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Friday, March 02, 2007

Lobbyists: agendas, spin, and good governance

Search for a definition: What is lobbying? The art of hanging around a lobby. Right. But there's more to it than that. There are lobbies to hang around which mean that the cash register can be heard a-ringing. Here is a more precise definition.

There is good old grass roots lobbying of this kind. Not a problem. Should be more of it. However, the farmers who badgered the Federal Government for funds also have a professional, highly organised and effective lobby group of their own in the National Farmers Federation. Then there are the business groups such as the Business Council of Australia and the pharmaceutical industry. Non-government, non-business interests form themselves into organisations so that they too can achieve greater clout.

The problem lies in the bureaucratic nature of government. Bureaucracies have difficulty in dealing with individuals and small business. Small business is not the same as big business and one of the defining differences is bureaucracy - or more the lack of it. Government bureaucracies know how to relate to private bureaucracies. The non-bureaucratic individual or small business is beyond their ken. This is why policies of Federal and State Governments formulating one-size-fits-all fail and cause discontent. The implementation of the GST is a classic case where the needs of small business were not taken into account until a month long campaign by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney brought the Howard Government to its senses.

There are the think tanks: The Evatt Foundation; The Menzies Foundation; The Australia Institute; The Institute of Public Affairs; The Centre for Independent Studies; The Lowy Institute; and The Sydney Institute to name only a very, very few. Thinking, strategising, lobbying - politicians and the public with their ideas.

Then we get back to the lobbying done by professionals, the professionals who have political contacts because they have been politicians, or worked as political staffers. People like Bruce Hawker (whose tool of trade is his long-standing relationship with the NSW Labor Government) and Grahame Morris (whose tool of trade is his long-standing relationship with the Howard Government). Politicians who depart their ministerial positions and parachute straight into lucrative "public affairs" positions. These include Peter Reith and Michael Wooldridge. These two former Howard Government ministers were notable for dubious ethical practices in their portfolios and/or financial management.

There are frequent calls for the operations of lobbyists to be subject to regulation. Proposals include legislation preventing Ministers of the Crown moving straight from their parliamentary responsibilities into corporate lobbying positions. What's your view?