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Lobbying in Austria - secret whisperers

"The lobby law (in Austria), for example, provides for behavioral and registration obligations for interest representatives and lobbyists, but it excludes the chambers and does not give the public any insight into the content of lobbying activities."

Cases of disguised lobbying and dubious as well as illegal influence on political decisions accompany the corruption scandals like a long shadow. At the latest since the Eurofighter committee of inquiry in Austria in 2006 and 2007, lobbying in Austria and political advice have come under general suspicion of corruption.

It is not surprising that Austrians' trust in politics was on the decline for years. So much so, until in 2017 a full 87 percent of the population had little or no trust in politics (OGM survey on behalf of the Initiative for Majority Suffrage and Democratic Reform, 2018). And it is extremely unlikely that this would have improved this year.

But it is not just professional lobbyists and political advisors trying to influence political decisions. Many social actors pursue this goal - scientific institutions, foundations, think tanks, associations, NGOs, also school groups and parents' associations. And almost all of them represent either ideological or particular interests.

A look back and a look ahead

In an international comparison, political consulting as an industry in Austria is relatively young. For half a century, the social balance of interests took place mainly at the level of social partnership. The dominant interest groups (Labor AK, Chamber of Commerce WKO, Chamber of Agriculture LKO, Trade union confederation ÖGB) were nicely manageable. Political competition wasn't too complicated with two dominant parties. In the course of joining the EU and under the chancellorship of Wolfgang Schüssel, traditional interest groups were ultimately pushed back more and more.

The political scientist writes about this Anton Pelinka: “The development of political advice in Austria was characterized by a special characteristic: the delay. In parallel to the delay in democracy in general and reinforced by an over-functioning of the party state, the structures and functions of political advice, as they correspond to a liberal democracy, have developed only slowly in Austria. "

It is unlikely that the demand for policy advice will decline in the foreseeable future. Social, economic and political developments and games are simply too complex today for that. In addition, the alternate and non-voter types gained in importance and gave politicians an additional element of unpredictability. Last but not least, an increasingly emancipated and differentiated society itself demands more attention, participation and democratic participation.

About the free play of arguments

Indeed, the right to represent one's interests is an essential feature of an open, liberal democracy. This also includes the exchange of information between associations, companies and interest groups on the one hand and politics, parliament and administration on the other. Not only liberal social theorists hold this view, for example Transparency International, which continuously monitors and analyzes corruption in the country: “The basic idea of ​​lobbying and lobbying is the codetermination, participation and participation of people and organizations that are affected by social or other decisions or developments.

But this co-determination must be sufficiently open and transparent, "says Eva Geiblinger, CEO of Transparency International - Austrian Chapter. The free play of arguments and the implementation of the best of them is indeed an appealing understanding of democracy. And it is not a utopia, because there are enough experiences and concepts for it.

Lobbying in Austria: Not all sheep are black

There is also serious policy advice. Your core task is to provide politics and administration with expertise. This includes verified facts as well as analyzes of the effects and desired and undesired side effects of political decisions.

The political scientist Hubert Sickinger, for example, describes information for decision-makers as “the legitimate currency” of lobbying, “because it is necessary and functional for the quality of political decisions”. According to him, lobbying is desirable from a democratic political point of view, if as many interests as possible have a realistic chance of being heard and decisions are not made on the basis of one-sided information.

Unfortunately, he too has to realize that lobbying in Austria, especially through agencies and in-house lobby departments, usually takes place in secret: “The actual“ currency ”of lobbyists is their political network and the deep insight into the functioning of the political-administrative system”. Even official standards can be influenced in this way. In an open democracy, advocacy should be a public business, because an open discussion about Factual questions and interests is also what defines the quality of political decisions.

Numerous suggestions for this come from the political consultancy itself. For example, the political advisor Feri Thierry calls for the legitimation of the consultancy work, for example through independent information gathering and transparency, as well as through public clarification of political issues, decision-making and action options on the one hand and the related interests on the other. According to him, it is precisely this transparency that promotes the reconciliation of social interests and conflicts.

In order to restore the credibility of the industry, the Austrian Public Affairs Association (ÖPAV) and the Austrian Lobbying and Public Affairs Council (ALPAC) have imposed codes of conduct on their members, which in many cases go beyond the legal framework.

