05/09/2012 - 10:29

Knowledge key arrow in lobbyist’s quiver

05/09/2012 - 10:29

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An effective lobbyist’s true value is in making sure what’s being proposed can be achieved.

An effective lobbyist’s true value is in making sure what’s being proposed can be achieved.

NEWSPAPERS, including WA Business News, like to publish lists of the who’s who around town, especially those with some perceived influence on the political process.

As I write this column, my own photograph and name has appeared among those described as ‘influence peddlers’ in the state’s daily paper, The West Australian.

Once called ‘lobbyists’, those of us who make part of our living in Western Australia’s growing political industry will, with the passing of legislation currently before the WA Parliament, be known as Registered Advocates to Government, or RAGS.

Over the years I have helped this newspaper compile its own lists of RAGS, often involving a very enjoyable light lunch and a glass of wine in the WA Business News boardroom.

Compiling these lists is always a tricky exercise because it’s not an exact science and, given the nature of politics, the lists of who’s in and who’s out changes constantly with whoever is in government.

The names come and go, and those who appeared prominently on the lists a few years ago are no longer there.

Picking these individuals is always a fraught business because it depends upon a questionable idea of how public policy and interaction with politicians works.

It’s as if the process of identifying lobbyists and political strategists is based on the old-school-tie principle.  In this case, it’s not which school you went to but which party or government you are perceived to have a cozy relationship with.

So if compiling the list is difficult, how do businesses and organisations that don’t have experienced political staff find the best RAG for their issue?

There is no doubt that experience working at the executive level of government has given some individuals unique insights, skills and abilities, but this should be only part of the process. 

There is also a perception that certain individuals, due to their party loyalty can, with a nod and wink, make something happen when other intelligent and articulate community members or businesses can’t.

It is more important to know whether these RAGS actually have the experience and the skills, and weren’t just the recipients of the patronage rife in politics.

Political nepotism has the same limitations and potential drawbacks as other forms of nepotism, but has legitimacy in politics that would prove distasteful in most other instances.

Choosing a lobbyist, or RAG, based on these criteria alone can be problematic. One only needs reflect on the experience of those around town who had dealings with the once ubiquitous Brian Burke and Julian Grill, and found themselves fronting the ‘star chamber’ hearings of the Corruption and Crime Commission.

The other issue for businesses and organisations is: where does loyalty and commitment ultimately lie? Is it with you and your organisation or the government or party to which the lobbyist is affiliated?

Political relationships are often based on a strange set of unwritten rules and codes of conduct around loyalty that governments and politicians can bestow or withdraw based on raw party tribalism.

The difficulty for organisations that require strong and vigorous advocacy may be that the lobbyist will place their need to remain in favour before that of the client.

For many, the world of politics and government can be seductive because of the hustle and bustle of public life; being close to power and those who are part of the larger decision making process.

This is, of course, illusionary and incredibly transitory. For some it can be like going to a great party, but in the morning nursing an expensive hangover.

In my experience state politicians best respond to ideas and issues that increase their political benefit while reducing their political risk.

This largely explains why it has taken so long to achieve much needed reform to WA’s retail trading regime and Sunday trading laws. 

The current changes only materialised when Premier Colin Barnett was able to quieten internal Liberal Party tensions, and Labor leader Mark McGowan able to do the same within his own caucus and among hostile unions.

Up to that point, the political risks versus the benefits were too great for either party or leader.

It doesn’t matter who you are, if your idea or problem is not framed according to risk versus reward it will, in unexceptional circumstances, struggle to succeed.

Which brings us back to the old adage that it’s most often a case of what you know and how you articulate or advocate an argument that is the key to success – not who you know.

The most effective RAGS and other ‘influencers’ around town are those who know this and spend the large bulk of their time with their clients, explaining the political and public policy dimensions to their issues.

The true value of the effective lobbyist or advocate is working to ensure that what your business and organisation is proposing is actually politically achievable.

Only then can you ensure that when you are entering the world of politics that your experience can be one of RAGS to riches.

Paul Plowman is a former head of the state government’s media office and is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations. Joe Poprzeczny is on assignment overseas.


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