Friday, 15 November 1996

Lobbying: Speech by Richard Farmer to conference organised by Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party, November 1996

Thank you for inviting me here today and thank you for the description in your brochure as "Richard Farmer - government relations consultant". That was very polite of you. Whenever I describe myself as a lobbyist there is always something of an embarrased pause so becoming a government relations consultant suits me just fine. In my trade we understand why lavatory cleaners became sanitary inspectors.
For one with my political background, a little to the left, or perhaps more libertarian, than most of you here, it is indeed a privilege to be invited to a function organised by the Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party and, because I was once described by a Minister of the Howard Government as "the lobbyist of last resort" I can only assume the reason for the invitation is that every other ... government relations consultant ... in the country - many of them former workers for the Liberal not the Labor Party - is actually out earning a living.
That being so, I am sure the organisers will take the following mild criticism in the spirit of helpfulness with which it is offered. When next you arrange a gathering like this, there is one small change you could make to your agenda to help we late afternoon speakers. Continue to serve wine with lunch, even make more of it available on the tables, but replace the coffee at the afternoon tea break with more wine or at least serve the coffee with brandy or port.
Now this is not just a plea from one who spent many years as a wine merchant, and would now welcome a wine company as a client, but a suggestion made because experience has taught me that the best audience for a speech about politics has three characteristics.
 First, the audience is intelligent;
 Second it is well educated;
 And third, the best audience for a political speech is a little drunk.
Mr chairman, as I look around, I see that you have given me the first two requisites for my making a successful speech this afternoon but have failed on the third, so the audience will have to suffer through the next 30 minutes in a state of quite unnecessary, and quite unhelpful, sobriety.
Not that my experience about such things has come from giving speeches. Invariably my job in politics has been to write them for others and that, given that the whole art of the political speech is to put nothing into it, is much more difficult that it sounds. For, as an American legislator much wiser than I once put it, issues are a problem for politicians most of the time for the reason that "somebody won't like what you say when you start talking issues" and therefore they are to be avoided.
Sometimes even providing the comic relief can be difficult for the speech writer but at least I was not the press secretary once asked by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to:
 "Give me some jokes for my statement on behalf of retarded children."
Then again, I suppose Graham Freudenberg and I did a pretty good imitation of a joke with our line for Bob Hawke's policy speech back in 1987, which some of you might remember, about "by 1990 no Australian child will live in poverty."
With the problems caused by that piece of creative writing behind us, little wonder that when Freudie and I wrote the 1990 policy speech we mentioned neither children nor poverty and that virtually every word was nothing more than the Prime Minister saying back to the people what the people had been saying to his market researcher. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then we were both flattered when we heard John Howard's speech of 1996!
Well , enough of the self promotion. To the serious subject at hand.
Working with the Howard Government: Making Effective Submissions.
At the start, let me say that most of the comments I will make are applicable not just to dealing with this current Liberal-National Federal Government but to all Governments wherever in Australia, or, in most cases, wherever in the world, they may be. Whatever their party, whatever their ideology, normally whatever the country, I see more in common between politicians than I see differences.
For one thing, as I once saw printed on a T-shirt, "Politicians will always be there when they need us!" And need us they do come election day.
For if getting elected is the first duty of a politician, getting re-elected is always the second.
That last remark might at first sound a little flippant but it is in truth an important starting point for anyone seeking to influence a government. Never forget when you ask a politician to do something for you that the poor person is not like a director of Coles Myer. There are no proxies that make you comfortable well before polling day and challengers are not automatically put last on the ballot paper. The need to win to keep your own job, and for a majority of your party colleagues to win as well if you are to have a chance at a real job, a job not just in a Parliament but actually in a Government, makes a politician a naturally cautious person who worries about the downside of each and every proposition.
Rare indeed are the politicians who make a decision that will see them out of their jobs and when they do it is normally the result of a mistake rather than a conscious decision. John Hewson, it should be remembered, developed his Fightback program because he believed the Australian people were searching for a leader who stood for something. Fightback was designed to be a vote winner and it looked just that when released 15 months before the election of 1993. It is forgotten now but such a vote winner did Fightback look, that Labor was desperate enough to get rid of a leader who had won four elections and replace Bob Hawke with Paul Keating.
Given the choice between a stuff up and a conspiracy in politics I'll go for the stuff up every time so I don't think that the good Dr Hewson was some mad zealot wilfully leading Liberals to destruction. He was simply a man who chose the "wrong thing" to be his "something" to stand for. There was too much time between policy unveiling day and voting day - time in which people began wondering if a man standing for a new tax might not be worse than a man standing for nothing. The Hewson error was that when it became apparent that Fightback had become a vote loser not a winner, he was not nimble enough to change his views. John Hewson should have studied Latin and not economics and realised, as did Cicero in the century before Christ, that "Persistence in one opinion has never been considered a merit in political leaders."
