Like it or not: everything is politics

The political media comes under constant criticism for focussing on the internal workings and intrigues of governments. But we must analyse the politics of an event to properly understand it.

Ever since American journalism academic Jay Rosen talked to the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 about how impoverished our political media is, because of its seeming obsession with the internal workings and intrigues of governments and political parties, the same criticism has been levelled at Australian political journalists and writers who seek to explain the mechanics and mysteries of politics.

The articles of contention describe the judgments and tradeoffs made by political players to maintain the tenuous balance between sound policy or doing what is morally right and what will win or maintain votes at the next election.

The most common criticism of such posts is that they focus on how things “are” instead of how they “should be”. My Drum column last week on the politics of Ebola, and others published elsewhere about how the budget is being sold to voters or various political figures are positioning themselves for future leadership contests, are amongst those criticised in this way.

There was particular consternation about my contention that the Government’s response to the growing Ebola crisis in West Africa was shaped by politics, as was the Opposition’s approach. Commenters on The Drum and Twitter complained the column should have focused on what the Government “should” be doing about Ebola, instead of explaining why it was not.

Such criticism misses the point entirely: like it or not, everything in politics is politics. There’s no way to take politics out of Australia’s democratic institutions and processes, be they parties, elections or parliament. While democracy continues to rely on “the people” to exercise their vote, and human behaviour remains in the mix, there will always be politics (which by definition is the theory and practice of influencing people).

Public opinion looms large when it comes to politics: if a party can’t win the hearts and minds of voters then they won’t get elected. It’s that simple. And it’s virtually impossible to implement one’s policy agenda from the opposition benches.

So it’s a difficult proposition for an opposition to willingly diminish its electability or a government to risk its incumbency by advocating a course of action that is not supported by the majority of voters – even if that action is the right way to go in a policy or moral sense.

This is why former prime minister Kevin Rudd backed away from his emissions trading scheme in the face of growing voter antipathy for carbon pricing, and his successor Julia Gillard similarly ruled out a carbon tax. Neither wanted to sacrifice their governments’ future prospects for one, albeit critically important, matter when their reform agendas encompassed so many other important things that also needed to be done.

It could be argued that, even though Gillard was subsequently forced to renege on her “no carbon tax” commitment, she may not have been elected without having made it and then would not have been able to follow through on many of the important reforms started by the Rudd government such as the NBN, Gonski and NDIS.

Such are the swings and roundabouts of politics.

There is an alternative to conceding to popular opinion, and that is to change it, but this is akin to doing a u-turn in a cruise ship.

Getting the voting public to change its mind, not on superficial matters, but on those that tap into core values and concerns, is a slow and laborious task that can take longer than one three or four-year parliamentary term to produce results. Doing so is hard enough for a government, even with the authority that comes from being in power and having a phalanx of departments and battalions of advisers at its disposal.

One illustrative example is former PM John Howard’s attempt to change voters’ views about the GST leading up to the 1998 federal election. While he did manage to do so slightly, Howard also lost almost 5 per cent of the vote at that election.

Gillard tried similarly with the Clean Energy Future Package in 2011, which included the carbon tax and associated compensation measures, but to little effect. Three years on from the launch of that package, only 38 per cent of voters support having a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme to manage climate change.

Changing popular opinion is even more difficult to do from opposition. Liberal opposition leader John Hewson failed spectacularly to bring voters on board with his comprehensive Fightback policy manifesto in 1993. More successful (at least from the Liberals’ perspective) was opposition leader Tony Abbott’s campaign, which turned community sentiment against the carbon tax, but still took four years spanning two parliamentary terms to come to do so.

It was politics that thwarted Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Hewson, and it was politics that helped Abbott prevail. Without understanding the politics of each event, we have a limited understanding of how each leader failed or succeeded in shaping public opinion to their political or policy ends.

So to dismiss the political dimension of any civic event as somehow unworthy of consideration because it’s not as things “should” be, is to diminish one’s own capacity to fully understand that event.

That may be an acceptable stance for the ignorant and blinkered, but it does nothing for those who wish to fully and productively exercise their democratic rights.

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