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Looking at the who, what, and why of lobbyists

They're everywhere in Canberra, but how much influence do lobbyists really have?

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If you look closely enough wandering around Australian Parliament House, you will see men — and it’s mostly men — in suits and orange lanyards mingling in the courtyards and drinking coffee around cafe tables.

The orange lanyards signify that they are lobbyists — third-party lobbyists with free access to the private areas of Parliament House. A few of them are more like consultants — they don’t do much lobbying themselves, but advise lobbyists and clients on how to lobby more effectively. Their names are on the official Lobbyists Register, these days maintained by the Attorney-General’s Department. There are currently 586 people in over 260 firms on the register.

The reality of modern policymaking is that those affected by policy — stakeholders, in bureaucratic parlance — devote considerable resources to influencing it, trying to get the ear of politicians and bureaucrats to shape legislation and regulations to better serve their interests. And the more tightly they are regulated, the more they will seek to shape that regulation. They may be big corporations, industry peak bodies, unions, charities, or NGOs. Lobbyists are the primary mechanism to do that. As the Australian Professional Government Relations Association points out: anyone can have a meeting with a politician, but some use experts and that’s where lobbyists step in. They understand that they’re representing vested interests. “Mother Theresa didn’t need her own lobbyist, her work spoke for itself,” one lobbyist quipped. 

In a quiet part of Parliament House, a lobbyist leans back into a couch and explains to INQ that lobbying isn’t the dark art many think it is. He wanted to remain anonymous because he said there was no purpose to him being in the media. While according to him nothing sinister goes on, he says some lobbyists did go to bars where staffers hung out and made informal representations — “but it’s not something I do”. And, true, go to a bar in Canberra’s inner south on Wednesday nights, where political staffers and politicians knock off after work on sitting weeks and down a few drinks, and you might be able to spot a lobbyist or two chatting to the mostly white, mostly male, and mostly socially awkward decision makers.

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But most claim a strong sense of ethics. “I’ve never worked for a company where I’ve been in any way ashamed of the outcome … [I have not] used methods that were underhanded. I won’t go do something I don’t believe in and I won’t go and do something I think, straight away, it’s not going to work. And I won’t use methods that would potentially damage me.” Some of those damaging methods include lobbyists threatening to go after a politician. 

Much of the work of lobbyists lies in maintaining relationships and understanding what’s important to politicians. Each morning on his way to work, Sydney-based lobbyist Matthew Hingerty tunes into 2GB radio station to listen to shock jock Alan Jones to find out what the hot topics of the day are. He knows Sydney’s radio programming by the minute and it’s essential to his job as a political lobbyist to be abreast of Australian politics. When he arrives at the Sydney office of government relations and lobbying firm Barton Deakin in the heart of the CBD, Sky News is switched on, and it stays on for the rest of the day.

For Hingerty, attention to the news is habitual. He was a former federal political staffer earlier in his career. Now he is the CEO of Barton Deakin, a firm composed primarily of former Coalition staffers. A working day includes setting up meetings with ministers and politicians, and presenting information to them, including research by the companies and organisations they represent. “There’s lots of meetings with clients, with stakeholders, a lot of phone calls — a lot of it is mundane,” said Hingerty. Barton Deakin, one of the biggest firms in the country, represents 77 clients, including Apple, Atlassian, National Home Doctor Service, MS Research Australia, McDonald’s and Amazon.

“To the layperson it all sounds very reasonable that all contact between lobbyists and … MPs and bureaucrats should be written down but 90% of what we do is routine black and white stuff — checking up clarifications on government policy announcements, secretarial stuff, preparing for meetings.”

For lobbyists, some clients are on retainer, and others come on board for a single project. Either way, most lobbyists don’t accompany their clients into meetings. Some lobbyists deal with ministers and staff directly themselves; others are more like coaches who show clients how the system works, and how best to make their case to key decision-makers. Lobbyists know how to make their case quickly and succinctly in ministers’ offices, which are almost absurdly busy, especially when parliament is sitting. Hingerty, who was a staffer for former Liberal MP Joe Hockey and later NSW minister George Souris, says in his political days that he would always put a lobbyist’s request for a meeting at the top of the pile. “Why would I do that? Because I knew they weren’t going to waste my minister’s time. I knew that the client didn’t have to be in the room. I knew they’d be pre-prepared, they knew what they wanted to say.”

Clients themselves are another story. “There is nothing worse [than when] somebody comes through the door, they’ve got flipcharts, graphs, and they waste time with small talk … and you’re already behind time. A good lobbyist will ring ahead and say ‘hey, this is what my client wants to speak to you about just so you can be ready’. You know you’re going to get the most value from the meeting.”

More than half of in-house lobbyists, according to Guardian Australia, have a history within political parties or government, and a quarter were once staffers. Hingerty believes previous history with politics is what makes a good lobbyist. “I think you need to have a level of maturity and seniority, you need to have been in and around government for a period of time just so you can understand it and you don’t waste the time of your client and ministers and shadow ministers.”

“Business doesn’t quite get the language of government, and government doesn’t quite get the language of business,” said Hingerty, reflecting a common sentiment among lobbyists who see themselves as translators and middlemen.

Peter Fray

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