Professional lobbyists are an accepted part of political life. But are they perverters of democracy or purveyors of community sentiment? By Adele Ferguson
Napoleon, the bolshevist pig in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, revised one of his seven commandments from “All animals are equal” to “Some animals are more equal than others”. He might have had lobbyists in mind.
It is said that when it comes to democracy, lobbyists promise they can get you as much “equal” representation as you can afford. But the tales bandied around about lobbyists do not really reflect the reality. Although left-leaning commentators might complain of lobbyists as perverters of democracy, no modern political system functions without them.
Lobbying is as much a part of business and politics as accounting, marketing or any other professional discipline. It is, after all, one of the oldest professions in the world. From a peasant delegation asking for an increased allocation of grain to a sophisticated multinational corporation seeking a broadcasting licence, the concept is the same. Classic economic theory teaches us that individuals will invariably act out of self-interest. To do that they have to win the power elite to their point of view.
Lobbyists come in different breeds. Some professional lobbyists remain passionately committed to a single cause over the entire length of their careers. Others are hired guns the mercenary tools of capitalism prepared to push the views of anyone willing to foot the bill. As one lobbyist says: “You have to hitch your wagon to the prevailing social and political mores.” So, when society changes, lobbyists change.
The most powerful lobbyists command six-figure salaries and can afford to knock back more work than they accept. Former politicians Graham Richardson and Steven Loosely are among the most well known, but there are many other influential folk who have the ears of the most powerful politicians and bureaucrats. When Australia;s richest man, Kerry Packer, was lobbying for changes to cross-media ownership laws, former state Liberal Party “head-kicker” Michael Yabsley was hired to lobby backbenchers into supporting the status quo. In association with other lobby groups such as the Friends of Fairfax, Yabsley helped to persuade the Government to postpone its proposed media inquiry until after the next election.
Every organisation commercial or non-profit will find itself engaged in the lobbying process at some stage, be it at the local, state or national government level. Most of these organisations would not be able to afford the salaries of Richardson, Yabsley or Loosely, but the principles of lobbying remain the same. Foremost is identifying people that can really make a change. There is little point expending effort in winning someone over to the cause if that person has little involvement in the decision making process.
There are two kinds of lobbying: direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying involves face-to-face contact with the decision maker. An example would be a lobby visit. Grassroots lobbying involves other tactics of mobilising a mass of individuals to voice their opinions. Examples would be letter writing or postcard campaigns, petitions, phone calls or even the more modern technique of e-mail and fax blitzes.
Most lobbyists agree that lobbying Cabinet is futile and that they should focus on winning over backbench MPs and bureaucrats to their cause. These people can then be left to do the legwork with the appropriate minister. Of late, lobbyists have also had to take into account the changing balance of power in the Senate as a factor determining their chances of success.
So what are some of the better ways of lobbying? Most agree that it is no good dishing up unsupported press statements to the media, bureaucrats and politicians. What is required is rigorous research and close argument. Thankfully, money is not always the answer. National Australia Bank has had a difficult experience in trying to persuade the Government to allow it to buy one of the other large banks. Chief executive Don Argus got off to a running start. NAB supported the federal election victory by underwriting promised political donations to the Liberal Party, ensuring the coffers were brimful. Although the Government launched the promised inquiry into the financial system the Wallis inquiry it later ignored some of the recommendations, refusing to take the politically difficult step of allowing mergers among the big four banks.
Argus reacted swiftly. The NAB chief embarked on a giddy round of public speaking engagements, taking every chance he could to lambaste the decision, arguing it would hinder Australian financial institutions in competing overseas. But this hand-grenade approach of public criticism failed to persuade the Government to revise its decision. Over the past six months Argus has quietened down, and is looking for other ways of getting what he wants.
Some of the better-resourced associations do pack some punch, but a little imagination can be a great substitute for money. For instance, the Eros Foundation in Canberra has been very successful in lobbying various state attorneys-general not to ban R-rated videos. They brought out their mailing lists of hundreds of thousands of people, and the ostensibly moral politicians quickly deferred the debate rather than alienate potential voters.
Chameleons of different hues
Lobbyists range from former politicians, who use the old-mates network, to public relations companies, associations, think tanks, lawyers and accountants. However, Yabsley, former NSW Minister for Correctional Services and Minister for State Development and Tourism, says lobbying is moving away from the “old boys” network. “Lobbying is an imprecise science. It is about achieving outcomes for clients and ensuring your clients have a competitive advantage based on information.” He says it is a folly to believe that lobbyists can change government decisions by lobbying politicians. “The role of bureaucracy is invariably more important than the role of government itself. Once government policy is decided, it is essentially the public sector that has the task of implementation.”
