tip off

5The corporate lobbyists

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Government not spruiking your particular corporate interest enough? No worries — just take to the airwaves yourself with a relatively small ad buy, as these special interests have done, and you can easily influence policy, win elections and even topple leaders.

They peer out of our TVs as unsung heroes of our gilded age, the “real Australians” knocked off course by a Labor government hellbent on throttling progress.

There’s Rio Tinto accountant Len Thong, a Chinese orphan, reminiscing mistily about the power of minerals. There’s “devoted mother” and “pony club instructor” Heather Parry, a Leighton project manager who reckons “mining is a rare industry that allows professionals to live in the bush”. And don’t forget Roxby Downs gun nut, trucking magnate and Paul Hogan lookalike Ken “Lamby” Lamb, who popped up again this week to allege that paying for election promises through mining taxes was a “really dumb idea”.

This is our story” is a long-running series of glossy TV spots for big mining put together by Kevin ‘07 turncoat Neil Lawrence for lobby group the Minerals Council of Australia. In this fantasy world, the orestruck children of the boom wake each day to the sound of tinkling pianos to toast their success and prove Wayne Swan wrong.

As MCA members Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton discovered to their delight in 2010, even a piddling $22 million outlay on prime-time TV spots and full-page newspaper ads has the power to water down policy, warp the public interest and even topple sitting prime ministers. Since tapping Lawrence in 2010, the council has had its finger on the campaign trigger, subtly implying that only the Coalition could be trusted not to kill the golden goose. It’s the most glaring example of the new suite of technicolour tactics favoured by Australia’s growing band of corporate lobbyists.

The corporate lobbyists cut out the middle man — if the government won’t give their clients what they want they spring into direct action, blanketing the airwaves in a manner that would horrify de Tocqueville. And the Sword of Damocles is dangling ever lower.

University of Melbourne media and communications professor Sally Young calls the rise of well-heeled agitators threatening to throw the chequebook at democratically elected governments a “major shift in the last decade in Australian politics”.

The whole nature of the debate has changed. The idea that companies and other groups will just start running campaigns has really taken hold,” she told The Power Index.

Young says that while all the signs are for a quieter election campaign this time around, the threat of a fresh assault is always just around the corner. “It’s always there in the background, the question is just how much the government is going to provoke any of these groups in the lead-up to the election.”

Those groups have been lining up. The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, representing small and mid-tier miners, had a crack at Rudd (“you’re going to get whacked!”) and continue to call for the mining tax’s repeal. Earlier this year, the Financial Services Council, helmed by former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden, filmed a “mining-tax style” campaign on superannuation tax changes before withdrawing the threat after the government backed away.

Clubs Australia’s successful campaign against mandatory pre-commitment technology (“It’s Un-Australian”), which arguably led to a Peter Slipper speakership, has morphed into clubs being “part of the solution” to problem gambling. Not to mention the Alliance of Australian Retailers’ failed anti-plain packaging crusade. Gina Rinehart, it seems, is happy to browbeat the nation through spooky pieces direct to camera.

Young argues the blockbuster tactics have been inspired, somewhat ironically, by the Australian Council of Trade Union’s 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign, which took the fight over WorkChoices directly to marginal seat lounge rooms. Data mining has meant messages can be tailored down to individual households to hit the government where it hurts. And the lack of money flowing the major parties’ way after the GFC has meant the corporate ad dollar has become even more potent.

There’s an old adage in politics that just at the point when you’re getting absolutely sick and tired of saying something there’s a vague possibility the public is starting to listen.”

And it’s not just big business. Left-leaning groups like GetUp! use startlingly similar tactics to marshal their band of internet fans that will ratchet up in coming weeks. GetUp! spokesperson Rohan Wenn told The Power Index large-scale campaigns, including television commercials, would try to get out the vote and keep a strong voice in the Senate. The group has hit back hard at the miners through its “End Billionaire Welfare“ spots and has also taken on the clubs.

Labor and the unions are also in the mix — Kevin Rudd launched a widely derided $38.5 million “classroom” campaign on the merits of the resources super profits tax and the Chaser’s Charles Firth produced “This Is The Real Story” on behalf of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (featuring cartoonish mining billionaire Allan Billison) and a follow-up, “Fair Go for Billionaires”.

To get a sense of how lobbyists are working this year, you only need to look at the NSW Minerals Council’s “Land Use Facts” commercial running on Sky News (and elsewhere) in the last few days designed to calm public fears over coal seam gas. The spots were airing just as NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was getting hung out to dry by his federal Coalition counterparts — and The Australian newspaper — over his support for Julia Gillard’s Gonski education reforms, the last major political wedge the government has available to it before September. Cue Wednesday’s front-page Oz story reporting the heat was also on O’Farrell over an “energy crisis” caused by his granting of an exclusion zone around contentious fracking projects. A pincer movement if there ever was one.

RMIT communications professor and PR veteran Noel Turnbull says that while public support on issues like the mining tax vacillated, the more salient impact is to add to the perception of a minority government under siege, with the connivance of certain sections of the media creating a multiplier effect. The real aim is to drum up fear.

It was the broader public relations campaign and the broader support in sections of the media that really made the difference,” Turnbull told The Power Index. “You can’t be rational about fear, because people are frightened about all sorts of things … It’s like people being frightened of the dark; their imagination takes over. The more the fear grows the more people respond to it. “

Without media and PR collaboration, corporate campaigns can be thoroughly ineffective — the hundreds of millions dollars spent by the Koch brothers in last year’s US presidential race had next to no effect.

There is very little clear evidence that these campaigns are decisive. The most successful campaigns are the ones that tend to be run long term outside the election campaign. There’s an old adage in politics that just at the point when you’re getting absolutely sick and tired of saying something there’s a vague possibility the public is starting to listen,” said Turnbull.

Of course, the peak bodies aren’t just involved in pointy-end campaigns around election time. Over 600 individual lobbyists working for 293 separate lobbying firms are recorded on the federal government’s lobbyist register, and about 4000 undisclosed “in-house” agitators swarm around Capital Hill to get in the ear of politicians and advisers.

All of the major corporate lobbyists contacted by The Power Index either declined to comment or failed to respond to questions over strategy this time round — Minerals Council spinner and former John Howard adviser Ben Mitchell issued a blunt “pass”, while Clubs Australia, which arguably scared the government into drafting Slipper as speaker to jettison Andrew Wilkie, declined to comment because they “don’t have plans” to undertake pre-election advertising. The Financial Services Council also stayed mum.

Still, with 15 weeks to polling day, only a fool would rule the lobbyist threat out, especially in the unlikely event Julia Gillard manages to recapture the public’s imagination by forging a popular front against the private interests her deputy famously damned in his Monthly essay as inimical to the general will.

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