Ad campaigns are the last resort of failed lobbyists

It’s quite astounding that in the 21st century political lobbying is still considered an arcane practice. Those unfamiliar with its workings appear to include even members of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

This has been evident in recent times with media depictions of lobbying limited to large-scale advertising campaigns such as that conducted by the mining industry against the resources super profit tax.

In reality, advertising is a lobbying tactic of last resort, and in only a few cases does it ever deliver the desired outcome. For every successful advertising blitz like the miners’, there are many more that have failed. The retailers’ GST campaign, fronted by Gerry Harvey, is perhaps the most recent example.

Advertising is the lobbyist’s last resort because it’s effectively an admission of defeat by those running the campaign. Having to pour millions of dollars into the pockets of advertisers and media outlets is a clear concession that lobbyists have dropped the ball.

Why? Because real political lobbying is a strategic long-term activity, not a tactical short-term one. If all it took to influence government was a carpet-bomb advertising campaign then there would be no need for the hundreds of lobby groups that exist in Australia. Instead, each advertising agency would have their own in-house lobbying specialists and the Australian public would be constantly bombarded with advertising campaigns based on a myriad of political issues, not just consumer products as is the case now.

Perhaps the issue at the heart of this misperception is that lobbyists exist to stop governments from taking certain actions.

This is in fact only half the story; lobbying can also be about getting governments to do something. Many lobbyists, particularly those who represent the interests of business and industry, devote most of their efforts to securing policies and regulations that balance the government’s rightful protection of people and the environment with business’ right to make a profit.

So, how exactly is effective lobbying different from an advertising campaign?

Lobbying is strategic, which means it involves big-picture objectives and strategies to achieve them over long-term timeframes. Ask any effective lobbyist what they are doing for their members and they will speak in these terms. They will explain that some of their strategic goals may take 2-3 years or 5-7 years to realise. And most will admit that the last place they want to be arguing their case is in the media.

Effective lobbying is based on an exceptionally good working knowledge of three things: politics, policy and business. That’s why most lobby groups have experts in each of these areas.

Even more important for effective lobbying is an understanding of how these three elements can align, interact or conflict.

Lobbyists use knowledge of this dynamic to ply their trade. In an ideal world, the policy they are lobbying for should satisfy the Minister’s need for smart politics, the department’s need for sound policy, and their own members’ need for a continued license to operate.

Effective lobbying takes place behind the scenes, mostly at the departmental level. It focuses on the development, implementation or reform of policies, which ultimately become the laws that govern us.

Some of the contact that lobbyists have with departments is in the form of “stakeholder consultation”, where the department seeks feedback from affected groups on the details of policies that are being developed. This feedback is then taken into consideration as the policy is further refined.

However, the more astute lobbyist takes a proactive role and seeks to initiate new policies at either the political or the departmental level. This is no easy task and requires the lobbyist to know how to concurrently meet the needs of the Minister, the department and his/her own members.

This again, is why lobbying is best played as a long game and not a short one.

Effective lobbyists develop networks of contacts in politics, the public service, the business community, non-government organisations and the media. These networks serve as a grapevine to keep the lobbyist abreast of all relevant information and to ideally keep them ahead of the game.

This intelligence helps the lobbyist understand the political implications of his/her member’s strategic goals, whether they are part of the policies being developed by the department, and the expectations and concerns of any opponents.

Only having considered all these factors and developed a solution that best fits all needs will the lobbyist have the basis upon which to pitch a proposal to the department or perhaps even the Minister. Quite often market research or economic modeling is also required to demonstrate that both political and public benefits can be delivered.

Having first engaged on the issue at the departmental level, the lobbyist would then provide complementary briefings to MPs, ministerial advisers and relevant journalists (usually on a background basis). This pincer-movement strategy has the best chance of securing the attention of decision makers and creating the necessary momentum to get a favourable policy decision.

The long game is imperative because sometimes one must wait through several budgetary or legislative cycles before the right opportunity presents itself to pitch such a proposal.

Admittedly, despite having a sound strategy and the patience of a saint, there are still times when a lobbyist will realise that the time, effort and resources they’ve invested in working through departmental and ministerial channels has been in vain.

Sometimes the situation is retrievable, such as when a policy is released for public discussion, either through the green paper process or a regulatory impact statement.

It may then be appropriate to start an advertising campaign, but this will be done in the knowledge that it is the final resort and will be seen as a very public last-gasp attempt to shanghai the Minister into a favourable decision.

More often than not, this tactic will fail because it’s seen by both politicians and public servants as unnecessarily aggressive, overtly disruptive and ultimately self-centred. None of these perceptions serve well when one is trying to influence government.

For completeness, it must also be stressed that there are other times when there is little or no opportunity to influence the outcome.