Yabsley says lobbying has changed in recent years as more stringent laws have been passed regarding probity. He says this is to ensure that the process is fair. “Suggesting a lobbyist can change an outcome has overtones of a corrupt system, so the system has to be seen to be scrutinising this behavior scrutiny at all levels, from the ombudsman to the ICAC to the ASC.”
Yabsley, through his company CorPol Alliances, has been a key participant behind the scenes in airport and rail privatisations and the imminent privatisations of ADI and ANL. He says that with the surge in privatisations ($65 billion so far), the private sector is getting an appetite for information to achieve a competitive advantage in the bidding process. “There is an increasing level of awareness that government decisions are crucial to commercial outcomes. What might appear as a bland call for expressions of interest is only part of the story. Lots of interpretation of government policy and the nuances of the language of the document is required.” For this reason, the private sector wants to know what is going on. Yabsley sees his role as gathering and disseminating informatilon.
Why lobby, who and when?
Lobbying is about winning. It is also about the right strategies and the right targets. The lobbyist’s job is to create a planned track for the argument or proposal. But there are no hard and fast rules: it might mean taking it to the cabinet ministers or the brokers in the party organisation, or to the opposition or some combination of them all. It might mean doing it loudly or quietly in terms of attracting media attention. Every case develops its own profile. The job of the lobbyist is to decide which way will be most effective.
Although many lobbyists profess no philosophical allegiances and are prepared to work for whoever foots the bill, some dedicate themselves to life-long causes. Julian Disney spent much of his career as a relatively low-paid head of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), championing the cause of the underprivileged. As a Rhodes scholar, author and lawyer, Disney could have commanded a big salary but opted for less than $50,000.
Debra Heitmann, chief executive of the peak non-government lobby body for women, the Australian Council of Businesswomen (ACOB), is another example of a lobbyist who has dedicated her life to a cause: that of lifting the profile of women. She has won a number of awards for her efforts and has been successful in developing and implementing a specialist “women in business” banking strategy. She is on secondment from Westpac to ACOB for a year.
Heitmann’s definition of lobbying is: “Competing vested interests struggling to get finite resources.” She says lobbying and lobby groups enhance democracy rather than eroding it. “It is very hard to get your voice heard, and so you need to pool resources and target correctly. That is democracy. In the 1970s women started doing business, and so we saw a large number of women’s networks forming. This is the democratic process. We have freedom of speech, and forming such groups ensures that speech is heard.”
There are 700 businesswomen’s network groups across Australia, all under the umbrella of ACOB. Heitmann’s job as chief executive is to influence structural change and provide a voice for women. She says: “In any form of lobbying the crucial thing is to make your case to the commercial and business interests you are talking to. For example, in my case, women are valuable and important resources to companies and nations. In Australia they represent 52% of the population and so they are an important marketing force.”
Heitmann says that the women’s network groups are evolving, as are other lobby groups. Globalisation is resulting in lobby groups forming alliances with similar organisations in neighboring countries. “Women through the world are starting to band together in joint ventures. I think these sort of alliances will become increasingly important over the years.”
Australia catching up to the us
There is a sinister side to globalisation and lobbying. In When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten says: “In 1970, only a handful of the Fortune 500 companies had public-affairs offices in Washington, but by 1980, more than 80% did. In 1974, labor unions accounted for half of all political action committee money used to provide special-interest campaign support for politicians. By 1980, the unions accounted for less than a fourth of this funding.” The percentages are not as high in Australia, but there is a similar trend. Canberra has become a hot-bed for hundreds of for-profit public relations firms, business-sponsored policy associations and non-profit groups.
Recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirm this trend. Figures for 1997 suggest that non-profit interest groups employ more than 100,000 people as volunteers, as well as 47,000 paid employees. The figures suggest that employees of interest groups would make up 1.7% of Australia’s total workforce if they were fully counted in the labor force survey. Volunteers would make up about 1% of the labor force. The group surveyed by the ABS included business and professional groups, trade unions, and community groups such as consumer associations, political parties and automobile associations.
