Lobbyists and the Abbott government

You will see from pages 373-375 in Chapter 11 of the textbook Australian Political Institutions 10e that lobbying is one strategy available to interest groups to put their case to government, not only in Australia but in the other countries discussed in the comparative study included in the chapter.  Because lobbying is a significant element of policy advocacy the process has been formalised by the Australian federal government in an attempt to introduce some transparency into who is connecting with government.

The Australian government Register of Lobbyists sets out the conditions under which lobbying of government representatives must be conducted.  It is based on a Code of Conduct which applies to those who wish to lobby the government and the government representatives on the receiving end of such lobbying (http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/conduct_code.cfm).

The Lobbying Code of Conduct defines government representatives to include ‘a minister or parliamentary secretary, a person employed by a minister or parliamentary secretary under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, an agency head employed under the Public Service Act and a person engaged as a contractor or consultant by an Australian Government agency whose staff are employed under the Public Service Act or a member of the Australian Defence Force’.  Anyone who retires from office as a minister or parliamentary secretary are not to engage in lobbying activities for a period of 18 months after they leave office and the other government representatives listed above are not to engage in lobbying activities for a period of 12 months after they cease their employment (http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/government_rep/index.cfm).

Shortly after taking office prime minister Tony Abbott made the statement that people who hold party positions cannot register as lobbyists (http://abc.net.au/news/2013-09-19/prime-minister-tony-abbott27s-lobbyists-integrity-call-promts-14969950). This is in keeping with Code of Conduct Rule 8.1(d) which states that ‘lobbyists shall keep strictly separate from their duties and activities as lobbyists any personal activity or involvement on behalf of a political party’ and Rule 10.1(c) which provides that a ‘member of a state or federal political party executive, state executive or administrative committee (or the equivalent body)’ may not be included on the Register of Lobbyists.  The reasoning behind this, it has been argued, is ‘the increasing convergence of political actors and lobbyists…a morphing of the two worlds and much interchange’ where ‘lobbyists move in to help with elections, political staffers move out and use their contacts to earn a living (Grattan, M. 2013, ‘The Conversation’, 20 September, https://theconversation.com/tony-abbott-and-clive-palmer-share-an-opinion-on-lobbyists-now-18487).   As a result two NSW Liberal officials known as  ‘powerful conservative lobbyists’ resigned from their positions (Harvey, E. 2013, ABC News, abc.net.au/news/2013/2013-09-19/prime-minister-tony-abbott27s-lobbyists-integrity-call-prompts-149650).  Alexander Downer a member of lobbying firm Bespoke Approach and federal vice-president of the South Australian Liberal Party was also prepared to resign his party position (Grattan, ibid.).

There are no such restrictions on lobbying Opposition, minor party or independent MPs and senators (crikey.com.au/2010/11/05/westpacs-labor-insiders-to-work-in-canberra).

Lobbying is defined under the Register’s rules as ‘communications in an effort to influence Government decision-making’.  A lobbyist is defined as ‘any person, company or organisation who conducts lobbying activities on behalf of a third-party client or whose employees conduct lobbying activities on behalf of a third-party client.  Some individuals, companies or organisations are not required to register, such as charities and religious organisations, individuals making representations on behalf of relatives or friends, members of foreign trade delegations and other prescribed occupations.  You can see the full list at http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/needs_register.cfm.

The list of registered lobbyists includes representative industry and community associations, state and territory governments, companies and professional lobbying firms whose clients are also nominated (see http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au?who_register.cfm).

Lobbyists with party-government connections

Many lobbying organisations and companies not surprisingly employ staff who have a close association with and ready access to the government of the day.  The Mayne Report has tracked the career paths of former staffers of the Hawke-Keating, Howard and Rudd governments.  The listing is dated but indicative of the extent of the movement of party members and government staffers into the corporate sector (www.maynereport.com/articles/2010/05/25-0937-8940.html).

