No, the minister is not your only target stakeholder…
2 August 2021 at 5:01 pm
This fortnight, Neil Pharaoh dives into what he thinks is the most common sentence he has said when working with clients: “the minister is not your only stakeholder”.
I am sure you have heard it before: “We need to build a relationship with the minister” or “the minister is our key stakeholder and that is who we need to build a relationship with”. But I really want to put this question and advice to bed once and for all.
Yes, the minister is one important stakeholder, but we need to look a bit deeper to get more of an understanding as to why the minister may not be your best target stakeholder.
Let’s look at the following in a bit more detail:
- Ministers are busy and know people come to them to ask for stuff.
- Today’s candidates are tomorrow’s ministers, next month’s premiers or prime ministers, or next year’s feather dusters.
- It takes three to tango in politics (or to at least secure a ministry).
- Heads of government offices are now more powerful than ever (which, as an aside, is bad for democracy).
Let’s kick off with the first point. Ministers are busy. You are one of thousands of stakeholders who want time in a ministerial diary. Yes, your issue might be important, but so too are many others, and if your only hope is a great connection with the minister’s office you may be left on a ledge.
The best advocacy campaigns know that you need a number of people around the minister to look for lateral pressure – advisors, other MPs, the public service, the political party as well as the central agencies. Even if you do get a great session with the minister, the most successful advocacy organisations and campaigns know this needs to be followed up with pressure from friends, advisors and contacts over an extended period of time – otherwise you risk becoming a box ticked, the minister won’t see you again for another three years.
Also, ministers have an innate sense that most people are coming to them for money, so they know how to use deflections, deferrals, or diversion very effectively.
The second point (about feather dusters) is a critical one. It is far easier to access a candidate, or a backbencher than a minister or premier, and given life cycles in Australia, today’s candidates can very quickly become ministers or heads of government. Too often I see people only engage when somebody becomes a minister. Contrast this to organisations who have gone about building solid relationships with backbenchers and candidates over an extended period of time. And you know what? When that candidate or backbencher becomes a minister, if you have built a genuine relationship, that is when it will be rewarded with support, access or engagement. The organisations that engage in transactions when people only get into positions of power are not just unsuccessful, but most ministers can see through the ruse.
The next point is one of those things which is common knowledge, but that political stakeholders really do not like talking about. Today’s candidates and backbenchers are more important than you think. It really does take three to tango in politics. As politics is a numbers game, especially if you want to become a minister.
In short, Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet is split based on how many supporters you have in the wider caucus. As a general rule of thumb, you need yourself, plus two other people who are willing to support you to get you a ministry. That is why some backbenchers or senators in safer seats will try to get “their” candidate into marginal seats – if “their” candidate wins, they get into the ministry. This is the basis in all political parties around factions, or groupings. There is incentive to get “your people” up to keep you in the top spot. This also creates a unique opportunity – if you can map the relationships, candidates and backbenchers, you may get a better hearing from a backbencher who is needed for a minister to hold his or her portfolio than you get from the minister themselves. If that candidate or backbencher loses their seat, then the minister will probably lose theirs as well.
My final point is equal parts worrying as it is interesting. Heads of government or political parties (think premier, PM, opposition leader et al) are now more centralised in their power than ever before. In some states, an entire media team is based, reports to, and is accountable to only the premier. So the minister may have less influence than you think.
The long and short of these four points, is that a single point of relationship, is also a single point of failure. The tenure of ministers has decreased markedly over time, while the influence of political staffers has increased in the same period as backbenchers are often having less say than political advisors. So remember – there are multiple stakeholders, and each has a role in engagement, and advocacy is key.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.