Legal situation: lobbying in Austria

This is because these are very poor in Austria. Although they were retrofitted many times after Ernst Strasser's resignation, there is still an immense need for readjustments. However, 2012 was a very eventful year in this context: the National Council passed the Lobbying and Lobbying Transparency Act, the Political Parties Act, tightening of the criminal provisions against corruption and the Incompatibility and Transparency Act for Members of Parliament. This set an important course, but unfortunately most of the laws turned out to be relatively toothless.

The Lobbying Act, for example, provides for behavioral and registration obligations for interest representatives and lobbyists, but it excludes the chambers and does not give the public any insight into the content of lobbying activities. She only sees names and sales. According to Hubert Sickinger, it is therefore more of an industry register than a real transparency register. But even as this it is almost useless. Compared to the 3.000–4.000 professional lobbyists estimated by the ÖPAV in Austria, only 600 people are currently registered, i.e. barely a fifth. In contrast, the Media Transparency Act, which stipulates that public institutions are required to report PR expenditure and investments, has a reporting rate of almost 100 percent.

It works

The criticism of the lobby law is omnipresent and the demands range from an expansion and sanctioning of the registration requirement, more transparency on the part of government agencies, to a legislative footprint that would make public and comprehensible, whose proposal would make certain regulations and laws go back.

The situation is similar with the Law of Incompatibility and Transparency for Members of Parliament, which provides for a duty to report their income and managerial functions. These reports are neither checked nor are false statements sanctioned. This is also a reason for the regular criticism of the Council of Europe, which, in addition to controls and sanctions of the information, also calls for a code of conduct for MPs and clear rules for dealing with lobbyists. Last but not least, he also calls for a clear ban on parliamentarians acting as lobbyists themselves.

Show money and information flows

The weaknesses of the party law were impressively demonstrated to us in 2019. A freedom of information law would also be essential for Austria, as has been demanded by the Freedom of Information Forum for years. This provides - instead of the Austrian specific "official secret" - a civil right to access to information from government agencies. It would go far beyond the flow of money from and to parties and politicians and, for example, make the use of tax revenues and political decisions public and understandable.

All in all, the Austrian legal situation with regard to the fight against corruption and unfair influence on laws and political decisions is more than poor. In the dark it's good to rumble. The need to catch up is immense and as long as clear, transparent rules of the game are not created for politicians and their whisperers, the disaffection with politics and the low reputation of their guild will not change.
Looking back, one has to be grateful to Ernst Strasser, since the insights into his moral abysses helped the legal retrofitting on the jumps. And there are many indications that those of the ex-Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache will not remain entirely without legal amendments. Although these occasional legislation is miles away from future-oriented, enlightened and credible politics, these affairs - analogous to the wine scandal of the 1970s - have at least shown a cleansing effect.

INFO: Corruption index and lobbying in Austria
Transparency International presents the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Denmark, Finland and New Zealand remained unchallenged in the top three places in 2018, with South Sudan, Syria and Somalia in the bottom.
With 76 out of a possible 100 points, Austria has improved to 14th place, which it occupies together with Hong Kong and Iceland. Austria has gained 2013 points since 7. While Austria still took 16th place last year, the top ranking from 2005 - 10th place - has not yet been achieved. In an EU comparison, Austria is also behind Finland and Sweden (3rd place), the Netherlands and Luxembourg (8th and 9th place) as well as Germany and the UK (11th place).

On the occasion of the presentation of the CPI 2018, Transparency International is renewing its package of demands, addressed to the National Council and the Federal Government, but also to business and civil society. "We are convinced that the fulfillment of the requirements contained therein will bring about a significant improvement not only in the actual situation, but also in the international assessment of Austria as a business location," emphasizes Eva Geiblinger.

The required measures:
- Revision of lobbying law and registers - especially after criticism from the Court of Auditors
- University policy: Disclosure obligations for contracts between science and industry, for example on private third-party funding of Austrian universities
- Expansion of transparency in Austria's municipalities
- Transparency in the award of citizenships (golden passports)
- Adopt a freedom of information law
- Legal obligation to disclose by name donations from the pharmaceutical industry to doctors and members of other health professions as well as a central publication register
- Whistleblowing: Guarantee of legal protection for whistleblowers from the private sector, as already for civil servants
- Revision of the Political Parties Act to make it possible to circumvent donation bans, the transparency of donations to parties and candidates and compliance with the limitation of election advertising costs, controllable and sanctionable.

Written by Veronika Janyrova

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