Myths and the dirty truth of political lobbying

By Mike Smith

Friday June 5, 2015

I’m a lobbyist but I don’t appear overtly evil — I should do, according to some of my lefty friends.  Recent media demonstrates many journalists, too, think lobbying is inherently suspicious.

This suspicion clearly comes from misunderstanding the role of lobbyists.

There are lobbyists who inhabit darkened, smoke-filled rooms, and whisper in the ears of government: “Mate, mate, you’ve got to do a favour.” But they are in a minority, because that’s a stupid approach.

That cliché-ed picture leaves a lobbyist and their client in danger of the next decision-maker reversing the favour, or reporting the favour to the Crime and Misconduct Commission.  It’s a short-term, lazy and unethical approach that risks reputational destruction.

We always tell clients that their proposals, the reasons behind them, and the government decision that delivers them, must be clean, robust, and appropriate – and be seen as such when scrutinised.

When businesses or community groups meet Government, it’s often a bit like a Star Trek episode — landing on another planet that looks the same, meeting people who look the same, but, phasers drawn and fired, finding out that everything is different – the language, the decision-making process, the motivations, the objectives, the pitfalls to progress, and the role of the decision-makers.  Everything.  And both sides are convinced they understand the other.

When government and business meet, it’s like the Klingons and the Romulans — and I’m Captain Kirk, helping translate differing needs and objectives into a common understanding.  Or maybe more like Spock or that nameless crew-member who gets shot in the third scene – but always striving for common ground.

And that’s where lobbyists spend a lot of their working time: helping restructure what clients are seeking, so those proposals are a good fit with government – and sometimes we tell clients they can’t get what they want; this process takes up way more time than directly acting as advocates.

It’s about business proposals, and any politics is incidental.

There’s a code of practice for lobbyists (fairly lowest common denominator) but because it only applies to consultant lobbyists and not direct employee lobbyists, it fails to catch most lobbyists.

Most lobbyists are directly employed — by industry peak bodies, unions, environmental groups, churches, and so on — and free from Government regulation and scrutiny.

Myths & Legends of Lobbying


When you judge a football code, is your gauge the player who starts bar fights, uses steroids, and is sacked by their club?

Jack Abramoff is not the acme of lobbyists, he’s a crook; Brian Burke is not really a government relations consultant, he’s a corrupter of proper process.

Real lobbyists and government relations consultants help those who can’t deal effectively with government to get their cause heard.

They do work for Greenpeace, and Rio Tinto, and the local kindergarten; they can help stop bad decisions being made, help offset harmful outcomes, and sometimes help ensure the community gets what it needs.

And you’ll never notice those positive outcomes because they’re not boasted of, nor attributed to the lobbyist — the client gets the credit, and the lobbyist is only mentioned when the outcome or process becomes notorious.

Regulating Lobbyists: Hardly

Teapot Dome Scandal
Teapot Dome Scandal

Australian state and federal governments pretend (e.g. here) to regulate lobbyists: all they do is create red tape, illusion and loopholes.

The biggest issue is that most lobbyists aren’t regulated at all: professions and in-house lobbyists are not, and only consultant lobbyists are covered.

Arguably, a lawyer, accountant or development planner who lobbies on behalf of a client’s needs isn’t a lobbyist according to Australia’s governments. Most members of those professions refuse to register as lobbyists or apply lobbyist codes.

Full time lobbyists employed by corporations, or their directors, or representative bodies like the Australian Medical Association or Queensland Resources Council, are unambiguously not covered by lobbyist regulation — Australian governments refuse to regulate them.

In all jurisdictions the lobbyist “Code of Conduct” or its equivalent is generally so lowest-common-denominator that it imposes very few ethical obligations beyond those self-imposed by most lobbyists before codes were made.

The two biggest omissions:

  • There’s no obligation on lobbyists to ensure their lobbying reflects compliance with Public sector codes of ethics; and
  • There’s no obligation for lobbyists to ensure everything they say must be up to date or comprehensive — that is, they are allowed to conceal things when they lobby.

These are absolutely not partisan defects — governments of all shades have got it wrong.

Read more from Mike Smith’s thoughts on lobbying in Australia at his Ethical Consulting blog.

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