The election of an Abbott government has led to an influx of Liberal-aligned lobbyists to Canberra. Matthew Knott profiles the biggest players — and it turns out they’re not all getting along.
Kevin Rudd has yet to hand Tony Abbott the keys to the Lodge, but the Coalition’s thumping election victory has already led to a major re-alignment among Canberra’s influence-peddlers.
On Monday, Hawker Britton — the Labor-friendly lobby firm co-founded by Rudd svengali Bruce Hawker — vacated its spacious office in the National Press Club in Canberra. The premises have been taken over by Hawker Britton’s sister firm, the Liberal-aligned firm Barton Deakin which is also owned by communications giant STW. Hawker Britton has shifted to Barton Deakin’s old digs on Sydney Avenue, in a building shared with Labor’s national secretariat.
The office swap signals a deeper shift already underway in Canberra as lobbyists, industry associations and special interest groups adapt to the change in government. Those who have relied on Labor connections to influence policy are re-assessing their teams; the smartest operators, sensing a change of government, have already done so. Former Coalition politicians and political staffers, languishing on the outer until recently, are now in high demand.
There are 587 lobbyists in Canberra representing 1600 clients and raking in $75 million in annual revenue, according to lobbying firm CapitalHill Advisory.
The most obvious loser from Abbott’s victory is Hawker Britton, led in Canberra by former Labor staffer Simon Banks. Hawker Britton has dominated the Canberra lobbying scene since the 2007 election; it has 97 clients on the federal lobbysists’ register (more than any other firm, but already down from 113 in April). That number will drop dramatically as clients seek to cosy up to a conservative government.
“Hawker Britton will shrink in size because a lot of firms want to deal with the side of politics that’s in power,” Banks, who will remain on board, told Crikey. “We anticipate a raft of Coalition-aligned firms will expand their presence in Canberra.”
Many of Hawker Britton’s clients are expected to transfer to Barton Deakin, the Liberal-friendly firm set up by former NSW opposition leader Peter Collins in 2009. Barton Deakin’s top man in Canberra is Grahame Morris, an eccentric former chief-of-staff to John Howard who famously called for Julia Gillard to be kicked to death.
Morris expects his phone to ring hot over coming days. “Over the past two months there have been a lot of people who have either come on board or said, ‘Let’s talk after the election’,” he told Crikey. “We are certainly busy.”
Barton Deakin’s pitch is simple: “We are national, we are Coalition-aligned, we have senior people in each capital city who have been party leaders, mayors, chiefs-of-staff,” Morris said. He was recently joined in Canberra by former Canberra Times economic editor and Peter Costello adviser David Alexander.
But Barton Deakin won’t have the field to themselves. Coalition-friendly operators have quietly been setting up shop in Canberra over recent months, and others will soon join them.
One of them is likely to be Crosby Textor, the firm led by Liberal pollster Mark Textor. Crosby Textor wound back its presence in Canberra after John Howard’s 2007 defeat — the firm currently has no clients on the lobbyist register — but is expected to re-enter the game in a big way. When asked about his lobbying plans, Textor told Crikey: “Watch this space.” He’s already positioning himself against his opposition.
“While firms such as Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin live and die by their politics, others position themselves as bipartisan operators who can deal with both Labor and Liberal governments.”
“Grahame [Morris] had no role in the campaign so it’s hard to imagine he’ll have any influence at all,” Textor said. “‘The days of people winking and nodding and saying ‘I’ve got influence’ are over. Today, clients want people with campaigning and research expertise.”
Another well-resourced firm with impeccable Liberal connections is CapitalHill Advisory, registered in March by NSW Liberal powerbroker Michael Photios. CapitalHill has a team of former Howard staffers including Nick Campbell, Claire Dawson, Chris Stone and Kate Blunden.
“We’re all basically from Coalition backgrounds,” said Campbell, the firm’s chairman. “We do describe ourselves as a Coalition-aligned firm.”
Campbell is hoping for a friendlier approach to business — and their spruikers — from an Abbott government.
“One of the faults of the Rudd and Gillard governments was they stopped listening to a range of stakeholders,” he said. “The consultation before major policy decisions was not thorough. Good government is about having maximum inputs into the policy process so government can make the best possible decision.”
Peter Costello’s boutique lobbying firm, ECG Advisory Solutions, is another to watch. Former Costello advisers David Gazard and Jonathan Epstein are on board as directors, and ECG already boasts Wesfarmers, Westpac and Serco Asia Pacific on its list of clients.
Former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer remains a partner at Bespoke Approach, the firm he co-founded with former Jeff Kennett adviser Ian Smith and Labor minister Nick Bolkus. Howard government finance minister Nick Minchin recently joined Bespoke, which lobbies for a small, but high-powered, set of clients including Xstrata.
While firms such as Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin live and die by their politics, others position themselves as bipartisan operators who can deal with both Labor and Liberal governments. These include Government Relations Australia, whose staffers span the political divide and which boasts a client list of 51. The firm recently brought on former Howard government minister Helen Coonan as a co-chair, alongside former Labor Treasurer John Dawkins.
Bipartisan firm Kreab Gavin Anderson still has 39 clients on the lobbyists register — including Santos, BlueScope Steel and Australia Post — but has been damaged by the mass departure of staff to a breakaway firm. Newgate, staffed mainly by former KGA employees, already has Google and the Commonwealth Bank on its client list.
Controversial Howard-era senator Santo Santoro, who quit after a share-trading scandal, will also be hoping to expand his small list of federal clients following a Coalition victory.
Hawker Britton’s Simon Banks expects a raft of individuals touting Liberal connections to set up shop in Canberra — and quickly fade away. “In 2007 a whole bunch of Labor-aligned firms sought to establish a presence in Canberra. We found they rapidly burnt off; one by one we saw a good half of our competitors fall by the wayside on our first term. Those who operated on a fly-in fly-out basis or who had their heavy hitters in other states with junior people in Canberra didn’t succeed,” he said.