In theory, Heather Ridout shouldn’t be near the top of our lobbyist list. Manufacturing — her power base — is in decline, and her organisation Ai Group is by no means the biggest or most representative employer group out there.
Yet, by sheer force of personality and bloody hard work, she’s become the voice of business in Canberra. Politicians respect her, the media can’t get enough of her and her fellow lobbyists talk about her as if she’s a saint.
“As far as I can see, she’s a paradigm of virtue,” Bruce Hawker, founder of the lobbying firm Hawker Britton, tells The Power Index. “She’s one of the most proper people I’ve ever met in my life.”
Liberal Party adviser turned lobbyist Ian Smith describes her as “entirely successful” while Simon Banks, a chief of staff to three Labor leaders, singles her out as the country’s “standout” third-party lobbyist.
Ridout has sat on more policy advisory committees than possibly anyone else since Labor came into office. She’s currently on four influential panels dealing with skills training, infrastructure, manufacturing and workplace relations.
She was also a member of the Henry Tax Review, the Business Roundtable on Climate Change and the government’s Population Strategy Task Force.
That’s not the only reason she’s been nick-named “Heather Everywhere”. Come budget time, she’s the only business leader journalists want to interview. Throughout the year, she’s a regular on programs like Q&A, Meet the Press and Radio National Breakfast. Her byline often features on the opinion pages of the nation’s most influential newspapers.
Remarkably, she’s managed to present herself as above politics and above sectional interest. No-one dismisses her as “Ridout the rent-seeker”, even though her modus operandi is getting a better deal for her members, mostly manufacturing and construction companies.
So does she wield too much clout?
“I don’t accept the argument that we have too much influence,” Ridout tells The Power Index. “We exercise it in a very balanced and thoughtful way. We’re a pretty significant organisation and we work very hard. We always turn up and we turn up with prepared submissions.”
(Although Ridout oozes self-confidence, she almost never uses the word “I”. She’s a team player and likes to be seen as one.)
Canberra insiders agree Ridout and her AiG colleagues have put their once powerful rivals to shame. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as one top lobbyist put it, is “seen very much as a branch office of the Liberal Party”, while the Business Council of Australia is widely perceived as carping and unconstructive.
Into this void has leapt Ridout, a stockbroker’s daughter from Deniliquin in south-western NSW. After graduating from an economics degree, her first job was working as a researcher for NSW Liberal senator Milivoj Lajovic. Right-wing powerbroker Nick Minchin was so impressed that he offered her a job, but she decided to take an offer from the Metal Trades Industry Association (later to morph into the Ai Group). Aged 23, she was the only woman at the MTIA with a degree; the other women working there were secretaries. In 2004, the mother-of-two was appointed Ai Group CEO.
As the Howard era drew to a close, she faced one the biggest decisions of her career: whether or not to join a business-funded pro-WorkChoices advertising campaign. She chose not to — a call that worked wonders for her reputation with the ALP.