Lobbyists part of the landscape

The Good Oil * By Rod Brown

A colleague in Canberra – let’s just call him JB – describes himself as ‘Lobbyist’ on his business card. I always thought he was brave. Come to think of it, he used to wear a panama hat, but has now switched to a Brumbies beanie.  

As a result of all the recent kerfuffle in Western Australia, there are now calls for registration of federal lobbyists like JB and countless others. It won’t worry JB. But for the Feds and States to go this route is misguided.  It smacks of the common approach these days of trying to solve problems with more regulation. It will not address the issues highlighted in the Brian Burke affair, because there are some fundamental things out of kilter.   Let’s think about this.  Legitimate lobbying forms part of the democratic process and provides important information to decision makers. Inappropriate lobbying is intended to, or can, have the effect of undermining the integrity of decision making processes.
The ICAC enquiry into the Westfield-Orange Grove affair in Sydney in 2005 m ade this important distinction. It concluded that guidelines – and not regulation – are the answer. But at the end of the day, guidelines won’t stop  stu pidity and/or crooked behaviour either.  And the risk is that restricting lobbying will transfer power to a handful of the big lobby groups. As ICAC concluded, proper lobbying is part of the information gathering process.

Exit of Ministers

Speaking of stupidity, an increasing number of Federal and State politicians are making graceless exits due to their disregard of guidelines and/or directives about share trading and contacts with the private sector. They get caught up in the Queen Bee syndrome, and forget they too are subject to tight governance arrangements. And the media is especially alert. There are some very nervous politicians in Canberra at the moment.

Lobbying by Councils

Councils should not be dissuaded from lobbying. The ALGA is good at it, and some of the State Associations aren’t exactly shy.  But there are many numerous areas that probably fall outside their remit. In this regard, various Councils have recently sought our advice on lobbying, and we have referred them onto JB (as above) and others.

Examples of initiatives that a coalition of Councils could be pursuing with the support of lobbyists include:

  • accessing the Water Fund with some really smart ideas
  • proposing best practice ways of dealing with youth unemployment and alienation
  • developing mechanisms to get more investment into regional Australia
  • improving the reach of arts and culture programs
  • getting more professional about coastal surveillance and security
  • building stronger health and quarantine systems at the local level 
  • coordinating local infrastructure to extend the AusLink agenda.

These are tricky areas, and front end work needs to be done. Successful lobbying starts with understanding the government agency's policy and program settings, developing a very good product with some ‘gee whiz’ elements, and building the confidence of the official in the agency who may be a few rungs down from where you think you should be operating!

Landry in Perth

While on the subject of Perth, UK cultural planning guru, Charles Landry, was in Perth for seven weeks advising on how it can be the best city for the world. He got 1,000 along to hear his farewell talk. His first impression of Perth was of the plethora of signs prohibiting almost every conceivable street activity. He also detected a ‘good enough’ attitude and easy going complacency – ‘if I heard people talk about its great lifestyle once, I heard it a thousand times’ as Victoria Laurie reported him in the SMH. He went on to ask what the creative sector could offer the city and the world – could Perth hold the world’s biggest exhibition of Aboriginal art? Could it confront its Dullsville tag by starting a series of festivals to fill its soulless back alleys?

He noted that the Danish urban architect, Jan Gehl, has visited twice but his ideas for street cafes and a walker friendly city, while whole heartedly embraced in Melbourne, were largely ignored.

Charles’ comments gel with others I’ve heard about the dreariness of the Perth CBD, and the lack of zip evident in the Burswood Casino these days. It sits oddly with the city’s confidence, and go go attitude.  

A couple of year’s back I reported on Charles’ take on Adelaide – which was their need to ask permission for everything, and his suggestion that Adelaideans get a bit WILD. His prescription for Perth is similar. His take on Canberra during a short stopover was the proliferation of white buildings reinforced its blandness! He’s got a point.

Sydney built environment

Trying to find decent digs for my daughter in Sydney has been frustrating to say the least. The rental market in the eastern suburbs has been so tight for so long that the pundits say that it’s impacting on the quality of residential housing.

A real estate agent privately confided to me that the landlords have little commercial pressure to address tenants’ complaints about faults.

At another level, there is an undoubted lack of quality in Sydney’s architecture compared with that of, say, Melbourne.

In this regard, Professor Ed Blakely (Sydney University) is somewhat miffed that the Feds have withdrawn from urban affairs and that Australia is the only OECD country that doesn’t have an urban affairs ministry.

He could well be right, but in the meantime, this is another avenue where Local Government is continuing to fill that vacuum.

* Articles in the Good Oil column are provided by members of the Cockatoo network – an international group of individuals and organisations that collaborate on industry and regional issues. Contact apd@orac.net.au for membership details.