Friday, May 25, 2012

The trouble with lobbyists…

The trouble with lobbyists is that the Government is too afraid to admit it needs them and the community benefits greatly from their expertise and work.

The controversy this week about the $25,000 per annum Liberal “Leaders Forum” highlighted a couple of really disappointing things;
  • The Premier is still so afraid of public perception issues that when he had an opportunity to educate everybody about the truth of what happens in politics, he ran away at top speed; and
  • Neither the media nor wider public understand just how valuable lobbyists are to everyday Australians.
This is a hard post to pen because I’m not sure my non-staff readers will understand, let alone support it. Right now, I guess I’m feeling what the Premier felt just before he denied those who pay $25,000 a year to be part of the somewhat secretive “Leaders Forum” do so to allow them to directly lobby him and his colleagues.

And I really empathise.

It can’t be easy for Colin Barnett. While he sulked on the backbench during most of the last government, he saw those doing the hard yards bring down a number of ALP Ministers by systematically attaching them to the stink of corruption. In some cases, former Ministers were ultimately cleared of any corrupt behaviour but what Mr Barnett and the rest of us in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition knew was that perception is sometimes just as powerful as evidence.

In politics, casting doubt can be enough to turn a Minister’s shiny armour coating into a rusty old death trap overnight.

But even so, I’m disappointed in Colin. I really thought he would oversee an accountable executive and be strong enough to push back against our society’s growing desire to prosecute on perception rather than fact. But it appears even someone as wise and principled as he hasn’t been able to reverse the public’s self-fulfilling prophecy of political incompetence, fuelled by our constant over-scrutiny of our political system and the people who interact with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating anything less that proper accountability, but the feigned horror many expressed when talking about the Liberal Leader’s forum this week was simply too much for me to stomach. The thing that really irked me was the way Mr Barnett backed away from the truth and missed a prime opportunity to educate us all about the genuine value of lobbying.

The simple fact is that without lobbyists, we would all be bound up in unworkable legislation and other public policy, written and enacted by people who have absolutely no understanding of the real-world impact of their decisions.

As an example of this, one of my first jobs in a political office was as a researcher. In that role, I helped the man I worked for prepare responses to parliamentary debates and speeches. I distinctly recall this occasion because of the utter fear I felt when the Member came to me and asked me to prepare some notes for his contribution to writing a piece of legislation regarding the services provided by gynaecologists in Western Australia – that’s right, a 30-something, childless, unmarried man writing notes for the male member of the Opposition who would next week be leading his side’s debate on, umm, gynaecologists. Fortunately, the Member I worked for at the time is a good man and not egocentric or foolish enough to believe he could just stand up and “wing it” off the cuff.

So how valuable do you think the contribution of the Opposition would have been to that debate if it wasn’t for my ability to pick up the phone and talk to some representatives of both the doctors and patients of the people who would have had to work within the resulting legislation?

And as a Ministerial Chief of Staff, I have sat through no end of meetings with individuals who simply have no understanding of the process of government. Some of these people had great ideas but the only reason they were able to make a meaningful contribution was because they were accompanied by someone who understood both sides of fence – you guessed it, a lobbyist.

Indeed lobbyists provide an incredibly valuable service to the community.

Without them, Ministers who were Bus Drivers and School Teachers in their former lives would have no choice but to take the word of their departmental staff every time on every decision – sometimes regarding billions of dollars of public expenditure or the direction of legislation that impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of every day people.

And while I am a staunch defender of the professionalism of the majority of our public service, it is not too unkind to point out that sometimes they simply aren’t aware of the practical implications of their policy recommendations. That’s a for no other reason than the fact that they are not necessarily at the coalface every day – unlike those who represent individuals and industry, such as lobbyists and CEO’s of companies.

So why didn’t Colin just say that the Leader’s Forum provides a unique opportunity to hear the truth directly from people at the coalface about the direction the Government is taking? It’s obviously the perception that the money buys that guaranteed access – and I’m not going to insult QBF readers by suggesting it doesn’t. Of course it does.

Let’s stop the crap.

It’s messy, it smells a bit and it’s easy to pretend we didn’t know this happens while jumping up and down about how the wealthy get special favours, but the hard facts are that every cent is publicly declared as required by OUR law and both sides of politics do exactly the same thing.

And as unpopular as it might make me, I for one have the courage to publicly say thank goodness our political parties are being well funded (as long as it’s declared) and thank goodness business leaders are speaking directly to our political leaders.

But perhaps the ugliest truth of all is that even if the Western Australian public were given a chance to talk to the Premier about policy, most wouldn’t know where to start and many others would prefer to stay at home drinking their beer and watching football on their plasma TV’s than genuinely try to make our State a better place.

1 comment:

  1. How did the state develop, and Parliament write laws for more than a century, without lobbyists? That's right, by simply having decent, democratically minded governments responding to reasonable ideas from the community. Industry lobbyists emerged in the 1970s for good reason - to battle the anti-industry agenda that had taken root in the public sector driven by union and green politics.

    Lobbyists of the Burke variety are carpetbaggers, spivs who merely milk money from people on basis of their personal influence rather than any particular ability to present a case for public action.

    In the case of Labor lobbyists, it is outright corruption as the lobbyists carry the threat of pre-selection powers that can be used against a Minister or MP, a power built on Labor's corrupt, union controlled organisational structure.

    No business or lobbyists can use such threats against the Liberal Party which explains why there are no WA Inc scandals in the proud history of the Liberal Party.