If there’s one thing that Veep, Thank You For Smoking and The West Wing have taught us about political lobbyists, it’s that they’re crafty.
Of course, the fact they have taught us that is a problem for those lobbyists. Now, we know their tricks. We’ve peeked inside the top hat and seen the rabbit was there the whole time.
Lobbyists are shrewd, of course. They know the jig is up. So, like fast-evolving bacteria circumventing the latest antibiotic, they’ve developed a number of new attack mechanisms — ways to charm and disarm sceptical pollies, as well as the general public, to convince us the people they work for really are a bunch of nice guys.
Here are four of the most common techniques lobbyists use:
We’re not doing it anymore
Are you an organisation that has a business model reliant on harming people? Chances are, you’ve got a public image problem. One simple solution is to make it clear that you aren’t doing the thing you are known for anymore. Take tobacco giant Philip Morris, for example. A current parliamentary inquiry into red tape in the tobacco industry is largely focused on the legal grey area that exists for e-cigarettes.
Naturally, the smoking companies are closely watching this inquiry. But Mark Powell, public policy manager at Philip Morris, probably over-egged it a bit when trying to make the case for relaxing the laws around e-cigarettes. Speaking to the committee last month, Powell said that the company had made a “dramatic decision”:
“We are building our future on smoke-free products that are a much better choice than cigarette smoking. Indeed, our vision for all of us at Philip Morris is that these reduced-risk products will one day replace cigarettes. Why are we doing this? Because we should. We understand the millions of men and women who smoke cigarettes. They are looking for less harmful alternatives to smoking. We will give them that choice. We have a commitment to our employees and our shareholders. We will fulfil that commitment by pursuing this long-term vision for success. Society expects us to act responsibly, and we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future.”
I don’t know her
The other option is to set up a separate organisation that looks innocuous but essentially advocates for the same thing as your original organisation. The Australian Christian Lobby has handed over much of its government lobbying to a separate organisation — the Human Rights Law Alliance — a group that takes on legal cases for people who believe their religious freedom has been trampled upon.
While the ACL doesn’t exactly hide this association, it is clear that the tactics the organisation uses are very different to the ACL. Human Rights Law Alliance (HRLA) focuses squarely on legal arguments and the context around human rights law. For example, in the parliamentary inquiry into religious freedom, the group argued that the Australian Human Rights Commission should be overhauled and religion as a human right should be given more attention, and not — as it is now — fall under the responsibility of a single commissioner (Ed Santow) who also has responsibility for LGBTI equality. And rather than arguing — as the ACL often does — for more legislation, the Human Rights Law Alliance wants laws repealed, specifically, anti-discrimination law. HRLA’s managing director Martyn Illes:
“Many antidiscrimination laws do not adequately acknowledge and protect other human rights from incursion. The overlegislation of a single right is out of step with international human rights principles and is therefore a threat to the healthy protection and expression of human rights in Australia, including freedom of religion and freedom of belief.”
The other way to do this is when someone from one organisation sets up a different organisation that performs, more or less, the same political function. Ex-Institute of Public Affairs director Ken Phillips, for example, went on to set up Independent Contractors Australia (ICA) — an economically liberal lobby group representing labour hire companies. Before his life in political office, former Family First senator Bob Day was the founding president of ICA — while also owning a string of home-building companies and being involved in several other right-wing organisations, including the Centre for Independent Studies and the HR Nicholls Society.
Phillips also has a subsidiary for the Independent Contractors Australia — Owner Drivers Australia — established specifically for issues of owner-drivers.
Other groups with innocuous-sounding names that represent conservative interests include the Samuel Griffiths Society, the Centre for Independent Studies, Menzies House, the Conservative Leadership Organisation (before Cory Bernardi established Australian Conservatives) and the HR Nicholls society.
All in the family
You can almost guarantee now that if a lobby group has the word “family” in its name, it is the front for an extreme right-wing Christian conservative group. One such group that made a submission to the religious freedom inquiry calls itself Family Life International, but its website makes clear that it has strong ties to the Catholic Church, and its patron is Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous — the archbishop targeted over an anti-same-sex marriage leaflet.
This group also has a unique approach to arguing its case around harassing women outside abortion clinics. Rather than going for the usual argument that banning protesting outside abortion clinics is hurting freedom of speech, they claim that it is impacting their religious freedom.
“Belief in the sanctity of human life in the womb is a religious belief supported by medical science and that it is therefore, to be understood as an expression of the freedom of religion or belief. The manifestation of this religious belief in public takes the form of prayers, hymns and support offered to women in a crisis who are contemplating abortion. It is a violation of the freedom of religion or belief by stifling dissenting opinions and prayers in the public space surrounding abortion facilities by the imposition of draconian laws including so called ‘safe access’ zones as in Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT.”
Do you know of any more? Let us know.