For when all is said and done it is the ability to get a political party to change its views without losing too many of its supporters that is the mark of successful modern political leaders. Whatever else you might think about Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, it has to be conceded that the Labor Party which governed for the 13 years before this one was a very different beast to the party those two men inherited in 1983. The dexterity with which change was made from controllers to free marketeers, from socialists to privatisers, was an important part in Labor winning those unwinnable elections of the 1980's. And by that measure of getting a political party to moderate its views so it can stay in office, John Howard is showing every sign of having learned the same kinds of lessons as his Labor predecessors.
The process of moderation, which inevitably comes as a politician turns from being concerned with winning the first time to winning the second time, has recently seen changes to industrial relations laws, (which have turned out little different to those originally espoused by Paul Keating and Laurie Bretherton), trumpeted as some great Liberal Party success. Yet the reforms - ("reforms" -that wonderful word for changes that you agree with) - that Mr Peter Reith spoke to you about this morning are a long way short of the destruction of the award system that less than four years ago Mr Howard, with great delight and enthusiasm, had incorporated in Fightback as the minimum needed to make a vibrant and modern Australian economy.
Now I make that observation not as a criticism of Messrs Howard and Reith but as an illustration of how politics surely is the art of the possible. And the politics of what is possible in Australia today is what can get passed through an upper house that this Liberal government does not control.
Anyone seeking to influence the process of government has to understand that, in this country, Governments with a capital "G", governments in state and territories as well as the federal one, rarely have the real power of the numbers that is necessary for them to govern as they would like and many of you would want. For the lobbyist, the Australian system, which gives so great an influence to such small minorities, is both a difficulty and an opportunity.
Federally the only government during my 30 years in Canberra with a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate was that of Macolm Fraser from 1975 to 1980. Menzies in his last years, Holt, Gorton and McMahon were all dependent on the DLP. Whitlam was destroyed by a hostile Senate and Howard, like Hawke and Keating, is a hostage to a motley collection of minor parties and independents.
In NSW, the largest state, Labor's Bob Carr does not have a majority in the Upper House and must deal with Democrats, the Shooters Party, Fred Nile and independents. In Queensland, where there is only the one chamber, a National-Liberal minority government must depend on the support of an independent motivated with the religious beliefs of the Exclusive Brethren.
In Tasmania the Liberal Government must rely on the support of Greens and/or Labor to stay in office while the Upper House is the eccentric home of independent members who can defeat a budget without even the fear of a double dissolution. In South Australia a Liberal Government elected to the lower house with an overwhelming majority is in the minority in the Upper House. In the Australian Capital Territory the Liberal Government has but seven of the 17 members in the unicameral parliament.
Victoria and Western Australia currently have governments with majorities in both lower and upper houses but that has been the exception in those states over recent decades. The Labor Governments that preceded them in both states had majorities in the lower house only and anyone who thinks that such a division of power with its checks and balances should lead to better government has forgotten already about WA Inc and Victorian Labor's experiments of the 1980's.
Only in the Northern Territory has the country's smallest government had the numbers in its parliament to govern as it sees fit throughout the last two decades. Perhaps it is no accident that the Territory is now growing faster than any state!
I stress the essentially unstable nature of governments in Australia to highlight the frequent inability of most governments to do the things they really think should be done, because understanding the numbers is the first requirement of anyone wanting to make a successful submission to government. Remember that there is no point asking for that which cannot be delivered. Convincing a government is not in itself enough. If the change you want requires legislation then you must convince another party or group of independents as well.
Remember, too, that a successful submission will be one which convinces politicians that, when the winners and the losers from a decision are sorted out, - and losers as well as winners there always are if it is necessary to make a submission in the first place - that the balance of the numbers that matter to politicians, the votes on election day, are on your side.
It is for this reason that much of the work I do involves using an opinion pollster and not to ask some loaded question guaranteed to provide me with the right answer. Politicians might be fools about many things but falling for a bodgy poll is not one of them. The role of the sampler of public opinion in helping to prepare a case to influence government should be a very fundamental one.
The pollster can have a valuable say in determining how big an ask you make of government in the first place - of determining the limits of what a government can get away with giving you. Then the pollster should provide guidance as to how a decision that pleases some and upsets others can be sold so that the balance of advantage for a government is the right one.