Steve Anderson, executive director of the peak organisation AFCAM (Association of Fluoro Carbon Consumers and Manufacturers), says hundreds of associations have emerged in Canberra over the past decade. “If you want to be heard, you have to do some form of lobbying, whether it be talking to the politicians directly or belonging to an association. In Canberra there are hundreds of lobby groups, ranging from the small to the big ones such as the miners.”
Why are they emerging in Canberra? Anderson explains that to have credibility, lobbyists must stay around Canberra to influence the development of policy. “It is no use lobbying at the time when something becomes draft legislation. You are basically two years too late. It is much easier to have an influence when ideas are at their embryonic stage. Most public sector departments know who the associations are so there is a lot of formal and informal discussion. They talk to lobby groups because they can get a lot of research from them and that helps them in their papers.”
John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilisation proposes that society functions today largely on the relationship between groups, and that society itself is the sum of the groups. He says the problem is that important decisions are made, not through democratic discussion or participation, but through negotiation between the relevant groups, with the expertise, interest and ability to exercise power.
Saul asks: “What do I mean by groups? Some of us immediately conjure up transnational corporations. Others think of government ministries. But this is to miss the point. There are thousands of hierarchically or pyramidally organised interest and specialist groups in our society. Some are actual businesses, some are groupings of businesses, some are professions or narrow categories of intellectuals. Some are public, some are private some well intentioned, some not.”
Lobbying in cyberspace
One of the alarming spin-offs of the lobbying industry is the growth of “astroturf” associations. Sharon Beder in Global Spin says: “Astroturf is a grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them. She says the challenge for such specialists is to create the impression that thousands of people support their client’s view of a particular issue, so that a politician cannot ignore it. This means reaching potential supporters and “persuadable” politicians.
This sort of operation did not exist 10 years ago, yet with technology it has become one of the hottest trends. Beder says: “Technology makes building volunteer organisations as simple as writing a cheque … It is now a normal part of business for corporations and trade associations to employ one of dozens of companies that specialise in these strategies to run grassroots campaigns for them.” She cites the example of a group of US electrical utility companies who formed an association to influence the Endangered Species Act, which was being re-authorised to ensure that economic factors where considered when species were listed as endangered.
“Their lawyers advised them to form a broad-based coalition with a grassroots orientation: incorporate as non-profit, develop easy-to-read information packets for Congress and the news media and woo members from virtually all walks of life. Members should include Native American entities, county and local governments, universities and school boards. As a result of this advice the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition was formed.”
This industry is valued at more than $800 million in the US. It is much smaller here, but is growing.
Another endangered species
The power of the traditional style of lobbyist is being eroded by the emergence of “think tanks”. These are ostensibly independent, academically based institutions, but the reality is quite different. The research that they undertake is generally funded by the private sector, which means they start from a point of view skewed towards the interests of large corporations. As much as these think tanks may wish to remain independent they also need to keep an eye on the bottom line funding. Politicians are fond of these bodies. If politicians are going to change their mind, it helps to have recent arguments and plenty of statistics and research to back them. Think tanks can provide this.
Think tanks also play an important role in moulding public opinion, as their principals are frequently guest columnists in opinion-setting newspapers. Such groups drew up an alternative health system in the early 1990s that the Australian Medical Association championed. They have redrawn the pharmaceutical benefits system and they want to redesign social welfare and the tax system.
Think tanks are gaining an increasing stranglehold on public debate, edging out traditional institutions such as the universities. Although universities depend on governments for funding, academics are generally regarded as taking a more independent economic viewpoint.
Prominent think tanks include the Institute for Public Affairs, the Sydney Institute and Access Economics. Access is dubbed by some as the “alternative Treasury”.
The lobbying industry: perverter of democracy or purveyor of community sentiment? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Vested corporate interests do have instant access to leading politicians and can afford to pay the best persuaders in the business, however it can be argued that what industry wishes sometimes the broader community desires. In any case there is nothing new in the fact that money attracts power. The emergence of a professional lobbying industry is simply a more sophisticated way for the power elite to communicate its ideas.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the national interest sometimes gets trampled by corporate interest. Groups such as environmentalists or social activists, which are not so well resourced, have difficulty making themselves heard and countering the opposing voices from the private sector or right-wing organisations with access to extensive funds.
Although lobbyists may have undue influence during a government’s administration, the pendulum can swing back unexpectedly at election time. Voters are becoming more aware of the manipulative techniques used by lobbyists and are beginning to see through some of the tricks. And there is no reason why those with fewer resources cannot adopt some of the strategies so successfully exploited by the corporate world.