Jonathan Swan, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2012
Once big business would meet government officials behind the scenes to put their case, but now it is taking on politicians in the court of public opinion. Jonathan Swan investigates.
Working late one night, Kevin Rudd's former media adviser Lachlan Harris came over queasy as a scene unfolded on the office television. A geologist stood on red earth, talking about mining's importance.
The advertisement was simple and emotive and Harris recognised it instantly as the work of Neil Lawrence, the creative mind behind the Kevin 07 election campaign. ''It was just a moment when you realised just how tough a fight it was going to be,'' Harris recalled.
He had no idea that the moment also signalled a change in the nature of public lobbying and politics in Australia. The miners went public with their grievances and splashed $22 million on advertising. Within a month Labor had panicked; Rudd was removed and Gillard lowered the mining tax from about $10 billion a year to about $4 billion.
On Friday, the miners were at it again. The Minerals Council bought full-page advertisements in national newspapers that urged Labor not to level ''new taxes'' against the mining industry in the May federal budget. ''Australian mining. It's not a bottomless pit,'' they said.
A string of vested interest groups have tried to copy the miners: Gerry Harvey and shopfront retailers versus the internet, the tobacco industry versus plain packaging and Clubs Australia versus mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines.
Arguments that once occurred inside politicians' offices are now routinely aired in loud, public advertising campaigns. And it is not just policy disputes.
The Fortescue boss, Andrew ''Twiggy'' Forrest, bought full-page advertisements in newspapers to personally attack Wayne Swan after the Treasurer rebuked the billionaires Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer for injecting ''poison'' into Australia's democracy.
''The amount of corporate advertising aimed at changing government decision-making is quite unprecedented in the 25 years I've been working in the game,'' said Justin Di Lollo, the managing director of Hawker Britton, a Labor government relations firm.
Public lobbying has been common in American politics for years, and has recently become widespread and high-profile in Australia. Is this because business leaders cannot get meetings with ministers, or after the success of the miners a simple case of follow the leader?
A Rudd confidant, Bruce Hawker, believes there is more to the trend than companies feeling shut out of government. ''There have been a number of high-profile and high-impact decisions by the government that pose big financial threats to wealthy companies,'' Hawker said. ''These companies have a lot to lose and therefore they are prepared to spend.''
Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and friends spent $22 million on their advertising campaign and saved themselves an estimated $60 billion over 10 years. British American Tobacco has spent $4.5 million on its campaign against the plain packaging legislation.
British American Tobacco Australia maintains it went public only because its chief executive could not get a meeting with the then health minister, Nicola Roxon.
''Our CEO requested meetings with the then health minister via email and phone a number of times without success,'' Scott McIntyre, a spokesman for BATA, said.
Roxon, now the Attorney-General, rejected the implied criticism: ''My then department met regularly with representatives from big tobacco. However, I saw no value to meet personally with companies that had already trenchantly declared their total opposition to our action.''
The Minerals Council said it had no choice but to pursue a public campaign. Their argument gained credibility after Gillard criticised her former boss for not adequately consulting with the mining companies.
''We didn't really set out to change public opinion. We set out to send a message to government because we weren't getting access to them,'' a source close to the council campaign said. ''The policy didn't pass the pub test, and all we did was confirm that view by being so vociferous.''
Swan and some Labor colleagues have expressed concerns that wealthy vested interests are buying democracy in Australia. ''The infamous billionaires' protest against the mining tax would have been laughed out of town in the Australia I grew up in, and yet it received a wide and favourable reception two years ago,'' Swan recently wrote in The Monthly.
As the advertising man for those ''infamous billionaires'', Neil Lawrence believes it is simplistic to suggest money alone is enough to run a successful campaign.
''There's a superficial and somewhat naive belief that anyone with a lot of money can get out there and bludgeon their way into getting what they want,'' he said. ''If you've just got the money, but you haven't got good work and you haven't got a good argument and you haven't got a good strategy, you're going to fail.''
Lawrence cited Harvey's campaign to tax internet purchases under $1000, which ironically reminded Australians they could shop cheaper online. ''It probably is one of the great own goals,'' he said.