How to win friends and influence government

GovernmentGot an agenda to push with government but not sure how to navigate the system? Nic Christensen speaks to the people that can help.

When it comes to the current perception of government lobbying, former politicians such as Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and ex-Western Australian Premier Brian Burke have a lot to answer for.

“Lobbying is about as popular as ebola; it’s the Eddie Obeid factor,” says Toby Ralph, who operates as an independent lobbyist. “People assume there are palms being greased, mates being rewarded and that there’s bugger all transparency.”

According to Ralph, the recent hearing of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption which found Obeid and fellow former minister Ian MacDonald behaved corruptly in relation to the issuing of mining licences is just the latest of many incidents to damage the reputation of government relations.

“The public is suspicious enough of politicians, but when this mistrust is coupled with them being discreetly influenced by former colleagues, staffers and friends, the credibility gap becomes a chasm,” says Ralph.

He and other senior figures in Australia’s growing lobbying industry who spoke to Encore say the perception that anyone can peddle or sell influence is incorrect.

“A handful of lobbyists pretend to sell influence, but the simple truth is they don’t have it – or if they do you’ll be able to hire them and their ministerial mates from Long Bay (Prison) in a few years,” he says.

Justin Di Lollo, head of the STW Group, owner of government relations firms Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin, agrees but says labelling what these organisations do as ‘dark arts’ misses the point of what’s really involved. “There is this perception that there must be something terrible going on,” says Di Lollo. “It’s just a cheap shot.”

“No-one thinks that if you have an issue in the courts and you hire a barrister, that’s bad. Nobody thinks that if you have a problem with your tax return there is anything wrong with hiring an accountant,” he says.

“However, if a business person tries to decipher the complex world of government decision making, then something must be wrong with [engaging a government relations professional].”

Many lobbyists say that much of their time is not spent in the offices of politicians or public servants but rather with clients explaining the intricacies of government and the public policy process. “At least half of the work we do is client side,” says Di Lollo. “We do a lot of work with them to understand the decision-making environment they are working in and how they can best utilise that to get their needs across.”

Paul Everingham, managing director of Perth-based lobbying firm GRA Everingham, estimates he and many other firms spend even more time with clients. “I’d say 70 per cent of our work is with the client rather than with the government and a lot of lobbyists would be like that,” says Everingham.

A former politician himself, Everingham says those in government prefer to deal with the client directly rather than a lobbyist.

“They want to hear it from the horse’s mouth and so we say to clients: ‘We’ll prep you, make sure the meeting is organised and you know what it is going to be about, positions to take et cetera. However, you are often the best person or advocate to make your case to government.’”

Ralph says: “I hardly ever present to a politician myself. My job is to get the case and evidence right. It’s better to have an impassioned and informed CEO or chairman pushing a case than some bloke in a shiny suit who’s arguing for car industry subsidies in the morning, then pushing for a ban on pineapple imports after lunch.”

Dr Ian Ward, professor of political science at the University of Queensland, says the industry of government relations has evolved dramatically in the last few years.

“One of the longer term trends is the increasing professionalisation and specialisation of lobbying over the past 15 to 20 years,” says Ward. “But it has been very visible since the lobbyists register was put up in 2008.”

One of the Rudd government’s first reforms upon taking office was to establish a national register of all third party lobbyists interacting with the Federal Government. The register requires disclosure of the firm’s owners, employees and clients.

There are now more than 280 firms of varying size, from independent operators to large well-known firms, on the register.

“Lobbying is historically seen as an unsavory form of influence peddling and the whole idea of the Rudd Government’s reform was to make some of that visible,” says Ward. However, he notes that there are still many flaws with the register system, which is based on a Western Australian model created after a scandal involving former WA Premier Brian Burke. However, the system has its limits.

“The register only covers those who hire their services out. What we don’t know is how organisations who do their own lobbying work,” says Ward. “For example, an organisation like the Australian Medical Association has a very professional staff based in Canberra that deals with ministers and public servants on a regular basis but is not on the register. Really, we only have partial transparency.”

