SEAN NICHOLLS August 04, 2012
Part of a mini-exodus ... Matthew Hingerty, from the office of the Tourism and Hospitality Minister, George Souris. Photo: Luis Ascui
There's nothing new in senior political staff jumping ship to join the private sector, but proximity to the milestone of one year in office for the O'Farrell government appears to have triggered a mini-exodus.
Last December, Stephen Galilee, the chief of staff of the Treasurer, Mike Baird, announced his departure after nine months to become the chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, the state's coalmining industry lobby group.
In a press release, Baird explained that Galilee had agreed to join the office ''on the understanding that he would assist me during the incoming government's transition period and early stages before moving on''.
Now two other senior ministerial staff are following his lead: Matthew Hingerty, from the office of the Tourism and Hospitality Minister, George Souris, and Nigel Blunden, who came into Baird's office as deputy chief of staff to help fill the gap left by Galilee.
Hingerty announced his departure as chief of staff to Souris last month but with no indication of his future role. A few weeks later, he has popped up as the new chief executive of Barton Deakin, a Liberal-aligned lobbying firm.
Hingerty is not new to the private sector, having previously left a job as chief of staff to the then federal small business and tourism minister Joe Hockey to become the managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council.
It is also something of a return home as he worked for Peter Collins as the NSW Liberal leader in opposition. Collins is the founding managing director of Barton Deakin.
At six months, Blunden's tenure has been even shorter than those of Galilee and Hingerty. A former senior media adviser to Hockey, he is headed for a senior corporate role he will not yet disclose.
All of this naturally raises probity questions, given the sensitive information made available to those who fill these types of positions in government. What do the companies they join hope they will bring?
Chiefs of staff have ministerial-level access to government information and presumably this is a primary motivation for lobbying outfits to lure them with the promise of large salaries.
For example, Galilee has gone from working with government on the difficult issue of how to balance the interests of mining and agriculture in formulating its strategic land use policy to running the lobby group pushing the views of the mining industry.
It's possible, of course, that the nature of these jobs means none of these former chiefs of staff will be personally seeking meetings with ministers in their new roles.
But in some cases, such as that of Galilee, we are not entitled to know because under the rules governing lobbying in NSW he is not classified as a lobbyist.
While Hingerty would be required to register with the parliament's register of lobbyists, Galilee would not, as the NSW government's lobbyist code of conduct explicitly exempts ''an association or organisation constituted to represent the interests of its members'' from its rules.
There are benefits for government in having close relationships with business and industry bodies, not the least of which is using their expertise to help formulate good policy. But there are also risks.
One solution would be to require departing chiefs of staff to sign a version of the ''non-compete'' agreements common in the private sector to prevent departing executives taking up with a competitor until after a specified period.
At the very least, it would allay concerns over the short leap between Macquarie Street and the corporate sector.