ABC kicked off a new series this week on “Influencers” – as well as a very punchy article about lobbyists outnumbering politicians three to one in Canberra. When we first establish Tanck a number of years ago, it was in response to many of the points raised by ABC – rules of lobbyists, transparency, public outcomes and beyond – so what does this increase “transparency” mean for the social purpose sector?
Let’s start with what lobbying is – lobbying can be largely divided into two categories, in-house lobbying, where it is clearly obvious who you are campaigning for (your employer) and what you are campaigning about (your company/business). The second category is paid lobbyists—that is, outsourced arrangements who are part of the billion dollar a year industry, with 705 federally registered lobbyists. This is where most of the concerns are directed.
ABC raised a number of issues with the current “light touch” regulatory environment, and compared to NZ, Canada the US and the UK, Australia lags in relation to these regulations. Some of the concerns raised by ABC and supported by Independent MP Monique Ryan are around ensuring the (now voluntary) code of conduct is enforceable (with fines for breaches), as well as extending the cooling off period for members and their staff, publishing diaries and removing lobbyists from election campaigns. There are also a few changes proposed for in-house staff – although to a much lesser extent – primarily focusing on them being captured by the code of conduct for lobbyists (which is a good thing).
Missing from the segment were a number of matters others have been raising for quite a few years—these matters also warrant some concern, particularly for the not for profit and social purpose sector.
Firstly, lobbying firms continue to play both sides of the argument, with no mandatory disclosures to clients and no real regulations forcing lobbying firms to actual have strict “walls” between clients. A quick glance at the Federal (or States) lobbying register shows a number of lobbying firms who play both sides of the argument – property developer and homelessness providers are represented by the same firm, or fossil fuel companies and environment NGOs by the same lobbying firm. This creates substantial issues: for example internal walls may be unregulated, or many not for profits may have information “shared” with those ideologically opposed. Even worse, some clients of lobbying firms aren’t aware that their “firm” is playing both sides of the issue. Mandatory disclosures are a minimum here, but there needs to be longer discussion that ensures that lobbyists can’t be internally conflicted based on who pays the most money.
Secondly, many lobbying firms continue to offer pro-bono work for the social purpose sector to create a halo effect for their corporate clients. In short, lobbying firms offer low-bono or pro-bono costs for social purpose organisations, but then leverage this work for the benefit of high fee paying clients. Using not for profit organisations’ positive goodwill to benefit private companies, is, in my opinion, unethical and compounded with my first point above (around working both sides of an issue) you get a deeply conflicted firm, whose values do not necessarily align with the not for profit or social purpose organisation.
Finally, NFPs and social sector organisations need to consider the impact of being a “client” on the register. Public servants are increasingly cautious, and actively checking lobbying registers before awarding tenders and grants—you being on the register could actually hinder your tender or proposal, or at least ensure it received more scrutiny than necessary. Media is more attentive to the issue facing the sector also, and if your chosen lobbying firm is caught in a messy situation you could potentially become collateral damage.
So, what can you do about it?
First things first, check each State and Territory and Federal register and see if you are listed – some registers are indefinite—which means if you use a lobbying firm once, you are on it for life. Others have a time period for disclosure, and some not for profits we talk to do not even know the firm which has added them to the register.
Secondly, consider if you need a lobbying firm. Our belief is that not for profit organisations and social purpose organisations have a great story to tell, and if given the right tools, do not need to engage lobbyists. Consider your internal skills and ability, networks and opportunities – and as always balance the benefits versus the costs -even a low-bono or pro-bono lobbying firm working for you may do more harm than good.
Lobbying is a controversial issue that is increasingly under scrutiny by the public and media. While this round of reforms looks to be rejected by the major parties, the issue hasn’t fully gone away so expect more focus in this space, and ensure your house (and lobbying history) is in order.
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.