By Matt Weber
A couple of weekends ago, an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘Canberra Inc: ‘The revolving door’ of lobbyists shaping today’s policies’. It raised the potential issues of ‘influence peddling’ by former staffers and Ministers who now use their political and bureaucratic connections for commercial outcomes.
The article raised legitimate concerns about the status quo, arguing that the current code surrounding government relations activity in Canberra (and in other jurisdictions) is far too loose, allowing undue influence to those with the financial resources to pay for an effective lobbyist. But beyond paying lip service to the idea that government relations has a legitimate role to play in the decision making process, the article did little to articulate why government relations is necessary.
Lobbying and the Lobbyists - what’s the difference?
Government relations has become synonymous with lobbying, but it is important to recognise that lobbying is just one component of government relations. Lobbyists are professionals that organisations hire as third-parties to provide access to politicians and bureaucrats, essentially outsourcing their organisation’s relationships with Government.
This is different from an in-house corporate affairs team and different once again from the CEO of a business travelling to Canberra to meet face to face with decision makers. These people may be ‘lobbying’, but this is just one element of their job. Unlike lobbyists, a CEO or the head of Corporate Affairs has power in a meeting to provide the politician with a concrete answer and if needed, a decision.
The handshake and an agreement from a CEO or head of Corporate Affairs is a real commitment, and politicians understand and appreciate that.
Why do we need government relations at all?
Consider this: since 1990 the average time between federal elections has been 32 months. In that time, there have been 14 Ministries, the equivalent of a changing of the guard every 1.9 years (not including reshuffles). Although this does not mean that every time there is a new Ministry, every Minister takes a new job, when you consider that Australia has had 11 Treasurers (a relatively secure Cabinet position) since 1990, it suggests that the amount of time that a Minister spends in one portfolio isn’t long.
In the time between ministerial reshuffles and changes of Government, a Minister with immense decision making power over the direction of the country is expected to be fully across the regulatory, social and business environment of the portfolio that they are responsible for.
To be able to meet these obligations, politicians gather their information from the following sources - the media, their departments, their staff, industry and their constituents.
Theoretically, every Australian has the right to meet with politicians and while many are generally happy to meet, in reality the ability for people to engage with and present a strong argument to a politician is limited.
So why do businesses need government experts internally? Government’s run in a different way to business and someone that has worked in government or understands government can speed up the process. When businesses advocate to government effectively, they provide an additional source of information to politicians and in an ideal system (where the Minister or Government delivers policies based on multiple views), they help create better policy.
People who engage government relations services are making a fairly simple admission - they understand the importance of government as a stakeholder to their business, but they don’t fully understand the government process.
Public policy (and public trust) suffers when the causes being advanced by lobbyists are successful because of the strength of existing relationships between lobbyists and Ministers rather than the strength of the cause itself. This is the crux of the issue identified in last weekend’s paper.
It’s important to remember that you are your organisation’s best advocate. But that does not necessarily mean going it alone. Seeking advice from people who do understand Government is vital, especially if you do not have the time or resources to prepare yourself for engagement with Government. This is frequently a problem that CEO’s and corporate affairs teams encounter and one that there are now consultancies in place to assist with.
As suggested by Barnaby Joyce in the article, politicians are “vastly more inclined” to meet with someone who has written to them directly than a third party whom they’ve hired to speak for them. It is a position that is becoming popular among politicians in Canberra, placing a premium on those who can represent themselves.