soon posted a link to the news story on his firm's Facebook page.

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

The praise was followed by an offer.

"Need to speak to Barnaby? Speak to Strategic Political Counsel Pty Ltd!" he said.

Spruiking direct access to a politician might seem bold for some lobbyists, but not for Kauter, who is a family friend of the Joyces.

Kauter is one of thousands of lobbyists who promise their paying clients an inside track to political decisionmakers and the ability to influence policy.

The industry is populated by former government officials, from junior staffers to ministers, who earn lucrative contracts by monetising their government experience. They have their own parking spaces in Parliament House and special access passes.

Meetings are not recorded publicly. It is a largely unregulated industry, overseen by a government department with no legislative power or penalties, and which would not say how many times the code of conduct had been breached.

Now, Fairfax Media understands, crossbench senators are discussing reforms to clamp down on lobbying.

Kauter has been in the game for two years, winning over major clients including NAB and Monash University.

Among them, multinational pharmaceutical company Amgen is pushing for faster assessment of prescription medicine, British American Tobacco wants lower taxes on cigarettes, and the Australian Lotteries and Newsagents Association is seeking to have the online Lottoland company banned.

Kauter's company was the major sponsor of this year's NSW Nationals conference. And he is not shy about broadcasting his high-profile connections.

"A lovely little cocktail party with Nick Greiner," he wrote on Instagram in August, referring to the federal Liberal Party president, beneath a photo of himself with party powerbrokers Michael Photios and Sally Betts.

A few months earlier, he posted a photo of himself in Sydney with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann at the Liberal Party's federal council dinner, which his company had sponsored. "I love a good chat about policy," he said.

A month earlier, another photo showed the "rockstar finance minister" and Kauter clients at dinner.

In the past 18 months, Kauter has been pictured with One Nation's Pauline Hanson, former Liberal Party president Brian Loughnane, NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin and federal Small Business Minister Michael McCormack.

The relationship with the Joyce family runs particularly deep.

"Escaped [school] for the weekend ??? #pyjamaparty" he posted after picking up one of Joyce's family members.

In another post, he captioned a picture of himself dancing with Joyce's wife Natalie "missing you @barnaby.joyce".

Kauter was by Joyce's side when he was returned to the seat of New England last year.

"A picture says 1000 words @SPCounsel", Kauter wrote beneath a picture of him hugging an ebullient Agriculture Minister.

But Kauter tells Fairfax Media "my interaction with the Joyce family in politics is actually quite minimal".

"With all my clients, I haven't tried to get a political win through my association with Barnaby," he says.

He admits that on Facebook there is a risk of mixing personal and business connections. "Perhaps this is an example of that," he says.

While not commenting specifically on Kauter, a spokesman for Joyce said it was "pure invention" for any lobbyist to claim direct access to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Joyce himself said: "I am vastly more inclined to meet with Mrs Smith because she has written and made the effort to come and see me, than I am because Mrs Smith paid a fee to a third party who often has no personal interest in her at all."

'I'm a mercenary'

There are around 5000 lobbyists working in Australia, according to one government estimate. The good ones do not just organise meetings - they are paid confidants and influencers.

They understand the mechanics of Canberra. They know not to meet with members at the end of a sitting week when they are stressed and tired. They know how to insert their arguments in ministerial briefs. They know what questions will be asked by which politicians at which committee hearings.

Some prosecute their arguments through studies and reports. Others save their lobbying for party gatherings, business conferences, charity balls, private dinners and cocktail nights. Many do both.

They describe government policy as like cement. Wet cement is when policy can be shaped and moulded. When it hardens, "you have to back off and cross your fingers", one lobbyist says.

The Canberra suburb of Barton, in the shadow of Parliament House, is home to some of the biggest names in lobbying. There you will find GRA Cosway and Liberal-aligned Barton Deakin on the same street. Just down the street, owned by the same company, is Barton Deakin's "evil twin", the Labor-aligned Hawker Britton. And nearby, in the same building as National Party headquarters, there is Newgate Communications.

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Together, the four firms represent around 225 businesses - more than 10 per cent of all lobbying clients in Canberra.

"We are communicators, we are the people that sit between the language of government and the language of of business," says Matthew Hingerty, chief executive of Barton Deakin and a former chief of staff to Joe Hockey in the Howard government.

