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The secret life of lobbyists

Why do some lobby groups get the audiences they want while others go home empty-handed? Colin Jacobs, a former staffer to Senator Richard Di Natale, explains the tricks of the trade.

As the 12 new senators who took their seats last week are finding out, being a member of Parliament brings with it both perks and liabilities. Along with the comcar, a plush seat inside the chamber and the discreet lapel pin (red for senators, green for reps) that all 226 MPs receive comes another certainty: a steady stream of lobbyists through the door. I witnessed this during three years as a political staffer dealing with lobbyists of all stripes.

The return on your lobbying dollar starts with getting in the MP’s door. The most reliable way to get a meeting is to know somebody within the MPs or minister’s office and call in a personal favour. This is a key reason why former staffers make such attractive recruits to government relations agencies, especially those with contacts inside the current government. (The door swings both ways, by the way — lobbyists also show up on ministerial staffs.) Other tactics employed by the pros include holding morning teas, meals or cocktail events in Parliament House.

A lobbyist can often get an appointment for themselves or a client merely by virtue of representing a powerful or important group, but when that fails they have other plans of attack. When a professional lobbyist asks for “five or 10 minutes” they generally mean it, and that can be harder for a diary manager to refuse. Although any stakeholder prefers a meeting with a member of Parliament, the professionals have a good appreciation for the role of staff and show that appreciation by asking for a meeting with an adviser, even just for a coffee at Aussie’s. And who doesn’t need a coffee by afternoon on a sitting day?

During a meeting you can also see lobbying professionalism at work. Lobbyists are efficient, make it clear who they represent, and have an actionable request to make of the minister or member. They have the key facts ready, which as a rule relate to how tough the industry is doing, the number of jobs at stake, and the economic costs of “uncertainty”. They hand over reading material no longer than is likely to get read, which may mean just half a page of key points — no glossy annual reports to languish in an adviser’s in-tray. They offer to help with any work that needs to be done including research, writing a speech, or preparing briefs. If the lobbyist is there with a client, they sit patiently while the industry representative (and who doesn’t belong to an “industry” nowadays?) makes their case, but will pipe up when necessary to keep things on topic and moving along.

The key thing, though, that separates the heavy-hitters from the amateurs is a keen understanding of political power. One often sees real reluctance to rock the boat from civic society groups. They fear losing government funding or their seat at the table. Often they are worried about appearing overly partisan. They are more likely to be satisfied with getting some meetings in Parliament House, hearing encouraging words from MPs, and going home hoping for the best.

Contrast this to vested interests and the lobbyists they can afford to hire. They have done their homework. They know the numbers — on the crossbenches, inside the caucus, and in the marginals — and who has the most influence on the outcome they seek. They’ve done polling. They make it clear, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, how many people they can reach and what the costs of inaction will be. They are happy to be partisan when it helps their cause but make it clear that support is only as good as the party’s last statement on the issue. And they have the means to back it up; carrots in terms of contributions, sticks in terms of ability to mount a negative campaign.

There’s nothing necessarily evil about understanding this power and wielding it carefully, but doing so requires expertise, and finesse and that does not come cheap. Lobbyists like the Minerals Council or Clubs Australia aren’t worried that making trouble will bring revenge from the government. They are ensuring, by causing as much pain as they can, that everyone in Parliament knows any further moves in the wrong direction will come at a cost. A calculated, political cost.

And that is the currency in which the professional lobbyists prefer to deal.

6
  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Thanx for this informative piece. Of course rarely can civil society groups afford polling or justify spending money on polling.

  • 2
    bluepoppy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Yes an interesting insight into lobbying. Australia has moved well away from a grass roots to vested interest policy in many respects. Let’s hope more politicians find courage to do what is ultimately in the best interests of people.

  • 3
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Well done Colin. This article passes the acid test.
    I’m better informed after reading it.

  • 4
    Peter McArdle
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    An interesting and fairly accurate article by Colin Jacobs.
    I spent many years as a lobbyist (I leave to others to judge my effectiveness).
    I was often frustrated by NGOs and other worthy causes who came to Canberra to lobby without understanding the fundamentals.
    Lobbying is like selling a used car. One tells the potential buyer why buying the used car would be good for them, not why one needs to sell the used car. In lobbying, one needs to be able to tell the government why doing something (such as spending money in a particular way) would be good for the government. Governments are no more interested in why you need the money than the buyer is interested in why you need to sell the used car. Many worthy causes fail to have an impact, usually defined as getting some money, because they do not understand the motivations and priorities of the political folks that they are lobbying. Homework is fundamental for any successful sales pitch. Lobbying is no different.

  • 5
    Ray Butler
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    The idea the system works on is that a strong economy translates to progressive standards of living across the board, although this is true to a degree it is more a bi-product of a strong economy, not a goal, the financial sectors are seeking out encouragement to invest and that means they are forever pushing to mitigate this bi-product, to them it is a consequence not a benefit.

    So social and environmental deregulations are heavily sought after in order to augment the bottom-line of investors, to encourage their business ventures, but the only real point of a strong economy is how it helps society, which they are driving contrary to.

    Some times an economic interest has enough to stand on to come independently but a lot of the time they come in through power brokers, notably the Mainstream Media, because Democracy works only when a politician is promoted to the public, and the most effective way is through the media, so if a politician wants to be promoted they need to do deals with the media giants, and those giants sell that influence to the financial sector that seek their agenda.

  • 6
    Ray Butler
    Posted Monday, 4 August 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Ultimately privatised media, notably journalism, is contrary to Democracy and social/environmental progress, as it decides the information furnished to the public and generally that information is based on profiteering, so we see sensationalism and entertainment value for ratings and advertisement and often strait up propaganda with cherry-picked or misinformation that promotes that agenda.

    Journalism is a public service and should be treated as such; where ratings and funding does not taint the integrity of delivery, if anything any kind of bonus should come from the quality of journalism not from exploiting public weakness.

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