If you want to know about the dark arts of spin and lobbying, you’ve got to know about Ian Smith, or Smithy as he’s universally known. Once a media adviser to Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, the ex-journalist used to run one of Australia’s largest PR firms. Nowadays, he works behind the scenes to help some of the world’s biggest companies gain a foothold in the Australian market.
“He’s a very charming, street smart, ambitious power player,” says Smith’s former flatmate and colleague Stephen Mayne.
“He loves political leverage and has an ability to insert himself into power situations … Ian Kortlang [a well-known PR consultant] used to say that for Smithy it’s all about lust, leverage and dollars.”
Smith is the driving force behind Bespoke Approach — a boutique lobbying firm he set up in 2008 with former cabinet ministers Alexander Downer and Nick Bolkus. He says the pair, who had rarely spoken to each other before going in to business together, posess insights that are “highly saleable and highly beneficial to companies”. Downer, of course, was John Howard’s foreign affairs minister while Bolkus served as immigration minister under Paul Keating.
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“I felt the advice that high-ranking politicians could give wasn’t being recognised enough,” the UK import tells The Power Index in an accent betraying his Surrey roots. “If you went to the US the Kissingers, the Albrights and the Scowcrofts were all running these businesses and were very much a part of the corporate landscape. I looked at how some of those firms in the US were running and thought that could be replicated here.”
With only 14 clients on the federal lobbyists register, Bespoke may not have one of the longest client lists but it does have one of the most impressive. We’re talking about big companies with big issues on their plate: Woodside Energy, Petrochina (the world’s second largest company by market capitalisation), Huweiwei Technologies (the world’s second largest exporter of telecom equipment), coal giant Xstrata and beer behemoth Fosters.
“The magnitude of the issues and the quality of the client book is something I’m particularly proud of,” Smith says.
He’s also chuffed that Bespoke has developed an alliance with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a major global strategy firm led by Bill Clinton’s former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. The partnership allows Bespoke to access high-level contacts in Washington, New York, Beijing, New Delhi and Sao Paulo.
So what have Smithy & co. actually achieved for their cashed up clients?
Xstrata, alongside BHP and Rio Tinto, is a chief beneficiary of the Gillard government’s watered down mining tax. The Swiss mining giant has also won environmental approval for its Wandoan coal project, planned to be the biggest coal mine in the Southern Hemisphere. As for PetroChina, it gained government approval last year for its $3.5 billion joint takeover of Arrow Energy Limited, Australia’s biggest coal seam gas developer.
But not even the best lobbyists win every battle.
Huawei Technologies, which has been linked to the Chinese government and military, is the only major supplier of telecom infrastructure yet to win a National Broadband Network contract. Bespoke stopped actively lobbying for the company in June after Downer took up a spot on the company’s Australian board.