This is particularly the case with the Budget night shock announcement, when a new tax or funding cut has been concocted in the Minister’s office or kept under wraps in the department, leaving the affected stakeholders none the wiser until it’s too late to do anything than add their bleats to the cacophony of others disaffected by the same Budget.

So, there you have it. The profession of lobbying is certainly not rocket science, but it’s a nuanced practice nonetheless. It’s an activity that admittedly occurs under the radar, but which bears little resemblance to the media depictions of shiny suits trailing into ministers’ offices threatening ad campaigns if they don’t get their wicked way.

A final important point to remember is that lobbyists represent a much broader range of interests than just big business. Equally large and influential lobby groups also represent pharmacists, teachers, independent shop owners, superannuants, and the environment movement for example.

Lobbyists have a legitimate part to play in a vibrant democracy such as ours. This would be better accepted if the media made a greater effort to understand it.

This post also appeared at

Ellis & Hamilton – defrocked priests muttering on the edge

I read the views of two men today that were diametrically different but strangely the same.

Both writers opined on issues of the day, and both were once considered high priests in their respective spheres. One was witheringly sanctimonious while the other was simply lecherous. One decried humanity while the other sought to excuse its depravity.

But my response to both men was the same – I concluded that they are embarrassingly out of touch with contemporary community views and perhaps even with sanity.

I don’t accept the suggestion that Bob Ellis’ appallingly misogynist piece was in fact a mirror held up to shock an Australian community desensitised by morally-bankrupt television shows and ethically-challenged paparazzi.

Nor do I accept Clive Hamilton’s denunciation of everyday Australians as an important wakeup call to those supposedly duped by shock jocks into changing their views on climate action.

I’m not going to declaim the many ways Ellis made lame excuses for voyeuristic and sexually predatory behaviour. He is more than adequately scrutinised here and here.

However it appears Hamilton’s latest sermon received much less attention. While it is not sexist like Ellis’ pontification, it is similarly disdainful if not bordering on misanthropic. And unlike Ellis, who seems only to want to put sexually-active women in their “rightful” place, Hamilton has upbraided the whole Australian community.

Hamilton denounces those who “have transformed themselves from a citizenry worried about global warming, and asking for something to be done, into an outraged mob indignant to discover that their noble desire to protect the future means they must pay a bit more for petrol and power.”

He accuses Australians of being selfish, superficial and environmental wreckers:

What do Australians want? The answer is clear. We want symbols of action but not action itself. We want to hear words that make us feel good about ourselves but none that ask us to make any sacrifice. We care about climate change, but we hate the idea of having to do anything about it.

Give us leaders, says the great Australian public, as long as they do not ask us to follow. So the public gets what it wants – hollow leaders who will go through the motions, massaging their sense of entitlement to make them feel secure.

So we may safely write the epitaph of this sad and flabby nation: “Built by resolve and stoicism; destroyed by self-indulgence and timidity.”

Both Ellis and Hamilton are out of sync with the Australian community.

As I have written elsewhere, Australians are motivated by winning, not by losing.

We are rarely motivated by guilt.

If indeed Bob Ellis was trying to shame the Australian community into facing up to its double-standards on the acceptability of certain sexual behaviours, then he failed dismally. All Ellis generated was derision and outraged rejection of his article.

Similarly, there is no point in Clive Hamilton trying to shame Australians into taking climate action. Telling us that we are the worst (per capita) climate polluters or flabby and self-indulgent will generate a reaction no less dismissive than that received by Bob Ellis.

In their different ways Ellis and Hamilton were once considered bold idealists and prophets; now they are nothing more than defrocked priests, muttering on the extreme edge of their respective congregations.

Both are out of touch and discredited. No-one should pay either of them any attention any more.

Love to hate, but don’t love the haters

Why do we love to hate someone when vigorous disagreement should be enough? In competitive arenas such as sport why do we get so much joy from seeing the object of our hatred not only lose, but also be smashed into oblivion?

Perhaps even more curiously, why is it that we love to hate but we don’t love the haters?

I’m not sure why, but I suspect Tony Abbott should be thinking very carefully about this curly question.

One could argue that it’s harmless to hate in sport; some might even say it enhances our enjoyment. As the saying goes, nothing builds team spirit more than a common foe (such as Collingwood, for example).

That may be true, but the increasingly gladiatorial nature of Australian politics has led us to bring our sporting hatred into the political arena.

Thirty years ago, political allegiances were reasonably straightforward: 40% voted for Labor, 40% for the Coalition, and elections were fought over the 20% swinging voters who remained undecided. Labor’s strength came from its blue collar foundations, the Liberals from their white-collar and small business supporters, and the Nationals from the bush.

In those days, people tended to vote the same way their parents did; much the same as they would follow the same footy team.

