Political journalism essay

The Australian lobbying industry

Lobbying in Australia has changed significantly since the end of the 20th century and this is the result of a number of factors. According to Zhang, the most significant change in the lobbying industry is that ‘lobbying has moved from the corridors and backrooms of the parliament to become a “public affair”’ (2010:80).

There is a large amount of evidence to suggest that the concept of ‘going public’ is now a prominent feature of lobbying governments. This means that interest groups are choosing to adopt strategies that were traditionally characteristic of outsider groups, such as the mass media and the Internet. This essay will examine the reasons for and the consequences of these changes in the Australian lobbying industry.

In the last decades of the 20th century, Australia ‘has witnessed dramatic changes in the lobbying industry in several important aspects, including the emergence of single-issue groups, the shift to research-based lobbying and the changes in lobbying strategies’ (Zhang 2010:80). These changes, as well as the aforementioned shift towards a public affairs form of lobbying are, according to Zhang, the result of three main reasons. Firstly, the proliferation of new social movements from the 1960s onwards triggered a change in lobbying tactics. Movements such as women’s rights, animal rights and Aboriginal rights began to emerge across the nation, ‘making Australia a more pluralistic society than ever before’ (Zhang 2010:80). The tactics employed by these activists differed to the ‘old-fashioned administrative lobbying’ (Zhang 2010:80) of the past. Lobbyists began moving their issues onto the public arena (Zhang 20120:80). Insider groups- interest groups who already had access to resources and policy makers- began using outsider tactics ‘to gain influence on media reporting, public opinion and political decisions’ (Zhang 2010:80).

Secondly, advances in technology and mass communication also had an impact on the lobbying industry. The media became an important cultural resource during the last decades of the 20th century (Louw 2010:18) and ‘media institutions became prized possessions for those seeking power’ (Louw 2010:19). The rise of the mass media, and technological developments such as the Internet changed the way that lobbyists communicated with policymakers. According to Zhang, lobbyists ‘shifted a considerable amount of their focus away from the direct contact with politicians to the mobilization of public support with the help of modern technology’ (2010:82) and mass media. Finally, Zhang argues that this technological and scientific growth meant that the government had to adapt to these changes and expand their ‘responsibilities into new domains or previously unregulated territories’ (2010:80). Since the 1970s, the Australian government has increased its ‘influence on economic activities and become deeply involved in most aspects of life’ (Zhang 2010:81) including state government policy domains such ‘as health, education and industrial relations’ (Zhang 2010:81). Zhang argues that this expansion of government responsibility is also a significant contributing factor to the changes observed in the lobbying industry (2010:81).

These reasons, identified by Zhang, are accurate and substantiated by other political scientists. Some theorists have identified additional reasons for the changes. According to Mazzoleni and Schulz, the increased dependence that the public has on the media has resulted in a concept known as ‘mediatised politics’ (2010:250). They define this phenomenon as ‘politics that has lost its autonomy, has become dependent in its central functions on mass media, and is continually shaped by interactions with mass media’ (2010:250). This means that policy is decided according to media logic, instead of political logic and as such, political actors, including lobbyists, have had to adapt to this change. Like Zhang, Miller and Riechert determine the media to be an important element of the contemporary political landscape and in their essay, they too allude to the concept of mediatisation by highlighting the important role that the media plays in framing public discourse and policy debates (Miller & Reichert 2010: 107-114). Stromback says of a society that is governed by media logic: ‘the requirements of the media take centre stage and shape the means by which political communication is played out by political actors, is covered by the media, and is understood by the public’ (2008:234).

Mazzoleni and Shulz discuss the consequences of a ‘media –constructed public sphere’ (2010:250); they argue that ‘in the same way that media select and frame events, the media select which actors will receive attention and frame those actors’ public images’ (Mazzoleni & Shulz 2010:251). The concept of framing is a common element in the study of policy development because ‘framing provides a fruitful way of conceptualizing how media shape news and people’s perceptions of it’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:109). Framing can be defined as ‘an ongoing process by which ideological interpretive mechanisms are derived from competing stakeholder positions’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:109). Miller and Reichert focus on the role the media plays in framing policy issues and in their essay, the term stakeholders is used to refer to ‘individuals and groups in the policymaking process that stand to win or lose as a result of a policy decision’ (2010:110) This includes both insider and outsider lobbying groups. The main argument of their theory is that ‘opposing stakeholders try to gain public and policymaker support for their positions less by offering new facts or by changing their evaluations of those facts, and more by altering the frames or interpretive dimensions by which the facts are to be evaluated’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:107).

