20/06/2006 - 22:00

Connections behind the scenes

20/06/2006 - 22:00

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What is the common link between metalworkers’ union boss Jock Ferguson, Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive John Langoulant and recent BHP Billiton recruit Ian Fletcher?

Connections behind the scenes

What is the common link between metalworkers’ union boss Jock Ferguson, Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive John Langoulant and recent BHP Billiton recruit Ian Fletcher?

They are all part of an eclectic group of lobbyists, pressure groups and powerbrokers that seeks to influence government policy decisions.

While not necessarily secretive in their activities, they all operate behind the scenes to get their desired results.

With Labor currently in power in Western Australia, state secretary Bill Johnston and the major unions clearly have an influential role.

However, the government also turns to industry groups and the business sector for advice and information.

Similarly, lobbyists with strong Labor connections are currently well placed to pick up work in WA but that doesn’t rule out people from a Liberal background – especially as lobbyists often need to deal with both state and federal governments.

Messrs Ferguson, Langoulant and Fletcher neatly illustrate these points.

Mr Ferguson is the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and considered a powerful faction leader inside the Labor Party.

He precipitated a major factional shift early this year when the metalworkers broke away from the left faction and voted with the centre and old right to ensure Alan Carpenter succeeded Geoff Gallop as Labor leader.

Mr Ferguson’s influence is illustrated by his presence on several government committees, including the Skills Advisory Board, the Oil & Gas Industry Coordination Council and the Manufacturing Industry Coordination Council.

Another highly influential union leader is Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union boss Kevin Reynolds, though he operates in a very different manner.

The CFMEU has more financial clout than most unions and wields major influence in Labor’s centre faction, which is closely aligned with the old right, led by former premier and current lobbyist, and Mr Reynolds’ close friend, Brian Burke.

Quite apart from his influence on Labor and the government, the CFMEU’s industrial muscle makes Mr Reynolds highly influential.

However, it can be argued that the union has been its own worst enemy, because its extreme militancy has given construction companies a very strong incentive to challenge its dominance.

Among the business and industry groups, the CCI is the pre-eminent voice. That reflects its wide membership and the sway of its chief executive, John Langoulant, who worked closely with Labor in his previous role as under treasurer.

While the business sector exerts influence through peak groups such as the CCI and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, companies also deal directly with government.

Some of Perth’s biggest companies have employed people with strong political connections and familiarity with the policy making process to grease the wheels of commerce.

This group includes Ian Fletcher, who returned to Perth in January to fill the newly created position of BHP Billiton’s vice-president, government relations.

It marks a return to the big end of town for Mr Fletcher, who was a ‘big hitter’ in Perth in the 1990s in his capacity as former premier Richard Court’s chief of staff.

For the past five years, he has been out of the limelight as chief executive of the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

In his new job, Mr Fletcher is the principal link between BHP’s Melbourne head office and the state government.

His appointment reflects the increased importance of WA, which accounts for about 20 per cent of BHP’s global assets.

Filling a similar high-level strategic role at Woodside is Gary Gray, who was a former national secretary of the Labor Party.

Chevron Australia beefed up its team with the recruitment of Brad Haines, a former adviser to Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer.

Chevron also recruited former Liberal party state director Paul Everingham to work on the Gorgon project. He has recently set up his own consultancy but will continue to work on Gorgon.

Most companies don’t have full-time staff working on government relations, opting instead to hire consultants like Brian Burke, Peter Clough, who recently linked up with the national Enhance Group, and John Halden, who has recruited prominent journalist Karen Brown.

Another way to win influence is to form a special-purpose pressure group.

This approach has been adopted by five small iron ore producers in the state’s Mid-West, which are pushing for the coordinated development of infrastructure in the region.

They have recruited former state development minister Clive Brown to be chairman of the Geraldton Iron Ore Alliance, adding a lot of weight and influence to their cause.

The Australian Hotels’ Association and the Australian Medical Association have traditionally been among the most powerful lobby groups in WA but currently are out of favour.

The state government is determined to push through liquor trading reform despite the protests of the AHA, while the Reid health reforms are being pursued despite regular criticism by the AMA.

In both cases, the perception is that the industry groups have been overly negative and failed to engage in constructive discussions, which ultimately has sidelined them from the policy process.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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