Earning influence: what power might Bernardi’s grassroots lobby have?

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has reportedly devoted himself to mobilising a conservative lobby in Australia. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Earning influence: what power might Bernardi’s grassroots lobby have?

Inspired by the successes of American conservatism and motivated by a disgust with the moderate Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has reportedly devoted himself to mobilising a conservative lobby in Australia – to be called, rather straightforwardly, the Australian Conservatives.

While he may have overestimated the interest in such a movement in Australia, Bernardi fundamentally understands the potential impact of grassroots lobbying. Mobilising and organising large numbers of voters makes for a powerful political force. And, as a tool for change in democracies, its use is not limited to “elites”.

Bernardi’s movement, if it is to succeed, will borrow its methods from America’s grassroots political organisations. There, such dedicated groups can be as powerful as corporate and elite special interests. They make a profound social and economic impact by harnessing “people power” and contributing to the all-important “marketplace of ideas”.

Lessons from the US

Conservatives in the US realised the power of grassroots lobbying when, following Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988, he used his campaign funds and resources to form a Christian lobby – the Christian Coalition.

While Robertson never became president, he and Christian conservatives were still able to find their way into the White House. In return for their financial support and votes, George W. Bush’s administration was initially defined by its pandering to the Christian “moral majority”.

Soon after taking office in 2001, Bush pushed for anti-abortion laws, state funding of (mainly Christian) religious groups, and a “war on porn”.

Despite being known for their individualist ideologies, conservative groups now dominate. Lobbies of the left, such as unions, are no longer the most prolific organised groups in the US. It is the Tea Party, the Christian right and the National Rifle Association (among others) that seem to have disproportionate sway over Congress – but not, at least to the same extent, over the Supreme Court.

The Bush-era policies, the government shutdowns and the proliferation of gun rights are evidence of the extraordinary success of collective action by so-called “individualists”.

Their victories have often come despite being representative of minority public opinion. Americans are more likely to be against the Tea Party and its policies than for it, in favour of increased gun control, and for a separation of church and state. And yet, the views of the active minority are proving more powerful than the placid majority.

These minority groups get their way because they lobby effectively and are generally unmet by equally well-resourced, organised and populated opposition.

As with Bernardi’s proposed conservative movement, many will not like the message, but unless the critics are willing to work with others and coalesce around a cogent political platform of their own, complaints from the other side of politics – while potentially therapeutic – can become indolent and petulant.

The concern, then, becomes how groups of concerned citizens of all political stripes can have their own voices heard and – if their message is well-conceived – acted on.

Making grassroots work

Lobbying is generally effective for one reason: self-interest.

While there are altruistic politicians, the cynicism that defines modern politics – politicians gaining, maintaining and leveraging power – appears to be the principal cause of the steady, and generally unhealthy, pervasiveness of lobbying in democracies around the world.

In its most insidious form, this self-interest can manifest as corruption, but in most cases, politicians are concerned with winning elections. This is where grassroots lobbies become so effective.

How a lobby engages in the political sphere, and not just the size of its membership, significantly defines its success. Organisations that offer public information campaigns can make a big difference to the standing of a candidate or party.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton depends on such organisations to maintain the important “Latino” vote. In Australia, groups like Rosie Batty’s Never Alone helped create a royal commission and secured millions of dollars in funding for the campaign to end violence against women.

When well-organised and persistent, small groups can get their way. Such advocacy groups have made major changes to corporate policy via social media. They can similarly effect political change if they are able to generate enough interest.

Letter-writing, phoning, or emailing, too, can have a meaningful impact, and lobby groups of all sizes have often succeeded by concertedly contacting their representatives. This is why American corporate lobby groups so often use ads to try to get the public to pick up a phone or a pen.

The financial planners lobby is trying this approach in the US. It is resisting the move to require planners to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own (much like in Australia).

‘Secure Family’ ad.

But non-profits do it effectively too. Amnesty International often harnesses its membership base to secure all manner of important outcomes – Amnesty even provides a guide to do it.

Small-scale lobbies can also have a big impact by enlisting a “champion” to their cause – having celebrities, noted public intellectuals or politicians onside can make a big difference.

A vitamins industry ad starring Mel Gibson.

On the other hand, if the organisation is sufficiently large, its influence can be purely democratic; voting cohesively makes an organisation powerful. Bush’s election win was in part the result of the Christian lobby coming out to support him.

The American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) wields tremendous power in this way. It is no coincidence that many of the most die-hard “small-government” Republicans won’t touch Medicare and Medicaid, which the AARP holds sacrosanct.

Australia has no such near-monolithic voting blocks. But Bernardi wants to change that.

Buying influence?

Corporations and the super-wealthy have long recognised the importance of lobbying. In turn, the fruition of that recognition has led, over decades, to the gradual degradation of democracies around the world.

Corporate and super-wealthy special interests can access the “pay to play” of campaign donations, offer quid-pro-quo inducements and use professional lobbying services.

For some, then, political influence can be bought. This becomes particularly invidious when said purchase of such influence brings a reward that proves greater than the cost. In that sense, there is no real effort, no great sacrifice, nothing morally redeemable – an externalised cost, a privatised profit.

Most people have no such advantage. But the imbalance can be overcome by sheer numbers and a willingness to speak, listen and act. Lobbying is, therefore, both the cause of democratic failure and the only viable solution.