Hawker Britton managing director Simon Banks, a former chief of staff to prime minister Kevin Rudd, sees lobbying as like any other consultancy work.

"You wouldn't go to court without a lawyer and you wouldn't go to government without someone who understands how government works," he says.

Les Timar, president of the Australian Professional Government Relations Association and chief executive of GRA Cosway, says lobbying helps make sure government runs smoothly.

"Government relations practitioners facilitate a better understanding between government, on the one hand, and business or not-for-profit organisations on the other," he says.

Others are more blunt.

"I'm a mercenary, in effect," says one who wishes to remain anonymous. "I'm being paid by a company to do their bidding."

The business of lobbying

For most companies, policy uncertainty hurts business. For lobbyists, it is business.

On September 27, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull met in Sydney with the heads of gas giants Shell, Santos and Origin, to strike a deal and keep the lights on for millions of households facing looming energy shortages.

That morning one newspaper headline screamed about a "fracking fiasco" as Turnbull warned the supply crisis was three times worse than expected. Labor was calling for controls to cap the amounts of gas being exported, which energy producers vehemently opposed.

Behind the gas giants were their lobbyists, in-house and external. Advising Shell was Brad Burke, a man Turnbull knew well.

Burke had served as Turnbull's chief of staff in opposition before quitting in 2009 and taking up a job with Santos as head of corporate affairs. He returned to government in 2015, back with Turnbull, as his deputy chief of staff in the Prime Minister's Office.

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But in December last year, he left again, this time to become Shell's head of government relations. This is what those who study lobbying call "the revolving door"; the movement of staff between government and the private sector.

Santos, also in the room with Turnbull, employs three different lobbying firms.

One is SAS Group, a company co-owned and run by Larry Anthony, who is president of the National Party. As president, he sits on fundraising and policy committees and was present when the party voted to freeze out renewable energy subsidies.

Anthony says he is "not directly a lobbyist" and faces no conflicts of interest.

That day, Turnbull cut a deal with the gas companies - he would not insist on export caps so long as they agreed to cover domestic demand.

That week, the PM and his deputy, the acting resources minister, had also been putting pressure on the NSW government to expedite an enormous Santos gas project in Narrabri in the state's north.

So far, NSW has resisted. Without approval, two large energy companies are left waiting to see if their projects, contingent on Narrabri, will get off the ground.

Power company Jemena, which wants to build a $500 million pipeline, counts federal Liberal Party president Nick Greiner as a director and is represented by lobbyists who worked for the former treasurer Peter Costello.

Another infrastructure firm, APA Group, wants to build its own $500 million pipeline from Narrabri. APA's lobbyist is the Joyces' family friend, Kauter.

If he wanted to, Kauter would not struggle to get in touch with NSW Resources Minister Don Harwin. Six months before Harwin entered the job, he was a "special guest" at a cocktail party at Kauter's Woollahra home, although Kauter said the pair had never met in a work setting.

Harwin's chief adviser last year worked for Kauter as a lobbyist.

The right connections

Tony Abbott was on home turf in Manly on an April night this year, addressing a group of young Liberals - a coveted group of footsoldiers and future leaders - over beer and spring rolls.

Fifteen minutes into his speech, the former prime minister touched on an awkward subject.

"The Liberal Party, you might know, in this state in particular is in the grip of a faction," he said. "Some people have christened it the Premier State faction ??? as good a term for it as any."

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Abbott did not mention any person by name - he did not need to.

Most in the room would have known Premier State is a Sydney-based lobbying firm led by former NSW minister Michael Photios, who once led the moderate faction and retains influence with key members of the party.

A good friend of Gladys Berejiklian who helped install her as NSW premier, Photios has monetised his political networks with lobbying clients including powerful liquor and gaming body the Australian Hotels Association and renewable energy player Siemens.

In 2011, the company Australian Water Holdings reportedly discussed paying him $1 million as a success fee for lobbying the NSW government. Photios has strenuously denied receiving success fees in the past.

The consummate networker now works for three different firms, including two co-directed with his ally Nick Campbell, a former Howard government staffer who came from the "soft-right" faction.

