News Analysis

Friday 29 August 2014

For better or worse, the mysterious craft of the political lobbyist is here to stay

Mandy Johnston

Published 25/04/2014 | 02:30

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Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery
Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery

"Those who do not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground." – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

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Whilst I have never been a lobbyist, I can now confess that as a former government press secretary and government advisor I have indeed been "lobbied". The initial experience was so subtle that had I not been in possession of my full faculties I may have missed the episode entirely.

And so, as one of the chosen few from the corridors of power to have been shined upon in this way by a lobbyist, I feel morally obliged to enlighten you poor unfortunates who remain mystified by the dark and mysterious underworld of the loquacious lobbyist.

Allow me to explain what a lobbyist looks like from the other side, and describe how they operate and influence change on behalf of their wealthy clients.

Any clinical assessment of the lobbying trade would suggest that it is simply that companies and organisations from all sectors, pay professional people to influence the system of government on their behalf.

Companies do this because they concede to knowing little about our system of government, and have neither the time nor the inclination to do so from within their existing organisational structures. So they decide to enlist the services of someone who knows how the system works, a local guide if you like.

For a moment imagine that the company or organisation is a Formula One car. Suddenly there are problems in the engine. Unstoppable smoke spewing. Well, you wouldn't expect to find a CEO greased up with a screwdriver and a spanner under the bonnet now would you? So they call in a mechanic.

Having a lobbyist is a bit like having a company mechanic at your disposal all of the time. He keeps you on the road. He makes sure you know all the bumps that are coming ahead before the race starts. Most importantly he gets you into the race and tries to put you in poll position to win.

If he is good at what he does no one will ever know that he is your mechanic, they will just see you driving around in a big shiny car.

Like Formula One, it's a costly business. And whilst there are some ladies involved you are less likely to find a woman wearing the dungarees.

The best type of lobbyist has lengthy and actual hands on experience in government. He has a willingness to fight for the client, has good contacts in all political parties and with the civil service. In addition he will have a credible reputation for resolving issues and devising future strategies to avoid a reoccurrence.

In practice lobbyists tend to be the same type of people. Erudite, urbane, affable, amiable, able, pleasant, interesting, crafty, cunning, cute, careful (mostly), and discrete, very very discrete.

Lobbyists are well able to talk but are even better listeners. The biggest influencers are embedded deeply in official Ireland and decision makers know who they are. And no they don't regularly walk, let alone stalk the corridors of power, where they can easily be seen by gawkers, gossips and journalists. Discretion is everything.

It has been a long time since grassroots moved the agendas of political parties in this country and for quite some time special interests have prevailed where the public interest has failed. While the influence of lobbyists is growing in Ireland we have yet to reach the dizzy dancing of the lobbyist in the American political system.

Their influence on successive US governments and the legislative system has become so intertwined with policy that it is almost impossible to see where the corporate world starts and where the political world ends.

At home recent scandals have not helped the profession and have done little to ameliorate a growing climate of concern about influence and access without any transparency. This has added to the common, if stereotyped, perception of Machiavellian figures stalking the corridors of power. Such stereotyping belies a complicated and necessary profession by focusing on the practitioners and not the practice. In an effort to shed the negative connotations associated with the profession, lobbyists are now known euphemistically as "public affairs consultants" and for good or evil they are here to stay.

As bureaucracy continues to blossom and more of our business is decided by European legislation, companies and major interest groups must do all they can to stay ahead of the game. It is against this backdrop that we await the publication of the legislation on lobbyists which the Government has promised for this Dail session.

This Government promised us a new way of doing things when it comes to the operation of public policy. So policy involving reform of how politics operates should be paramount to their agenda. Whilst the forthcoming legislation may deliver some sexy news stories like a register of interests, it is unlikely to be a game changer. Because Ireland is a small country Leinster House is a tiny microcosm where everyone knows exactly who represents who already. If that is not obvious to politicians and political parties then either the politicians are stupid or the lobbyist (or public affairs consultant) is not very good at their job and may wish to consider a career change.

Sadly (or thankfully) there are no courses to teach you how to do be a lobbyist. The only way into the system is to go through the system.

In the jungle of politics and public opinion it's fair to ask if lobbyists shape the law in a clandestine fashion. The answer lies with the strength of the Government, not the strength of lobbyists who after all are only earning a crust, poor mites. Ask Frank Flannery.

Irish Independent

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