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Will the debate on corporate lobbying grow up?

Date: 22 Mar 2014

The Guardian newspaper recently carried an article that was absolutely typical of where the debate on corporate lobbying has been for the past decade. "Ten ways", it screamed, "big business controls government". And what followed was a list of various lobbying tactics and approaches that have had some track record of success in influencing debate.

It's ironic, of course, because the people complaining the loudest about corporate lobbying are the NGO campaigners - who are playing the same game. Many of the techniques described are ones that they also happily use. It's just that in their minds they are influencing on the side of the angels, and the other lot are knowingly and deliberately undermining good policy for short term returns.

This can be a delusion. Campaigners sometimes will take up obvious, knee-jerk policy positions that turn out to be wrong. They can be lazy - supporting bills that purport to address a problem but actually won't be effective, or will be effective but at disproportionate cost. But, of course, such support is always painted in very black and white terms. If a company opposes one particular legislative proposal, it must be cynical corporate greed because no other explanation fits.

So what are these dire techniques that are allegedly making a mockery of our democracy. Without repeating the whole article, here are a few.

"Controlling the ground" - which means "steering conversations away from those they can't win and onto those they can. If a public discussion on a company's environmental impact is unwelcome, lobbyists will push instead to have a debate with politicians and the media on the hypothetical economic benefits of their ambitions. Once this narrowly framed conversation becomes dominant, dissenting voices will appear marginal and irrelevant."

It then notes: "Everybody's doing it, including lobbyists for fracking and nuclear power, public sector reform and bank regulation." And, of course, lobbyists against fracking and nuclear power etc.

If we seriously think that using your strongest arguments in public debate is a remarkable thing that only corporations do, then we really are in fairy land. The truth is that NGOs often lose arguments because they become so immersed in their campaign rhetoric that they lose touch with what are the issues that will be most widely influential. And it doesn't help us get to good quality public policy outcomes to suggest that there are no counter-arguments, no consequences to all the banning of stuff that we might conceivably do.

What else?

Well, there's "carefully crafting messages for the media". Right. Because when Greenpeace targets a company that uses palm oil, labelling it as a 'killer' - there's none of that going on at all.

"Mobilise other voices in support of the case". Presumably, those are voices that support the case. Again, it's a game both sides play.

Here's a particularly dangerous one. "Consult your critics" - a devious means to flush out opposition.

And so on.

As any company will know, none of the ten techniques the article described give any guarantee that a company can "control government". Corporations engaging government is a process roughly akin to stroking a dog known to be tetchy. It may respond, it may well bite.

That's not to say that all corporate lobbying is created equal. Things can, and have, been done to deliberately subvert proper democratic process and that should really never be accepted nor acceptable. But we will never isolate those examples so long as the mere fact of any company taking part in public debate is to be held up as de facto wicked minded subversion.

In the real world, there are few issues that have black and white solutions. Every policy choice relating to an environmental concern carries a cost. Sometimes society will agree that the cost should be borne because the alternative is worse. Sometimes, it will make sense to seek more effective policy instruments that achieve the same thing but without the same cost.

Companies should be valued stakeholders in highlighted potential consequences of legislation, just the same as anyone else. Because, whatever the agendas of the more anti-corporate minded campaigners, most legislators want to achieve social benefit without destroying jobs and prosperity.

What we do need to see is companies that are prepared to be more confident in talking publicly about their legislative positions. Such positions should be in line with their commitments to corporate responsibility and sustainability (which doesn't necessarily commit them to supporting every hare-brained misconceived piece of legislation some campaigner has made up).

Because it is those things that happen in the shadows that people most assume to be against the public interest. After all, if it has to conceal its intent from public view, then there must be a reason.

That's not to be unrealistic about how opinions are shaped, and the informal communications that create relationships.

But if we're going to get better public policy, we have to move beyond the politics of the playground, which seems to be where the debate currently lives.

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