It was Abbott who in 2013 cracked down on Photios and his influence by prohibiting senior party officials from working as lobbyists. The move forced Photios and fellow powerbroker Joe Tannous to quit their executive positions.

"You can either be a powerbroker or a lobbyist but you can't be both," Abbott said at the time.

One lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous, praised the Abbott reforms but said "I'm not sure they are being abided by" across the industry. While not naming any individuals, he said the party he previously worked for had approached him to take up political positions he saw as incompatible with lobbying.

According to Hingerty, there remain lobbyists who "think they never left government".

In the shadows

On January 20, 2006, then Illinois senator Barack Obama rose to speak at the US National Press Club in Washington, DC.

"The American people are tired of a Washington that's only open to those with the most cash and the right connections," he said. "They're tired of a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favours you can do."

The next year, the US banned lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to members of Congress and forced them to file quarterly disclosures including their income and expenditure.

Those guilty of "knowing and corrupt failure to comply with the act" face a maximum $US200,000 civil fine and up to five years' imprisonment.

In Australia, few MPs are rushing to call for reform. And the rules are significantly weaker.

Of the roughly 5000 lobbyists working across the country, only 580 are on the federal register in Canberra because in-house lobbyists or those working for industry bodies are not counted.

And contact between even the registered operators and ministers is hidden, with no publicly accessible ministerial diaries such as those published online in Queensland and NSW.

Failing to abide by the code will not lead to any fines or jail but at worst de-registration. The code is policed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and not an independent body, as it is in NSW.

The department would not say how many times the code of conduct has been breached. Nor would it say whether a person who operates unregistered faces any penalty.

Australian National University researcher Darren Halpin says Australia - with its rigid party lines - is less susceptible to undue influence than the US, where government representatives frequently cross the floor.

But George Rennie, an expert in lobbying at Melbourne University, worries that a lack of regulation may allow for corruption.

"We have a body that isn't proactive in enforcing the lobbying code ??? and even if they wanted to enforce it vigorously, they have very little in terms of enforcement mechanisms," he says.

"I mean there is no regulatory or law enforcement body worth their salt on Earth that doesn't have a dedicated investigator for matters such as these."

Rennie says one major problem is that those who have left the lobby register - or were never on it to begin with - face no penalty. "Imagine if someone broke into a jewellery store and stole jewellery and you didn't catch them in the act ??? imagine you only caught them after they've done it and there's not one possible thing you can do about it."

The revolving door

When Donald Trump took office as US President, he strengthened the country's provisions, forcing executive branch employees to wait five years until becoming lobbyists. "It's a two-year ban now, and it's full of loopholes," he said.

In Australia, it is a one-year restriction for staffers and 18 months for ministers. Both the US and the Australian restrictions apply only to former government workers who are lobbying in the same areas they were involved with in government.

Some believe the churn of staff between government and lobbying may lead to sensitive government data falling into the wrong hands.

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"In my day, as chief of staff, you could see what is on the cabinet agenda, not just in your portfolio but in other portfolios - that is highly commercially sensitive information," says Hingerty, who believes the system is often self-policing.

Soon after the 2013 federal election, several prominent Labor ministers took up government relations or industry body jobs.

Former resources minister Martin Ferguson joined the industry advocate Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. Senior minister Craig Emerson set up his lobbying firm within a month of leaving office. Former climate change minister Greg Combet began working for AGL.

As Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie points out, if former prime minister Tony Abbott quit today, he could start working as a lobbyist tomorrow.

"And if he did, it would all be completely legal and completely within the rules," Lambie says.

"As Tony Abbott would remind you, he has not been returned to cabinet since losing his position as prime minister more than 18 months ago. Under the Statement of Ministerial Standards, he is a free man."

While the Greens have called for a "major overhaul" of the system, it is understood Lambie has been reaching out to her crossbench colleagues to determine their appetite for reform.

Kauter, who caters to the crossbench, says there's nothing wrong with providing "ways to talk to the government by talking to people who have the most decisionmaking power".

He sees his profession as a necessary part of government.

"I don't think lobbying is a dirty word."

Do you know more? Contact the author mario.christodoulou@fairfaxmedia.com.au

This story When Barnaby Joyce rescued a damsel in distress, a lobbyist swooped first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.