Capital Management

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 15:14

With Canberra's emerging private sector economy, and its status as the place where the big policy decisions are made, savvy managers and lobbyists know that a presence in the Capital can be vital to business and influence. By Gillian Bullock

There's a tendency to think that peddling influence is a recent phenomenon, but lobbying has been around for many a year. Back in 1947, the banks successfully lobbied to stop the Chifley Government's proposed nationalisation of the country's trading banks.

According to The Bank of New South Wales: A History, by R.F. Holder, the bank (now Westpac) and the other players in the market, implemented a number of measures to counter Chifley's proposal.

The bank, for instance, set up a small group under a senior liaison officer as a clearing house for the preparation of articles, statements, broadcasts and answers to queries. Staff were called on to take up the fight to convince the public, and the Trading Banks' Staff Protest Committee was established.

At the time this was not enough and the Banking Bill of 1947 was introduced. The banks then collectively took the battle to the High Court to test the validity of the Act. The Court ruled in favour of the banks.

In more recent times lobbying has become a far more sophisticated activity, and its growth in importance has helped turn Canberra into a thriving city.

It was helped with some healthy concessional grants - given to many national associations during the 1980s through to the mid-1990s - to encourage them to establish their headquarters in Canberra . As a result, the suburb of Deakin is referred to by some as Association Central. And Barton is not far behind.

National associations with headquarters in Canberra include the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Coal Association, the Pharmacy Guild, Association of Financial Advisers, the Australian Information Industry Association, The Motor Trades Association of Australia, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group, Federation of Automotive Industries and smaller special-interest groups like Diabetes Australia.

Why Canberra?

It's not just lobbying that is attracting people to Canberra. When the Howard Government came into power in 1996, it moved to outsource much of the public service. Private industry began to emerge to provide services like accounting, printing, IT consultants, clerks, recruiting agencies and so on to the government.

In turn, more small businesses were established to service these suppliers to the government. Indeed, private industry now employs more people than the public service. It is estimated that the ratio is now 60:40. This is a far cry from the 1980s and early 1990s when virtually everybody was a government employee.

John Mackay, Chief Executive of ActewAGL, Australia 's first utility joint public/private venture, believes there are reasons why Canberra has become so attractive.

"Canberra has most of the benefits of the other big cities but none of the problems," says Mackay. "And it's just a 50-minute flight from Sydney or a three-hour drive, so it's very convenient to commute. Canberra has a much easier lifestyle and fantastic access to education."

Companies in the information and communications technology (ICT) arena have been flocking to Canberra, and there are now some 1000 specialist ICT businesses there including Raytheon Australia, Oracle, EDS, Protocom Development Systems, CEA Technologies, Electro Optic Systems and Irrational Games. Many of these companies sell to the Federal Government, but they are also involved in exporting.

The government itself is a major drawcard for businesses setting up in Canberra, given that it spends some $200 billion a year on goods and services.

Raytheon Australia's Director of Program Management Andrew Pyke says there are two key reasons why the organisation uses Canberra for its headquarters.

"We chose Canberra because of its proximity to our major customers, the Federal Government and Department of Defence, which gives us the opportunity to have a more frequent and conversational relationship than if we were in another state," says Pyke. "Secondly, Canberra gives us access to a talent pool that is very valuable to the business."

Raytheon Australia employs 250 people in Canberra alone. But talk to anybody who lives in Canberra and they will sing its praises.

Craig Sloan, Chairman of the Canberra Business Council, for instance, points to the ease with which one can do business. "It's easy to do business in Canberra ; it's easy to get in and out, and you are only ever 10 or 15 minutes from your client so you have good relationships with your business partners."

The quality of life is no doubt another reason why the population has grown from 50,000 people some 40 years ago to more than 330,000 today. According to a report from Business ACT, Canberra has the most highly educated workforce in the country. The proportion of people with a bachelor's degree is higher than the Australian national average.

Canberra also has the highest research intensity in Australia. Although it accounts for just 1.6 per cent of Australia's population, it attracts almost 12 per cent of national expenditure on research and development.

Culturally too, Canberra has plenty to offer. One of its claims to fame is that it has more restaurants per head of population than anywhere else in Australia. The image of Canberra as a transient town - a place you move to for work and then leave when you retire - has disappeared with most people regarding the capital as "home".

The growth in lobbying

While some corporations do have representatives based in Canberra, many major Australian businesses employ independent lobby groups to represent their interests. There is some argument that large corporations prefer to use independent lobbyists as this can deliver a better hearing from the politicians.

But whether a lobbyist is independent, a corporate player or an industry association, it is estimated that there are some 200 of them now plying their trade in Canberra.

Some people see the growth in the number of lobbyists as coming hand in hand with an increase in the ranks of political staffers. David Kindon, Chief Executive of independent lobby group Client Solutions, says lobbying has changed over the years.

"Lobbyists used to operate as an old boys' network," says Kindon. "Then government relations firms emerged: a combination of the old guard with graduates in communications and political science.

"These organisations then coalesced into multinational communications conglomerates offering massive resources. Then the large accounting and legal firms started in government relations and then smaller operations came along."

As a result, lobbying is far more targeted these days. "It's no longer the old boy's network that it was, although it is still important who you know," says Kindon.

Elsewhere, Doug Holden, Director of External Relations at the Australian Coal Association (ACA), also believes lobbying has become far more interactive with the advent of modern technology. ACA is an industry body based in Barton that represents the interests of the black coal producers in NSW and Queensland.

The lobbying game

But not everybody agrees that lobbying has come of age. Jim Service, a stalwart of business in the ACT, believes lobbyists still have a long way to go.

"Lobbying is now more professional, so it's not just a question of knowing people but also having a well thought out case," he says. "But business in Australia has a poor understanding of government processes and relations. We've improved, but have a long way to go."

Certainly lobbying would be quite different from those days back in the 1940s when the banks took on the Chifley Government. According to a presentation made by Virginia Walsh, when she was executive director of the Australian Library and Information Association back in the late 1990s, one of the essential ingredients of successful advocacy is that the case you are presenting must be well researched.

Walsh, who is now Executive Director with Group of Eight, an organisation that represents Australia's leading universities, says the lobbying process remains the same. She says the process is similar across all types of organisations, it's just the subject matter that varies.

As well as identifying problems, a lobbyist has to develop a plan for their resolution. And it's important that the case is not seen as solely based on self interest. Once you have got this far, then you need to identify the influential decision-makers. Walsh says you will also need to target the gatekeepers who are those who can provide access to the decision makers.

Community support is also a vital ingredient, as is addressing those who might oppose your case.

And on a salient note Walsh comments that the best and most successful advocates are not always the most well known; and indeed the reverse can also ring true. This in some senses reflects the differences between lobbyists. Some prefer to work behind the scenes and promote the companies and organisations they represent; others choose to leverage off their reputation.

Lobbying is part and parcel of life in the nation's capital, along with a thriving ICT industry. Canberra is no longer a place in the middle of nowhere, where public servants simply go to work.