Commercial lobbying – an abrogation of democracy?

Apr 10, 2024
Negotiating a deal

Lobbying has been part of politics for the past two millennia, but in the past twenty years it has become an artform in persuasion and influence. At times it is scarcely possible to distinguish the elected representatives from unelected politicians. It seems now that a political career is not just election to a parliament, but involves three consecutive components: initial work as a ministerial staffer, election to a safe seat and retirement into work as a consultant or lobbyist.

Allan Patience has just published a disturbing article charting the decline of Australian democracy. This decline is due in considerable measure to the duopoly simply forming a power obsessed oligarchy supporting their own apparatchiks, and sustaining the careers of their former colleagues now outside of the direct legislature but still wielding considerable persuasive power. Many of these become lobbyists.

Two names have become prominent in lobbying over the past five years: Stephen Conroy and Christopher Pyne, and attention has been placed on both recently. Both are prime examples of elevation through the three career stages mentioned above.

Although retiring as a senator in September 2016, Conroy, whose most recent appointment is Independent Chairman of the Australian Professional [soccer] Leagues, has remained active as a power broker in the Labor right and has broadened his career by moving into extensive lobbying activities.

His company TG Public Affairs has been brought in to help corporations whose CEOs (Brad Banducci [of Woolworths], Mark Chellew and finance boss Michael Ferguson [from Downers], (and Optus turning to him after its hack in 2022 ) who have resigned for various misdemeanours (Mark Di Stefano, “Stephen Conroy becomes death, destroyer of CEOs” AFR Feb 22, 2024). No doubt his attraction to Woolworths was because of possible delicate negotiations with the government, especially relating to the duopoly power of the supermarkets.

His activities here involve typical public relations stuff but it is surely significant that TG Public Affairs has Conroy as its chairman, Kim Beazley as a board member, and three other former senior public servants as board members. Moreover, seven of their twelve senior staff members have worked as political advisers or in the diplomatic service. All are very skilled at dealing with government.

Similar is the case of Christopher Pyne’s advisory company named Pyne & Partners, now employed by Hanwha Group, a Korean conglomerate behind a $1 billion bid for Australian defence company Austal. Ten of the twelve senior people listed on Pyne & Partners website have all worked in senior positions in the public service and/or advising ministers, especially in defence areas. They have been associated with both main political parties.

In each of these cases there is nothing illegal about the activities they are prosecuting and when interviewed the principals deny any conflict of interest between their old roles and their new ones as lobbyists.

The “advice industry” dominated by lobbyists, consultants and spin doctors is a direct consequence of the movement towards oligopoly and monopoly in many first world economies with the large corporations as the privileged group. This seemingly contradicts one fundamental aspect of neoliberalism that competitive behaviour should dominate economic and all other aspects of life. Lobbyists and consultants work effectively to minimise this.

Increased lobbying and its development as a distinct component of a political career is surely a paradoxical development from the ideological ascendancy of neoliberalism. Rhetorically the market and government are treated as the two fundamental entities constituting the economy. Yet the market becomes almost identical with government when an oligopoly develops and when the interchangeability between those at the top of the market and government becomes almost absolute. Is not this socialism the right would say? The idea of the competitive market substantially disappears. And above all, the lobbyist is representing companies whose interests are always short-term, whereas that of the government should always be long-term.

Democracy is predicated on the change of government by non-violent means and the right of all citizens to express their concerns to their elected representatives. Consultants and lobbyists may simply claim to be concerned citizens with an accompanying expectation that they can make representations to government.

And though various groups (the Centre for Public Integrity and many articles in P&I) have argued that much more needs to be done to control the potential conflicts of political lobbyists, the situation still seems as bad as it has ever been.

Is it enough to say that this excessive influence of lobbyists and consultants can be removed simply by imposing a three-year time period between resignation from parliament and joining a private sector company whose business depends in part on government contracts or advice? Or by reforming the parliamentary lobbyists register? This has never worked.

Ultimately with the ever-increasing damage wrought by climate change and the socio-economic consequences of economic inequity, governments have to stand up for their affected citizens. Not for the small group of corporations whose power through lobbyists extends much beyond a single vote, and whose vested interests are often affected detrimentally by government action that should focus on the long-term. It is here that the role of lobbyists as persuaders with inside connections has to be recognised as being as damaging as some of the companies they represent.

Will the Senate Inquiry into Lobbying beginning on 8/4/24 offer us some hope that the power of commercial lobbyists will be severely diminished?


In the Canberra Times (9/4/24 ) it was reported that Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Rob Stefanic appearing before the inquiry said “Federal politicians or the heads of the four parliamentary departments must sponsor the passes, but the details of who holds them, and how they got them, remain secret.

Asked about the decision to keep this information off the public record, Mr Stefanic told Senators privacy was the key consideration.

“Our principle position in respect of the policy is the Privacy Act and the privacy principles,” he said.”

This is surely highly problematic given the very privileged positions many lobbyists have and seemingly contradicts the fact that they are named as lobbyists on the web sites of their own companies.

Who is protecting who here?

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!