Too often I have seen submissions fail because they concentrated on some abstract idea of what is right and proper without addressing those things which concern a politician who is by nature a "risk minimiser."
And these failures often have come well before an elected politician even sees a proposal. Good public servants have well developed antennae that enable them to sort out pretty well what their minister will find possible from the politically impossible. Addressing the negatives of your proposal is every bit as important as spelling out the positives.
Not that this means that to be a successful supplicant to government you must be able to show majority support among a broad public for the particular proposal. Thankfully for those who would manipulate the decision making process the arithmetic of politics does not work in so crude a fashion.
Sensible Australians ... and a large and clear majority are in that category ... Sensible Australians, when it comes to casting their vote, are not overly influenced by any one issue. There will normally be some aspects of the policies, the beliefs or the leadership of the party they vote for that people disagree with. Consciously or unconsciously sensible people weigh things up and regularly decide to support politicians they know are committed to doing some things they will not like because on balance they think there will be more benefits than disadvantages.
Such level headed, solid and balanced people, alas, are largely irrelevant to the political process. It is the tyranny of the militant minorities who will change their vote out of pique on a single issue that politicians fear and who therefore have the influence. If you can make a government worry that a decision against your submission will so upset people that a net two in a hundred will change from government voters to opposition voters, then it matters not that a clear majority of the sensible people hold a different view.
This blackmail by the minority has long been the lynchpin for the environmental movement in all its forms - including the pressure being so skilfully applied at this moment to the Howard Government over above ground telephone wires. That campaign is succeeding because Liberal members representing leafy suburbs blessed with underground cables have been exposed to such anger from people they thought were true-blue Liberals who understood the benefits of micro economic reform that those members are seriously worried about losing their pre-selection or their seat to an independent.
There is little or no protest out in the land of the quarter acre block where most city dwellers are used to a jungle of overhead wires. But the campaign which ensures that battling families will continue to pay more than necessary for their telephone calls to protect this latest militant minority 's view of beauty is working like a charm. A perfect illustration of Napoleon's dictum that "Ten persons who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent" and this inner city revolt will surely become a case study of how to over turn a decision by government. I am envious of the skills of those who are running it.
Mr Chairman, I know that you wish there to be time for questions but, if I may, I would like to touch briefly on some of the more practical matters relevant to making an effective submission.
The first is to clearly work out what your problem is and the ways it can be solved. Unless you are trying to dud a competitor in the same industry as yours, then, unless you are a large organisation with an in house government relations team, your industry association is the right place to turn for advice and help about who to approach and how. I would be surprised if you were ever advised not to start your efforts to solve a problem as far down the line as the decisions you don't like are being made. There is no group more difficult than public servants with their noses out of joint because they were embarrased to hear from on high that you had made a complaint or a request for change.
If the losers from what you are trying to achieve are too close for your industry association to assist then there are a number of ways of getting help in putting the right words together in a proper form and getting them to the right person. You have a copy, I think, of the excellent guide book prepared by Alan Hunt, who has organised this seminar, which will assist you do it yourself. Some of the big accounting firms have developed considerable skills in this area as well and if your government relations need is in the field of winning a contract of some kind or other then I would be approaching someone like Price Waterhouse in Canberra for guidance.
I hope that plug helps keep my retainer going but then at least I know that PW's agree with me that the best lobbyist is always the client. Whether it be a public servant or a politician you are seeing, your own best presenter is yourself. By all means obtain what intelligence you can from people whose business it is to know the way that government works. Get them to help draft a submission but don't have a hired gun barging around making the representations on your company's behalf. If it is important enough to want government to make a decision for you then it's important enough to show that by presenting the material yourself.
Now maybe there are some specific and practical matters that some of you might like me to address and I will be pleased to do that during question time. But might I conclude by saying that wherever possible dress your submission up to disguise the self interest that inevitably motivates it as much as possible. I have always been rather taken with the example of the London newsboys who in 1820 petitioned the House of Lords to abolish Sunday papers because of their "tendency to the destruction of public morals " and because they distracted people from attending the divine service. Far nobler than saying they wanted the day off and a technique still being used, I note, in Victoria today where shop assistants are trying to resist seven day a week trading.
And as I began with a reference to alcohol, so may I finish with a story that may give hope to those who find the whole idea of special interests pushing their barrows slightly disturbing. As the Californian legislator Jesse Unruh once remarked:
 If you can't drink their booze,
 take their money, fool with their women
 and then vote against 'em, you don't belong in politics."
In my experience there are many in Canberra who do belong in politics. The lobbyists will never always win.