Simon Banks understands the Labor Party better than any other lobbyist. He’s worked on five ALP federal election campaigns, was Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff and helped broker the deal between the independents and the Gillard government. He also has no known enemies — a remarkable feat given his party’s reputation for factional infighting.
Grahame Morris, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to John Howard, says: “Most people like Simon. He doesn’t have a list of people who can’t stand him which is unusual.”
Baby-faced and blue-eyed, Banks heads up the Canberra office of Hawker Britton — an unashamedly pro-Labor lobbying firm that morphs into a campaigning machine at election time. Hawker Britton has a whopping 150 clients on the federal lobbyists register — twice as many as its closest competitor, the bipartisan firm Government Relations Australia.
Dressed in a navy blue polo shirt and brown slacks, Banks cut a relaxed figure when The Power Index interviewed him at his favourite Manuka coffee shop. But he’s one busy man. He usually works on a dozen client briefs at once — everything from Foreign Investment Review Board applications to pharmaceutical companies trying to get on the PBS.
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But although business is booming, Banks isn’t the man for everyone.
Some rival firms snipe at Hawker Britton for not having enough staff to give their clients specialised policy attention. Many companies also see bipartisan lobbyists as a better long-term option because they can work with either of the major parties. If you want to take the Labor government on over a policy, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
“He knows people, he’s personable, he’s intelligent, he acts with integrity — there’s no problem with Simon,” says a senior lobbyist with strong Labor ties. “But he’s a door opener and he helps facilitate meetings with politicians. He doesn’t necessarily develop a more comprehensive approach to managing an issue. He doesn’t do media management or messaging.”
Banks, 44, admits there are disadvantages to being such an overtly partisan operative.
“At the point where a client is sufficiently upset with government that they want to run a campaign against them we just say, ‘Look, that’s not what we do’. We’re very happy to recommend firms that run that style of operation,” he said. “We wouldn’t have the number of clients we do unless they were happy with the work we’re doing on their behalf.”
A Canberra native and lawyer by training, Banks has shuttled back and forth between politics and the private sector during his career. Although Bruce Hawker describes him as someone who’s “never aspired to be a politician”, Banks says he did toy with the idea during his days as a young Labor activist. But it soon became obvious he belonged in the back room. He’s calm, he’s considered — colourless even, the unkind would say.
He ran the Australian Republican Movement’s ACT campaign at the 1999 referendum before working as a consultant for Telstra and Toll Holdings. Stints as chief of staff, or deputy chief of staff, for Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd then followed. You’ve got to have pretty impressive people skills to work so closely with such different characters.
After managing the universally-praised Kevin07 campaign, Banks jumped straight into lobbying for Hawker Britton.