While it may not be the oldest profession in the world, organised lobbying shares a similar image problem to the one most often associated with that tag. Lobbying has, in some company, become a dirty word, and nobody has yet applied for the job of lobbying for its redemption.
The Australian government’s Code of Conduct on lobbying describes it as ‘a legitimate activity and an important part of the democratic process’. There are countless examples of reasoned lobbying campaigns shaping good policy outcomes in areas as diverse as taxation, conservation and anti-discrimination. But rightfully or wrongfully, the reputation of the lobbying industry, more specifically the practice of paid lobbying, is wallowing in the badlands. There is a fixation on how much money is expended on lobbying and how much influence these so-called masters of the dark arts wield, often with little regard for the merits of an argument. The great challenge facing lobbyists and public officials is how to encourage more people to engage in the political process, rather than putting more hurdles in the way.
It is not a challenge confined to Australia. In 2013 the American League of Lobbyists changed its name to the Association of Government Relations Professionals. It saw the writing on the wall after Barack Obama took hardline measures to avoid the scandals that plagued the former Republican administration, and it reached for the sugar soap. Back home, a string of highprofile corruption hearings in New South Wales has cultivated a perception that any encounter between a paid lobbyist and a public official leads down a path to secret deals and acts of corruption. While claims of a minister falling asleep on a masseuse and the story of a premier being undone by a bottle of red wine make great media fodder, the everyday reality of most encounters between lobbyists and public officials is far less interesting and often more productive.
So should we care that lobbying is on the nose? Do we even need lobbying? The answer to both questions is an emphatic yes.
Contrary to some reports, lobbying is not a practice reserved for the top end of town to peddle influence for narrow benefit. It occurs on many levels and contributes to the development of policy settings covering every spectrum of society. Whether it is World Vision advocating for increased foreign aid, a solarpanel manufacturer promoting the virtues of renewable energy investment, or a neighbourhood traffic group calling for a new roundabout, lobbying will always involve one party attempting to influence the decisions and spending priorities of public officials. In a democracy, elected officials can’t do their job properly without this type of consultation.
Changes to legislation support changes to the way our society operates. State and federal ministers are rarely experts in their portfolio areas. They are not expected to be. Their job is responsibly to apportion the allocated budget for each portfolio area in line with government policy and public need. It is therefore incumbent on them to seek advice from departmental advisers and experts external to government.
Take the technology sector as an example. Google spent $16.8 million on lobbying in the United States last year. Amazon, Apple and Facebook also set new records, and the top fifteen tech companies spent just shy of $117 million on lobbying in 2014. This prompted Consumer Watchdog, a prominent lobby monitor, to lament that ‘Policymaking is now all about big bucks, not big ideas.’
The truth is that big ideas are not developed in a vacuum by politicians with little understanding of industry challenges and public views. When you consider the average age of representatives in the US Congress is sixty-three, the need for consultation with industry leaders in this fastest growing of all sectors becomes apparent. While age should never be viewed as a barrier to the adoption of technology, it is safe to assume few members of Congress have been at the forefront of technological innovation. Lobbying efforts in this space are as much about education as they are about persuasion. Combined with broader consultation, that translates into benefits across the community.
So what can be done to address the negative perception about lobbying and reinstate its original purpose as a channel that facilitates direct communication between policymakers and the community on matters of public interest? The answer lies, as it does in every other area of regulation, in strong guidelines, effective enforcement and transparent practice.
Public officials the world over are forever tinkering with rules of engagement for corporate lobbyists in the vain hope of perfecting a model that will be universally accepted as sufficiently robust. In the United States and Canada, statutory lobbying regimes cover external and in-house lobbyists and include sanctions from large fines to prison terms. In most Australian jurisdictions, the disclosure requirements for lobbyists are not as onerous, the penalties are less stringent and in-house lobbyists are not required to be registered.
Too much time has been spent on the potential for a handful of rogue operators to act improperly. Just like the rules governing political donations, there is an obligation on parties on both sides of the political divide to comply with lobbying rules. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, in the age of unprecedented access to information, those who flout the rules are dinosaurs that will soon become extinct by their own hand. The time is ripe to align our lobbying regulations with world’s best practice and get on with the job of governing without fear of constructive engagement with third parties, including lobbyists.
A change of approach from public officials is also required. Everyone has a right to engage with their elected representatives. With the technological tools at our disposal today, this type of dialogue should be easier than ever. Organisations such as GetUp!, whether they identify as lobbyists or not, have blazed a trail in using technology to help more people express a view on issues important to them. Ministers, MPs and local councillors need to embrace this opportunity and broaden their interaction with the community at all levels, rather than just talking at each other on Sky News. If they don’t get on board with this concept they will miss the bus and further lose relevance in the eyes of the community.
There will continue to be a role for corporate lobbyists as the interface between business and government, but they need to be smart about how they work. Progressive lobbyists have known this for some time. They are empowering their clients with the tools to engage more effectively with policymakers, using cogent, evidence-based arguments, rather than promising favours because of some old connection or relationship. Those days are nearing an end.
Lobbying will always present challenges in a democracy where the motives behind every decision are scrutinised with a cynical eye. But when conducted ethically and responsibly, lobbying has the ability to connect individuals and organisations to decision-makers and help them articulate their views. That is an outcome that surely promotes democratic principles, and one that is worth supporting.
This article was published in Meanjin, Vol. 74, No. 3, Spring 2015: 166-168.