When I entered the wonderful world of the lobbyist nearly 40 years ago, helping the Japanese External Trade Relations Organisation (JETRO) navigate the mire of tariff protection, there was no point in going along and having a chat with the Minister. Sir John “Black Jack” McEwen might have negotiated an Australia-Japan trade agreement but he was a dedicated protectionist when it came to industry policy. If the dreaded Nips wanted a tariff reduced they could fight their own battle through the Tariff Board.
Which at least gave JETRO, and its adviser, an occasional sporting chance for the public service back in those 1960s was still an independent and apolitical body. Public servants got their jobs working in bodies like the Tariff Board on merit not on an assessment of the extent to which their administration and policy advice would fit in with the views of their ministerial head. Tariff reports thus regularly created tension between the advisory body and McEwen. Lobbyists could occasionally have a win because of the strength of the case they presented and when the forces of protectionist darkness intervened with the minister to override a Tariff Board recommendation it was at least transparent that they had done so.
Over the years since then the art of the lobbyist has changed considerably as practitioners have adapted to the dramatic change in the nature of the public service. No longer is there a career public service where departmental heads are permanent and chosen from a list, based on merit, submitted to Cabinet by an independent Public Service Board. Now they are employed on contracts after being chosen with their political leanings dominant among the selection criteria. Any departmental secretary who does not bend easily to the wishes of a minister is replaced. Ministers now have their own personally appointed advisers working in their office to cajole public servants and second guess them where necessary.
It is not only that the Australian system has become more presidential with increased power to a Prime Minister. The power of ordinary ministers has increased as well. Even when I stopped working as a lobbyist a decade ago, it was still advisable to try and persuade the public servants at the level where the policy you wanted adopted would be carried out that your case had merit. There was still a slight fear of being exposed, and thus defeated, by going straight to a ministerial mate with something the public servants thought was not advisable.
After a decade of the Howard Government the need to cultivate the thorough and decent public servants working on policy matters is no longer relevant. Their promotional opportunities depend on the whims of the departmental heads whose contracts depend on their ministers. A lobbyist these days can win by going straight to the top. Which is wonderful news for people with connections but hardly good news for the system of government.
What is so interesting about the influence of Brian Burke in the way that Western Australia is run is that the way cronyism works has been brought in to public gaze. The lunches and dinners, threats and campaign donations are not unique to the West. They are the new weapons of the lobbyist throughout the Australian system of government that have replaced the old method of research and hard work.
And therein lies a danger for John Howard as he seeks to tag Labor Leader Kevin Rudd as somehow not being fit to be Prime Minister because he met three times with a lobbyist who once went to jail. Close associates of the PMs are thick on the ground in Canberra peddling their client’s wares because they have privileged access. Rudd will not be the hard nosed politician his dealings with Burke suggest he is if he does not probe away at the propriety of the way the Coalition Government does business with them.