Preferential lobbying: no explicit deals, all unstated understandings. How it works behind the scenes. (Part 3 of 4)Feb 17, 2021
Preferential lobbying is all about access to decision-makers, clandestine decision making, funding of political parties and the often limited subject knowledge of politicians and bureaucrats. It all conspires to subvert the democratic process.
At the Leveson inquiry of 2011 into phone hacking, Tony Blair was entirely open about seeking Rupert Murdoch’s support before the 1997 election, his first election victory. Pressed as to why he would do such a base thing, he said that that was the way it was – to get elected he needed Murdoch’s support.
In considering the impact of party and candidate funding on governmental decisions, it is important to note that these deals are all unstated. Only very rarely does a politician put their hand up and say: “I accepted this donation in return for opposing/supporting a specific decision.”
First the lobbyist responds to a request for funding. At some point, the business’s current situation comes up in conversation. A silent understanding is established. Implied in this accord is that if the politician (or bureaucrat) later reneges, funding will never flow again.
Rupert Murdoch never made an explicit deal with any UK prime minister. But his news empire backed those – Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – who waived the monopoly rules to allow him to buy The Times and Sunday Times and control 40% of the press, allowed him a monopoly on satellite broadcasting just at its critical formative stage, limited the number of sporting events that had to be broadcast on free-to-air television, supported his aim to acquire 100% ownership of Sky, and generally jumped to his every whim. But no explicit deals. All unstated understandings.
Regarding Tony Blair seeking Murdoch’s support, this is another structural determinant – a democratically elected politician seeking the support of an unelected media baron. That’s the system determining behaviour.
Rupert Murdoch has had much more influence in two party (or political group) states e.g. the UK, Australia and the US. This is another structural determinant. Murdoch says openly he doesn’t bother with Brussels (the EU) because they won’t listen to him. Why would they, dominated as they are by unelected officials who owe him nothing and with such democracy as it has through a multitude of political parties. But with only two parties in contention for power, they can be more easily played off against each other.
To all these pressure points can be added the bounty of patronage. This comes in many forms. It may be the bestowal of a prestigious honour, a government contract or an institutional role in return for a donation. The personal psychological benefits include status, a sense that your life is valued, perhaps celebrity standing. To your donation can be added continuing political support for your “causes”.
Then there’s the revolving door. Officials in the bureaucracy will have relations with senior people from the companies they are regulating. Usually the private sector pays better and with the prospect of a future job it may impact decision making and compromise independence. The system is flawed and as W Edward Demming said in 1993 “a bad system will beat a good person every time”.
The Greenpeace investigation unit illustrates the systemic capture of the political process in Australia by ‘big carbon’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDtKFbXoQ6Q). The first challenge is to become aware of these patterns of influence and then seek ways to break away for good. There is no single, obvious leverage point that will make things better – not even a new integrity commission. The only way the perpetuation of such influences can be broken is with a complete change in the ‘system of governance’.
Checks and balances should jump into action
So far, the company and its lobbyists have built a case, constructed a credible threat, gained access to influencers and decision-makers, funded their election, and the minister has taken a decision in their favour. At this point the checks and balances built into the system of governing and essential to good government should purr into action. They are there to vet government to prevent corruption and ensure the decision is right.
These processes and their effectiveness vary from country to country. They are common for budgeting, expenditure and legislation. But any government can force through its wishes, after some delay, using its parliamentary majority. Further, such vetting of decisions is piecemeal and dependent on the knowledge and determination of a few people on a committee undertaking review. In addition, bypassing vetting is widespread through statutes or executive orders that allow ministers to make all manner of decisions without recourse to parliament – many to the lobbyists’ benefit.
Once a law has passed, a regulation has changed or a contract been granted, the lobbyist retreats into the background, the success quietly acknowledged and rarely publicly heralded. Fortunately for the lobbyists, no system of governing in the world has comprehensive, independent and transparent audit trails on its every law, regulation, statute, policy, program or project.
Some outcome data is collected through national audit and statistical offices and similar institutions. But their reporting powers are limited, much is against obscure and irrelevant measurements and rarely related to purpose, and there are no avenues for reversals of bad decisions. Most of the time, the consequences of bad decisions get buried in the stream of government activity, easily forgotten with the perennial shrug of “it’s just the way things are done”. Occasionally, protests may arise by the media or a public campaign or outcry. In this informal and costly way, feedback is given on egregious decisions made for the wrong reasons due to the undue influence of lobbyists. Sporadically and then only after long delay, the protest succeeds.
But there are better ways. What to do about it. Next in Part 4.