Di Lollo agrees this is a problem for the industry and says the loophole encourages people to hire in-house lobbyists who do not have to register.

Di Lollo says: “The registration systems that we have around the country are designed to create transparency and openness. That is not being achieved. We have a perverse system built around one class of lobbyist – third-party lobbyists. There is an incentive for in-house lobbyists to say ‘I work in a regulated industry’ but it is only third-party lobbyists who are regulated. The register should apply to all.”

Ward, however, concedes there are some practical problems in forcing all lobbyists to register.

“The question is how you put up a regulatory framework to capture all their interactions with government,” he says. “Do you include local activists worried about a building proposal at the end of their street? Probably not. But then you have organisations like Greenpeace, who are global players, at the other end of the spectrum.”

The other question that invariably comes up with government lobbying firms is one of political bias with a number of firms choosing to focus on a particular side of politics. This model was pioneered by Labor-aligned Hawker Britton, which was founded by political strategists Bruce Hawker and David Britton, and has since been duplicated by a number of other companies. With the Coalition in the ascendancy in the polls in recent months, a number of firms with ties to the Liberal and National parties have sprung up in Canberra ahead of an anticipated Tony Abbott victory in September’s Federal Election.

Among the more high-profile of these firms is CapitalHill Advisory whose team includes senior Liberal Party powerbrokers Michael Photios and Nick Campbell.

Campbell, the firm’s chairman, who has worked in the industry as both an in-house and third-party lobbyist for 16 years, says the company is proud of its association with the Coalition.

“The CapitalHill model is very clear. We have a strong leaning to the Coalition,” says Campbell, who is also a former president of the NSW Liberal Party. “But that simply puts us in alignment with the values and policy positions of the party.”

Campbell argues that focusing on the firm’s political alliance is misguided. Rather he says their competitive advantage is understanding the “intersection” between business and government. “There are a lot of people who understand government but there aren’t too many who have a thorough understanding of business and what industry associations or companies are looking for in terms of expertise and assistance,” he says.

STW’s Di Lollo, who runs Hawker Britton day-to-day and also oversees its “evil twin”, the Liberal-aligned firm Barton Deakin, says: “What I’ve created with the ‘evil twin’ company model is a natural hedge. It is yin and yang. If the tide is rising on the Labor side then Hawker Britton will do well and if the tide is going to the Coalition, Barton Deakin will do well.”

Others are more sceptical about the benefits of being partisan. Ralph says: “Politically partisan lobbying firms rely on the notion that their clients assume that because they are known they provide a fast track to trust, thus are more likely to win an argument. This is absolute bollocks. Almost all politicians are both ethical and rational, and run a million miles from doing favours for mates.”

Public affairs firm Parker and Partners, which is also owned by the STW Group, is one firm that doesn’t take sides. “We take a nonpartisan approach. We have people from all sides of politics,” says Mathew Jones, the firm’s managing director.

“We have people who haven’t worked in politics but who might have been in the public sector or industry groups. It’s a range of skills that we offer regardless of a person’s political belief and also an understanding of policy processes.”

Jones also says relationships are not as important as some people believe. “Relationships are important but they are not enough to prosecute the client’s agenda,” he says. “I can’t speak for how a more partisan approach might work except to say you are more exposed to the winds of political fortune.”

Di Lollo, who also has an advisory role with Parker and Partners, agrees on this point. “In the event of a Coalition victory at the election, which is still the most likely outcome, Hawker Britton will start to shrink down around a small core of people,” says Di Lollo.

“However, should Rudd be returned, Hawker Britton will go from strength to strength and I would predict there will be a marked upswing in work.”

Whichever party triumphs on September 7, the business of government relations is likely to see an uptick in demand. Di Lollo says: “There has been a lot of government business held back over the last year because the business community has looked at the political situation and thought ‘I am just going to put a hold on this project until we have had an election’.”

Encore issue 27This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visitencore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.App Store


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.