Under pressure
Australian government policy is increasingly coming under pressure from well-connected lobbyists. Are we headed for a US-style future?


Under pressure

Australian government policy is increasingly coming under pressure from well-connected lobbyists. Are we headed for a US-style future?

Dr Li Ji (PhD International Communications 2013) is a researcher at the Soft Power, Analysis and Resource Centre (SPARC) at Macquarie, where her research investigates the ethical use of ‘soft power’ in public diplomacy and governance, and how it is used to build relations between nations, organisations and communities.

She says that soft power represents public perception, values and preferences and weighs heavily on the policy making process.

“Hard power such as public protests can certainly have immediate effects on the political conversation between NGOs and the government,” she explains.

By campaigning around policy issues like climate change, gender issues, migration or disarmament, NGOs aim to influence the policy-making process, she explains.

“NGOs are a powerful force in influencing public opinion and receive significant media attention to achieve their agenda,” she says, adding that their approaches can include subtle manipulation of media.

“They achieve their preferred outcomes through effective soft-power strategies including media agenda-setting and framing campaigns and events.”

Influence, donations and exploitations

Political donations are ostensibly given without ties to policy outcomes, with some organisations making donations to both of Australia’s major political parties.

But, Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, who teaches economic sociology in Macquarie’s Department of Sociology, says that while Australia does have a few restrictions on political donations, the system is ripe for exploitation – and the consequence of its abuse is a government that governs for the few, not for the many.

He says that in recent decades, corporations around the world have worked to increase their influence on government through direct financial pressure – such as political donations that come with expectations of legislative payback – and through indirect measures such as well-funded media campaigns and sophisticated lobbying.

He says that while there is little research in Australia directly linking political influence and democratic outcomes, there are signs that patterns found in the US are reflected here.

“Research in the US by political scientists Hacker and Pierson has shown that the increasing inequity in wealth is directly linked to political influence,” Spies-Butcher says.

“The top one per cent of people by wealth have seen their incomes skyrocket and that’s due to their influence on laws that reduce taxes, keep wages low and cut regulations on industry.”

Spies-Butcher says that the other way that industry and private interests can influence government is through media campaigns and advertising as well as through lobbying media owners to take a particular policy position.

Media influence may be less obvious in terms of its impact on power but it is still a way of undermining its democratic process, he adds.

“In a democracy, the fundamental concept is that all votes should count equally, but the exertion of political influence through donations and lobbying and through the ability to influence through media control, means that there isn’t equal access in getting your voice heard.”

Political donations – a slippery slope

Dr Diana Perche (M Politics and Public Policy, 2003) is Director of the Master of Politics and Public Policy program at Macquarie where her research includes a focus on Indigenous affairs.

She says says that the exertion of political power is more subtle than most people are aware of.

“While there are very overt actions, such as media campaigns and political donations, there are also covert actions; the public will never know about [a lot of the influence being wielded], because there are phone calls and direct access at functions and so on that never come out into the open.”

She says that commercial interests have always held sway over government policy and her work on policy decisions around Indigenous land between the 1960s and 1980s shows the huge influence of mining companies on government policy.

“Changes made to the Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory in 2006 worked in favour of the mining industry by weakening the power of Land Councils,” she explains. Control of the land was given to government, which could then allocate use of the land to resources companies.

However effective policy change can be achieved, with a bipartisan approach key to making it work.

“For example, both sides of politics took very conscious decisions in the late 80s and early 90s to push back against the tobacco industry, and we’re seeing fantastic results now. It’s not an easy path for governments to continue to limit tobacco consumption and tobacco advertising and plain packaging of cigarettes; it’s an enormous battle to fight.”

The softer alternative

Home to a team of researchers committed to the diplomatic approach to achieving strategic objectives, Macquarie University’s Soft Power Analysis and Resource Centre (SPARC) is the first of its kind in Australia.

SPARC’s activities focus on quietly nurturing relationships between Australia, China and India, the growing importance of India-China cooperation and exploring new approaches to building international relations through soft power and public diplomacy.


This is an excerpt from an article published in Sirius. Read the full story.

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