Toby Ralph has no office, no job title and no qualms about spinning for the forces of darkness.
He’s a “mercenary” and a “bounty hunter” one PR veteran tells us; he’s “to the right of Ghengis Khan” says another.
Tobacco companies, the nuclear waste industry and banks wanting to kill off the four pillars policy are some of the flamboyant freelancer’s controversial past clients.
“I like working for things where people’s first reaction is to say: ‘that’s wrong’,” the Liberal party campaign veteran tells The Power Index over a bottle of Shiraz. “I’ll work for anyone who pays me. I’m a taxi: flag me down and I’ll take you wherever you want to go.
“I’m appalling but at least I know I’m appalling.”
If you watched Gruen Planet last year you’ll probably remember him: Ralph was the bloke in a black skivvy with a razor-sharp wit and a lisp that’d make Ita Buttrose blush.
Renowned for his skills as a hatchet man, Ralph worked as a strategist on two of last year’s most explosive political issues: the live export trade and the battle over the Murray-Darling Basin.
When Four Corners aired a story last June on the mistreatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia, a coalition of interest groups including the National Farmers’ Federation and Meat and Livestock Australia hired him for advice. The industry lobby couldn’t avoid an initial ban, but it did manage to have it lifted after only a month, a result that angered animal rights activists and the Labor Left.
Over the past year, Ralph has also been running a campaign for the Basin Communities Association (BCA), a collective of irrigators, farmers and locals opposed to big government water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin. The group has become a key player in the water reform debate, despite environmentalists slamming it as a front group for big business.
So far, Ralph says, the BCA campaign has been “incredibly measured”. That will change if the group’s members don’t get what they want.
“Hopefully we won’t get to a campaign, but if we have to we will,” he says. “I have made direct political threats to people [in the past]. I’ve done it with both sides of politics.”
Ralph declined to discuss specific work with past clients, citing confidentiality agreements.
However, The Power Index understands, from sources close to the campaign, that Ralph was intimately involved in an aggressive effort by the National Australia Bank to convince the Howard government to allow it to merge with ANZ. Millions of dollars were spent, detailed polling was conducted and advertisements were made, but the bid was abandoned when ANZ pulled out.
In 2007, the Australian Constructors Association hired him to develop a strategy to unleash a “politically damaging campaign” against Labor unless it watered down its opposition to WorkChoices. The plan was shelved when Labor agreed to postpone its plans to abolish the building industry watchdog.
Despite a 20-year association with the Liberal Party — Ralph worked on all of John Howard’s election campaigns — he’s adamant that he’s not “even slightly” political. His work for the Libs, he says, is just another gig.
“I’m far more interested in business than politics,” he claims. “If you want to influence public policy you can probably do it a lot more powerfully outside of parliament than inside. Business has money and time and focus and strategic intent and will commit to a 10-year plan. Politics is so immediate and you have to make so many compromises.”