Clearly these employees will become less useful to those bodies when there is a change of government. The election of the Coalition government in September 2013 was no exception.  For example, Hawker Britton is a Labor-friendly lobby firm founded by Bruce Hawker and David Britton.  Bruce Hawker was closely associated with Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election campaign (www.hawkerbritton.com/hawkerBrittonsHeritage/38/Overview.html) and he was Rudd’s campaign adviser for the 2013 election.  When Labor lost the election it is reported that Hawker Britton vacated its office in the National Press Club in Canberra and the premises were taken over by Liberal-aligned lobby firm Barton Deakin, established by former NSW Liberal Opposition leader Peter Collins and whose representative in Canberra is Grahame Morris, former chief-of-staff to John Howard.  This company promotes itself as national, Coalition-aligned with ‘senior people in each capital city who have been party leaders, mayors, chiefs-of-staff’.  Both of these lobbying firms are owned by STW Communications Group (stwgroup.com.au/our-companies).  The different political alignment of its two lobby firms provides the Group with the capacity to gain lobbying traction with whichever major party is in government.  You can see the list of Hawker Britton clients at lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/register/view_agency.cfm?id=96 and those of Barton Deakin at lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/register.view_agency.cfm?id=338.

Other lobbying firms with Coalition connections include Crosby Textor (Liberal Party polster), Capital Hill Advisory with ‘a team of former Howard staffers’, former Howard government Treasurer Peter Costello’s ECG Advisory Solutions, and Bespoke Approach mentioned above (www.crikey.com.au/2013/09/11/open-for-business-lib-flacks-rush-to-canberra-to-lobby-abbott).

Some business associations are likely to have better relationships with the Abbott government than others.  The Australian Mines and Metals Association, not surprisingly given Labor’s introduction of the mining tax, in welcoming the new government said it had had ‘a long and constructive working relationship with Abbott dating back to 1994’ (www.smartcompany.com.au/legal/33596-election-2013-industry-groups-welcome-abbott-and-leadership-stability-but-insist-work-still-to-be-done.html#). The Australian Industry Group which stated it ‘would be supportive of the government putting forward key planks of its platform’ said it had been talking to (Coalition MPs) who were shadow ministers and their staff ‘for a very long time, so they’re very strong existing relationships’ and it also had ‘very strong relations with the Coalition around policy issues’ (Sky Business News, interview with Innes Willox, CEO, Australian Industry Group, 9 September 2013, Transcript, http://www.//aigroup.com).

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia whose membership includes senior public and private sector chief executives, claims to lead and shape ‘the national infrastructure debate’ and to influence public policy, media opinion and business practice (infrastructure.org.au). This process will no doubt be facilitated with the Abbott government because its Chairman Mark Birrell is a former president of the Victorian Liberal Party and a former minister in the Kennett Liberal government and its Executive Director, Brendan Lyon, is a former adviser to Liberal ministers and MPs.

This does not mean that interest groups with personnel identified with the party in opposition will not be given access to the incumbent government.  Despite Brendan Lyon’s former career association with Liberal ministers, he was appointed to the Gillard Labor government’s Infrastructure Finance working Group tasked with advising on the implementation of budget measures (tandlnews.com.au/2012/01/17/article/whos-who-of-govt-and-business-get-a-seat-on-new-infrastructure-finance-workin).

Conclusion

There are a number of lobbyist firms and companies who employ personnel with close links to the government of the day.  As long-time political observer and journalist Michelle Grattan has explained:  ‘Lobbying has become big business in Canberra.  As the political cycle shifts, so does the business cycle for some firms.  The industry rearranged itself in the run up to a Coalition government: Liberal-oriented forms preparing for an upturn; some businesses protecting themselves with strategic partnerships or more Coalition-oriented staff’ (Grattan, Ibid.).

On the other hand, many organisations and companies who lobby the government prefer to remain more ‘politically neutral’ so they can work with whichever party is in government.

Whichever is the case, there is no doubt that the lobbying industry is a significant element of the political process.

Gwynneth Singleton

8 February 2014

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