Business lobby is full of false bravado

Business lobby is full of false bravado

The Canberra lobbying world has a dirty little secret: business just doesn’t get politics, and the industry is built on that ignorance.

More often than not, the disconnect between business and political reality isn’t much of an issue. Lobbyists wheel their naïve clients through politicians’ offices and are paid handsomely for what is little more than glorified door-opening. In return, the business figures feel influential even though they’ve done little more than whinge to a marginally relevant MP.

Meanwhile the real lobbying work goes on elsewhere in Canberra, not in the shiny marble halls of Parliament House but in far less glamorous surrounds, where myriad departmental officials actually develop and implement policy for their political masters. Lobbyists who want to deliver real policy outcomes, rather than simply act as political matchmakers, focus their efforts at this level.

But because door-opening is a relatively easy and considerably lucrative business, lobbyists often do very little to dissuade their business clients from the delusion that a few words in a politician’s ear is all that’s needed to get a favourable policy.

This can lead to the business sector – particularly the big end of town – believing it can muscle in on a government’s agenda regardless of the political issues at stake.

A good example is the recent call by senior businessman Roger Corbett for a double dissolution electionto overcome the “obstructionist” Senate. One would think that as a member of the Reserve Bank board and chairman of Fairfax Media Corbett would have a workable grasp of our political system.

However, if he did, Corbett would know that a DD election would likely increase the fractured nature of the Senate. The reduced quota for election to the upper house could result in even more independent, micro and minor party candidates being elected. Not to mention, of course, that on current opinion poll ratings, an election at this time would also see the defeat of the Abbott Government altogether.

Even if we set aside Corbett’s politically impractical call as the wishful thinking of an overly enthusiastic Liberal Party member, there are significant other examples of the business community simply not coming to grips with political imperatives.

Take the blink-and-you-might-miss-it declaration from the “group of nine” business groups earlier this month, which essentially accused current political leaders of cowardice for backing off on economic reform, saying: “Past giants of economic reform did what was right for the long-term benefit of Australia and not because it was politically expedient – it rarely ever was.”

Like Corbett, the business leaders that put their names to the statement have either deliberately ignored or simply missed the point. It was at least partly at the business community’s behest that the Abbott Government’s first budget went in so hard on economic reform. But only the Government has had to shoulder the community’s opprobrium since for doing so.

Even now, as the Government continues to struggle in the opinion polls after delivering the most unpopular budget in recent history, business continues to push it for policy changes that would amount to nothing short of electoral suicide if adopted in the current political environment.

Top of their wish list is workplace relations reform, yet only a government comprised of madmen or fools would propose this at a time when the unions’ successful WorkChoices campaign is still relatively fresh in the minds of Australian voters.

The other key reform being sought by business is tax reform, namely a cut in the corporate tax rate. This is behind the business push for an increase or broadening of the GST, which would improve the Government’s budget bottom line and consequently make a corporate tax cut more palatable to the broader community.

One of the principal business lobby groups, the Business Council of Australia, has even gone so far as to commission market research from Liberal Party pollster Crosby Textor, suggesting that the 94 per cent of respondents who agree the nation needs a “better plan” for its long-term future means voters “accept the need for change”.

Even if that were true, the same research found 62 per cent “do not trust government to manage tax reform well enough to create a better system overall”.

This is the political reality that business must face: there is no point pressuring the Government to prosecute difficult reforms when the community either fears, distrusts or holds the Government in contempt.

As Crosby Textor co-founder Mark Textor explained in an interview over the weekend, political leaders like NSW Premier Mike Baird and NZ prime minister John Key are successful because they pass three threshold tests of trust with voters: Do I trust this person at his word? Can he do what he says in this political system? And, if this thing he wants to do goes wrong, is this person of a character that would care if someone slips through the cracks?

And in the absence of that trust? Textor says it needs to be co-opted from an unexpected but credible third party, such as when the Australian Council of Social Services backed the Howard Government’s campaign for the GST.

Reform-minded business leaders need to accept that it is pointless – if not counterproductive – to pressure a government to implement change that will result in electoral defeat. Even if such a government chose unpopular policy purity over political expediency, it’s likely a new incoming government would simply overturn the change to garner public support.

Calling Government MPs cowards for backing away from reform is not telling them anything they didn’t already know, but it’s still as useless as shouting into the wind. Business must accept that reform needs a level of trust in government that is currently missing, and that new coalitions of interest, involving sections of the community outside of business, must be formed to re-establish that trust.

It may make business leaders feel important and influential to berate the Government and grandstand for the media. But like lobbyists opening politicians’ doors for a living, doing so is nothing more than a pointless and hollow charade.

Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

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 Crikey.com