Today, it’s an entirely different story. We are less, but strangely more, tribal. No longer do we naturally gravitate to the party our parents supported. Mainly this is because we cast our votes more on values than political philosophy.

But we do love to hate politicians and we do it in a visceral, tribal way, just like we do with our footy adversaries.

I can’t pinpoint the time I realised that hatred of politicians had become a sporting event for Australians. Perhaps it was Treasurer Keating and the “recession we had to have” that started it all. Maybe it was PM Keating’s revoked L-A-W tax cuts, or his “get a job” election campaign jibe that caused voters to wait patiently for him on their porches with baseball bats.

Then there were the Howard haters, who made vilification of the then Prime Minister a national pastime. Their rejection of Howard’s positions on climate change, asylum seekers and IR was blisteringly intense then and still lingers, with references to the rodent still echoing today in the public discourse.

And now, we have not one but two new villains to heckle and abhor. Both Prime Minister Gillard and her opponent Tony Abbott are perfect lightning rods for our prejudices, resentments and hatred.

Gillard knifed her predecessor, robbing voters of the chance to punish him, and now courts the Greens to get her government’s initiatives through parliament.

Abbott also knifed his predecessor, shattering the hopes of progressive Liberals and giving succour to the extreme right edge of the party.

So I guess there’s no surprise that we love to hate either one or both of them.

But the irony, and the warning for Tony Abbott, is that we may love to hate our sporting and political opponents, but we seem much less inclined to embrace the haters themselves. While a little jovial sledging on the field is acceptable, we give short shrift to those who indulge in racism or other forms of bigotry.

Admittedly, we did have a soft spot for Paul Keating, arguably the best hater that Australia’s black-Irish population has ever produced. The ferocious beauty of his recently “re-released” note to NSW Labor MP (now opposition leader) John Robertson exemplifies the man’s ability to render abuse more finely crafted than the curlicues of any antique clock.

Having said that, it must also be remembered that Keating’s highest ever approval rating was 40%, the second lowest on record for a modern-era Australian Prime Minister. Keating also holds the record for the lowest Prime Ministerial approval rating at 27%.

Putting Keating to the side for a moment, I’d argue that we dislike, even abhor, politicians who are haters. We certainly don’t make them Prime Minister; with Mark Latham being the perfect example.

Latham was reported as having told The Bulletin in 2002, “I’m a hater … Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness.”

Another proficient hater, tabloid columnist Miranda Devine described Latham this way when he was Opposition Leader in 2003-04: “The more we see of Mark Latham the more it seems that underneath some admirable qualities seethes the heart of a hater, consumed with a clotted class envy that will be his downfall.”

Latham’s hatred and self-proclaimed appointment as class-warrior were key factors in his federal election loss. Women voters in particular deserted him in droves. Many of us were unnerved when Latham attacked private schools and other elements of the “privileged classes”. We needed little more encouragement than his bully-handshake with Howard to walk away altogether.

The 2004 federal election tally speaks for itself: the Howard/Liberal first preference vote of 40.5% was 3.4 percentage points higher than the previous election. This was the party’s highest first preference vote since the landslide of 1975 (41.8%), and only the fourth time since its creation that the party had secured 40 per cent of the national total.

Latham/Labor’s first preference vote of 37.6% per cent was its lowest vote since the elections of 1931 and 1934.

An even more fascinating parallel is that, despite an overall trend in the other direction, at both Keating’s 1993 election and Latham’s 2004 election, women were more likely than men to vote for the coalition (44%-37% in 1993 and 47%-42% in 2004).

It’s little wonder that Kevin Rudd did his very best during the 2006 federal election to avoid the mistakes made by Latham.

Rudd deftly positioned himself as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd may have been a hater behind the scenes (he certainly seems to have been a tantrum-thrower), his diplomatic training or political instinct ensured that it was kept securely behind closed doors.

As a result, Rudd equalled the highest ever approval rating achieved by an Australian PM, namely Bob Hawke, at 75%. It’s worth noting that Hawke wasn’t much of a public hater either.

And now we have Tony Abbott, who should be taking note of both Latham and Rudd’s experience as Opposition Leaders.

It’s no mystery that, while the Federal Opposition is polling better than the Government at present, Abbott still trails behind Julia Gillard as the preferred PM and in the approval stakes.

Many of us have our doubts about Abbott, just as we did about Latham. This doubt has the potential to harden into distrust and dislike if Abbott is seen to have crossed the line from gentlemanly sledging to encouraging, if not publicly using, hate-based language.

Obviously Abbott is capitalising on the fact that voters love to hate. But does he realise that we are simultaneously repulsed by politicians and others who are haters?

Perhaps not, and if that is the case then someone should draw this idiosyncrasy to his attention. This small detail may yet prove to be Abbott’s undoing.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.