Come in Spinner: On the road to Canberra

Many years ago I asked a friend, who had been an in-house lobbyist with a mining company among other things, why he thought our company was being fairly successful despite its idiosyncratic staff. He replied that it may have been a case of poachers making the best gamekeepers.

The exchange came to mind again when Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett’s book on lobbying was launched. Now I have to say I haven’t read it yet, and probably won’t, but for those who might, it’s called Making a Difference: A practical guide to lobbying published by Connor Court with an introduction by Tim Costello. All proceeds go to Juvenile Diabetes Research before anyone gets upset about a Senator potentially gaining from writing a book about how to lobby Senators and others.

Given that Guy is a devout Christian and an ex-lobbyist it could be characterised as a bit of a Saul on the road to Damascus trip (well not trip given his attitudes to drugs but you know what I mean), but he actually has some interesting things to say. Chief among them is that the current government lobbying rules are a mess. Speaking to The Age about the book he points out that there are no penalties for breaches; it’s an in-house job monitoring the code rather than independently managed; it only covers third parties and doesn’t cover those who lobby for their employer or organisation; and it excludes beneficiaries of significant tax exemption largesse from governments such as charities and religious organisations.

He also discusses the balance between restrictions on lobbying MPs (as opposed to Ministers and public servants) and their rights to carry on with their normal activities as MPs. On balance, given the UK and US experience, my belief is that the more restrictions the better.

Old-style lobbying is virtually dead. Ringing up mates to get something fixed still has some relevance in NSW but elsewhere in Australia it is nearing its use-by-date, mainly because it is getting harder and everyone is terrified of getting caught. Nevertheless, it is not dead yet and one has to admire how lobbyists still manage to sell their services. One very large Australian listed company was persuaded by a well-known lobbyist to employ him to lobby the PM, even though the MD has been told on a number of occasions that if he rings personally the PM will pick up the phone.

We all pay lip-service to the new models of lobbying – emphasis on policy development, working with public servants to shape recommendations, using think tanks to develop ideas, employing polling to test whether ideas will be popular.

But the fundamental problem remains: people with influence and money have much better access than ordinary Australians and interest groups (such as NGOs.) The NGOs – not all of whom are saintly of course – normally get side-lined into ‘consultation processes’ which are set up as sops to suggest that government has listened. Real players get to sit and talk with Ministers and senior public servants in meaningful relationships.

If you are reading crikey you know this. But frankly I’m not sure what the answer is and I suspect that many readers are the same. Strict campaign contribution limits – both in terms of who and how much – would help. A comprehensive code which covers all players would also be good. A variation on the UK FOI situation where agencies and public servants are required to publish details of who they met, when and in what circumstances would be a giant step forward. The UK’s Private Eye has regular stories providing delightful details of how government agencies in charge of probity in various areas seem to find it appropriate to accept magnificent, expensive meals from those they are regulating. Details of which Ministers met with which groups and individuals might be seen as an invasion of privacy or raising commercial-in-confidence issues but would bring much-needed transparency to the process. After all Vice President, Dick Cheney, had very good reason to fight to prevent the public knowing who from the energy industries he had met when developing the administration’s energy policy. Which Ministers tell which journalists things anonymously, would also be a good guide to why specific stories are used and why they are slanted in specific ways.

In this respect it is interesting that journalists often talk about the media’s right to know. I’ve never seen why the media has a particular or special right to know over and above any other lifestyle, entertainment or commercial industry. But the public does have a right to know and the technology to access the information is freely available. Some of the reforms above would make it easier and more accessible.

Iola Mathews’ book on how to use the media was an invaluable source of information about how to do it for many not-for-profits and not a few PR people and students. Guy’s book will probably be very successful for the same reason – de-mystifying the arcane processes which shape what we hear, see and think and how we are governed is a good thing.

RITUAL DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST: Guy Barnett once approached me about buying his lobbying company. We didn’t. And, of course, I should mention that before I retired there was some profit for me in the mystique being maintained – particularly before someone highlights the hypocrisy of  doing the circle from poacher to gamekeeper and then back to poacher.