Lobbyists are increasingly being recognized as a blight on the political landscape and as one of the negative forces in the progressive weakening of democratic processes in government. That they have come to form a distinct component in creating and distorting policy, indeed in creating politics almost as a “privatized sphere” is now become incontestable. But how does one change the system of governance back to one more firmly representing the electors?
To this end, the Grattan Institute has just published an excellent and extremely well researched report by Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths on the culture and practice of lobbyists. Entitled Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics, it gives a detailed account of contemporary lobbying practices, the areas where most lobbying is directed and the methods of those who employ such practices.
Whilst most of what is in the Grattan Institute’s report has been exposed for some time in a fragmentary manner and occasionally published in some parts of the mainstream media and the ABC, the collation of this material into a single whole is invaluable. Especially so the listing of numbers of lobbyists in Canberra, the number of ex-politicians who become lobbyists and the specific kinds of industries most represented by lobbyists. Whilst people in positions of power have been lobbied throughout history, it is the extent of lobbying in first world countries that has become apparent over the past two decades, and the undermining effect it has on democratic processes.
Emphasis in the report is placed on the high degree of lobbying associated with the most highly regulated industries. These relate to gambling, infrastructure, finance, electricity and transport, in all of which oligopoly situations prevail, a direct consequence of privatisation and government subsidies to the companies possessing the oligopolistic privilege (p.12, 16-21).
And it is here lobbyists seem to have most effect, surely an amazing paradox as the purpose of deregulation and privatisation was originally parroted as introducing competition and the market discipline this instils, quite the opposite of the behaviour of oligopolistic markets. This paradox is not highlighted in the report but its focus on lobbying in highly regulated industries, those most affecting people’s daily lives, strongly suggests the need for further research in this area, possibly leading to deprivatization in the long run.
What is perhaps only hinted at in a number of places in the report is the development of a culture of government in Australia (and other Anglo-Saxon countries) in which lobbyists become a distinctive and tightly organized group standing against, yet with, elected representatives on the one hand, and the majority of voters, on the other. Since many lobbyists are located in Canberra and have direct access to parliament house through security passes allocated to them, this means they are working substantially within the same cultural space as the politicians, and to a lesser extent with Canberra based journalists as well. As such a personal closeness is developed which is completely unavailable to other members of the general public whose access to their local member is through the member’s office staff, and, if communicating with other politicians, usually through the diffuseness of email.
The culture of lobbying has contributed to the development of what might best be termed “the privatisation of the political process.” Such a situation still enables the public face of democracy. This includes elections, constituents’ appeals to sitting members, visits of members to schools and other public relations shows. Yet in truth the large-scale decision-making occurs in a condition of close communications and personal links between lobbyists and politicians, both of whom accept the justness of this mode of doing business, even where the ordinary voter may find it reprehensible.
Since a considerable percentage of lobbyists and politicians have sat in both career paths (pp.22-24, 30), their mode of thinking and techniques of persuasion are those with which currently sitting members are aware and have used themselves. And especially since some lobbyists have behind them the veneer of expertise and authenticity, the kinds of policy shifts they desire can be more easily sold to a usually bemused public by the PM and his cabinet ministers.
In the fifth chapter of their report (pp.56-68) the authors make a number of useful proposals for reform such as better registration for lobbyists, publication of ministers’ diaries so that interested parties can check on whom they are dealing with, establishment of an independent body to oversee codes of conduct between lobbyists and politicians, and more transparency of donations to political parties. All these have been canvassed before and, at a federal level especially, politicians of both major parties have been reluctant to institutionalise them through legislation. This reluctance is part of the lobbying culture that defines the relationship between lobbyists and politicians.
Even if the suggested proposals are taken up–and this will take time because of unflagging resistance of business interests the lobbyists represent–they will not necessarily change the culture of “influence for money” that has flourished over the past two decades, if not longer. Only a fundamental shift in the recognition amongst political elites over what governance and governing entail can transform the culture of influence in such a way as to make it more equitable for those at all levels of society, amidst a massive inequality of resources available for the creation of political opinions. In a democratic society politicians must always be open to contrary views, and must reveal from where the stimulus for the implementation of a major new policy comes. This would be true transparency.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.