Lobbying Isn’t a Dirty Word
16 October 2018 at 8:53 am
Even though lobbying has become somewhat of a dirty word, it can actually be a powerful force for good, and it’s time more people, communities and charities started lobbying to achieve positive change, writes Krystian Seibert.
There has been a lot of attention on lobbying in the last few weeks, but not for good reasons.
The Guardian’s The Transparency Project, funded by the Susan McKinnon Foundation, has been exploring the inner depths of Australia’s political system and reporting on the influence of corporate lobbyists.
The reporting has shown how regulation of lobbying is lax – for example “in house” lobbyists who work directly for the company or peak body whose interest they represent don’t need to register on the Register of Lobbyists and abide by the Lobbying Code of Conduct.
A recent report from the Grattan Institute has also examined these issues in much detail, exploring and analysing the data, concluding that: “Powerful groups have triumphed over the public interest in some recent debates, from pokies reform to pharmaceutical prices, to toll roads and superannuation governance. Stronger checks and balances on policy influence are needed, to make Australian politics cleaner and fairer.”
I must admit, I personally don’t subscribe to the view that our political system is run by “vested interests” and that we’re in some sort of crisis because of that (and just to be clear – I don’t think that’s what the Grattan Institute report is arguing).
This may not be a popular opinion to hold, but I think that Australia is, by and large, served well by our governments and our democracy is generally working quite well.
That doesn’t mean that our democratic processes are perfect, nor that “vested interests” don’t exist. They do exist and too frequently their influence means that things happen which shouldn’t happen (or vice-versa). The Sydney Opera House advertising debacle is a rather prominent reminder of that, but there are many other examples with more serious consequences.
Reforms to help strengthen our democratic institutions are needed and most of the recommendations in the Grattan Institute’s report are very sensible and should be implemented.
For example, establishing a federal integrity and anti-corruption commission is long overdue, publishing ministerial diaries would provide more transparency about the workings of the government, and all lobbyists including “in house” lobbyists should be required to register on the Register of Lobbyists.
One broader concern that I do have however is that “lobbying” is somewhat of a dirty word. It implies something nefarious, and I feel that it’s often used in a pejorative manner.
But lobbying can be a powerful force for good – when people, communities, charities and peak bodies and others come together to try and directly influence public policy in Australia for the better.
And that’s all that lobbying is, the act of influencing policy makers to make something happen or stop something from happening.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme is the product of lobbying by people with disabilities, carers, disability charities and peak bodies. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is a product of lobbying by charities and peak bodies – and the reason it was retained by the current government was also because of lobbying. Australia’s network of marine national parks is the product of lobbying and enhancing their management in the future will also involve lobbying. Ironically enough, if we eventually get a federal integrity and anti-corruption commission, that too will be the product of lobbying!
Lobbying is a tool, and it’s a tool that is and can be used for the public interest. So I think it’s time that we detoxified the term. And it’s time that more people, communities, charities and peak bodies started lobbying – it’s a great way to engage with our democratic processes and achieve positive change.
That’s one of the key messages of Alberto Alemanno in his 2017 book Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society. The book sets out the case for “citizen lobbying”, highlights case studies where it has worked, and provides a toolbox for those looking to use lobbying to make a difference.
Alberto is an academic as well as a citizen lobbyist, and is co-founder of The Good Lobby, an organisation which seeks to build the capacity of civil society to lobby more effectively. In July, I was fortunate to be able to participate in the Lobbying Summer Academy he organised, where a diverse group of people from around the world came together in Bilbao, Spain to learn and share ideas about how lobbying can be used to achieve positive change.
We can’t just focus on trying to regulate lobbying on the premise that some lobbying can have a bad influence on policy making.
If lobbying is a tool that also has a good influence on policy making, building the capacity of people, communities and charities to lobby more effectively is essential.
The Grattan Institute’s report makes a similar point, stating that: “The other way to get more open policy debate is to boost the voices of under-represented groups. This is not always easy. Often groups are poorly represented because they are poorly resourced and organised. Yet citizen engagement is a core responsibility of politicians and public servants.”
I think that this is yet another reason why philanthropy needs to fund more advocacy – and it’s great that philanthropy is becoming more and more interested in that.
At the same time, there is a need for more capacity building around advocacy, including lobbying. At the moment, we don’t have anything like The Good Lobby in Australia.
One thing government could also do, in addition to funding various peak bodies which undertaken advocacy in the welfare, disabilities and health sectors, is to also fund communities and organisations which have an issue they want to lobby about.
Imagine we had an annual grants program, where communities or organisations seeking some sort of policy change at a federal level could apply for a grant of up to $20,000 to support their lobbying efforts? That would be very empowering and another way to lift up the voices of those who may be underrepresented in our public policy debates.
About the author: Krystian Seibert is an industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology and has a strategic advisory role with Philanthropy Australia.