View from The Hill

Liberal lobbyists look to the good times

Peter Costello is one of the many former politicians and staffers working in lobby firms. AAP/Dave Hunt

As the opinion polls point solidly to a likely Liberal win in September, one industry is already set for a big structural adjustment.

Who’s up and who’s down among the lobbyists depends substantially on the hue of the government, and firms are preparing for a shift of influence.

It was recently reported that NSW Liberal figure Michael Photios, who operates in Sydney, had registered the name Capital Hill Advisory in Canberra and was taking on two former Howard government staffers.

Having once worked for the former PM or his ministers would be one of the best items to have on their CV for those looking for lobbying jobs later this year.

Former Howard chief of staff Grahame Morris is federal director of Barton Deakin Government Relations, a “Liberal” firm which hit the ground in 2010 in anticipation of a NSW Liberal government and the hope that the federal wheel might not be so long in turning.

Morris works with David Alexander, a former Costello staffer, and the firm’s state representatives include Sallyanne Atkinson, former Lord Mayor of Brisbane and former federal Liberal candidate. In Victoria the firm has John Griffin, who worked for Howard. Peter Collins, one-time NSW Liberal leader, operates out of Sydney.

Barton Deakin is the Liberal “sister” of the Labor firm Hawker Britton – the parent company of both is STW Group, a marketing and PR umbrella with more than 75 operating companies. Clients will be shifted across within the family, from Hawker Britton to Barton Deakin.

“If Tony wins, we are looking at putting on seven or eight people overnight [in Canberra]”, Morris tells The Conversation. “The sort of people” it would like to hire would be Howard government staffers (after all, Abbott boasts that 16 of his team were former ministers – it would be like old home week).

It could be a tight market, Morris thinks, because the firm would be in competition with the staff-vetting committee that a Coalition government would have.

The lobbying businesses – there are nearly 280 on the federal register - include companies such as Kreab Gavin Anderson, which is essentially fire-proofed against the political cycle.

It does broader corporate and financial communication work as well as lobbying. Employing people from both sides of the political fence, it can shift its talent to suit the complexion of the government. Managing partner Brian Tyson says: “We’re bipartisan – that’s our model; our business is largely unaffected by changes of government”.

The politically-tailored firms include hybrids. Ian Smith’s Bespoke Approach, which operates out of Adelaide, has two high profile former cabinet ministers, Alexander Downer (Liberal) and Nick Bolkus (Labor). Smith (who worked for former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett) has recently teamed up with former Northern Territory Labor chief minister Paul Henderson: Bespoke Approach and Henderson have established Bespoke Territory, based in Darwin.

Government Relations Australia has former federal Treasurer John Dawkins as a director and has just appointed former Liberal minister Helen Coonan to its board (it’s not planned she will directly lobby). Its policy is for a bipartisan board with a slight tilt to the government of the day.

The “rats and mice” of the industry include small outfits often started by former political staffers. Steve Carney of Carney Associates hung out his shingle in 1979 after working for then National Country party deputy leader Ian Sinclair. “We call ourselves boutique. We deal equally well with Liberal and Labor governments”, Carney says. “We try to leave no thumbprints on the glass, no footprints in the sand. The best lobbying is when nobody knows you were there”.

He agrees that if there were a Coalition government the affinity and closeness he has preserved with the Nationals “would provide better access for our clients in terms of the portfolios of regional Australia, transport and infrastructure and agriculture”.

One newish firm with an impeccable Liberal pedigree and so strong prospects if Abbott wins is ECG Advisory Solutions. Peter Costello chairs the ECG Advisory Board, and one of the firm’s two directors is David Gazard, who worked for Costello, Abbott and Howard and was the Liberal candidate for Eden-Monaro in 2010.

ECG Solutions has boosted its profile by commissioning polling, which the Australian Financial Review is jointly sponsoring, ensuring it gets big coverage in a paper that is influential in business circles.

Gazard see their firm as a cut about common or garden lobbyists.

“We’re more about – with the personnel we have – providing deeper insight into the political and regulatory framework of a new government, rather than door opening.

‘'There will be a million people who once worked for a Liberal parliamentary secretary but we’re blessed to have the former treasurer who played a big part in developing the regulatory settings of policy and can negotiate a way throught that maze.”

For the next few months, however, Hawker Britton will continue to be number one in Canberra. On the register it lists 113 companies as clients, including Bunnings, Officeworks, the Macquarie Group Ltd, and a number of educational institutions. The firm has half a dozen consultants in total including two in Canberra. The Hawker Britton boys and girls volunteer to work in ALP campaigns.

Simon Banks, a director, has worked for a Labor who’s who – Kevin Rudd (in opposition), Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Robert McClelland (“I can keep going”). “We make no secret of the fact that we’re Labor aligned”, Banks says. “So it’s not as busy when there is a Coalition government”. Under an Abbott government Banks would probably be the only person based in Canberra.

“We’re very confident we’ll continue to operate in the Canberra market”, he says, but on a significantly smaller scale. Some work will remain because quite a deal of lobbying activity involves politically uncontentious matters, such as clients needing to know about uncontroversial legislation before parliament. “We regularly take people to meet with Liberal shadow ministers, staff and parliamentarians.

"But when a matter is politically contentious, it’s far more likely that [under a conservative government] people would want a Liberal-aligned firm”.

The lobbyists’ register requires that firms list the names of people undertaking lobbying of the federal government. But this doesn’t apply to those who are employed on staff to lobby on behalf of big companies like News and BHP Billiton. The latter took on former Labor heavyweight Geoff Walsh, who was a key adviser to Bob Hawke and national secretary of the ALP. Morris believes the register should be extended to include such in-house lobbyists. “They have serious clout”, he says.

As some firms prepare to rearrange themselves to get the right “Coalition look”, and talent spotting is underway, Ian Smith sounds a warning.

Firms need to be careful “into jumping into offering clients people who are purely touted as Coalition people. That’s not enough. What they have to be are experienced and skilled political operators capable of giving sound advice. If those with experience and skill come from the same political background, that’s a bonus.”

And, says Smith, don’t forget another talent pool. “There are some exceptional people in the world of lobbying who come from a public service background.” He names Jennifer Westacott, currently chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.

With the Coalition committed to cutting back the bureaucracy, there could be a few potential recruits coming onto the market if Tony Abbott wins.

The last, most colourful word goes to Mark Textor, of Crosby Textor, a campaign strategy firm which advises the Liberals.

“We don’t have to refer to our registration as "lobbyists” because our influence is known. We leave that up to the secondary players,“ says Textor who describes the lobbying industry as fraudulent and sleazy, a "pathetic miserable industry” of door openers.

“Over the past two years, we helped formulate the Liberal plan, did the polling, gave strategic advice.

"Ultimately who are they going to listen to? Someone who was a junior hack in a Coalition minister’s office or someone who helped write the strategy?”.