A number of stakeholder groups may exist for the same issue; however, each group will interpret the issue in a different way and will want a unique policy outcome. These stakeholders will attempt to frame the issue in a way that they think will be attractive to the public and to policymakers. Miller and Reichert argue that ‘stakeholders articulate their positions and then monitor public responses’ (2010:109). If their uniquely articulated frame receives a positive reaction, the stakeholder group will strengthen its efforts and if their articulation receives a negative reaction, they will attempt to reframe the issue (Miller & Reichert 2010:109). Miller and Reichert identify this as the ‘spiral of opportunity’ model (2010:109).

This model is one of many that social scientists have generated to study the process that policy issues go through. According to Miller and Reichert, the policy process is cyclical in nature and ‘evolves in phases marked by the nature of the persuasive efforts made by stakeholders and their effects’. The first phase in the ‘spiral of opportunity’ model is the emergence phase, where ‘framing can be triggered by such things as catastrophic events’ (Miller & Reichert 2010: 112). During this period, ‘news content focuses primarily on the mere existence of the events that triggered it’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:112). The second phase occurs when these events have driven the issue onto the public agenda and stakeholders begin efforts to frame the issue. During the definition/conflict phase, a stakeholder’s objective ‘is to establish a specific point of view as the appropriate frame for the issue’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:112).

The third phase is the resonance phase. During this period, certain issues receive more attention than others. Those groups whose framing has been successful continue to articulate their issue in the same way and others adjust their rhetoric. The final phase- the equilibrium or resolution phase- occurs when the resonance process is complete. When ‘one frame comes to dominate debate, and decision makers set public policy to conform to it’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:113) the groups whose frame has been unsuccessful ‘see no opportunities to win converts’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:113) and can ‘either adjust their rhetoric to the new frame or concede and withdraw from the policy debate’ (Miller & Reichert 2010:113). Models such as the spiral of opportunity provide a practical example of the functionality of ‘going public’. They provide stakeholders with an insight into the distinct stages in which framing can occur. The better a stakeholder understands these models, the more success they will have going public.

Other theorists have commented on the increasingly important role that framing plays in the lobbying industry. McGrath writes, ‘lobbyists (on all sides of any issue) will attempt to frame or define the issue in such a way as to suggest that their particular perspective is the correct one’ (2007:271). He talks about the importance of language to the concept of framing: ‘lobbyists use language to consciously frame policy issues’ (McGrath 2007:269). McGrath explains that lobbyists think carefully about the language they use when framing an issue because ‘the frame itself can define not only the problem but also the solution’ (2007:276).

Edelman also identifies language to be a crucial tool to lobbyists; he says that framing the way an issue is presented to the public is critical because it ‘establishes the reality’ (1985:104) of the issue. According to Edelman, ‘it is the language about political events, not the events in any other sense that people experience’ (1985:104). Zhang explains that the issues that successfully become the focus of attention are generally characterized by that group’s understanding of the power of agenda setting, or framing- ‘those able to control definitions of social problems have a power to benefit politically’ (Zhang 2010:82). Zhang argues that successful framing of an issue will most likely result in media coverage, public awareness, and ultimately, the recognition of policy makers (Zhang 2010:82). Framing an issue is therefore an essential element of the ‘going public’ process where the purpose is to ‘effectively mobilize key groups of constituents to force authorities to place the issue high on the political agenda’ (Zhang 2010:82). This tactic was once considered to be an, ‘outsider’ strategy, employed by interest groups without access to policymakers.

Nowadays, even insider groups raise issues of concern in the public arena and they do so because it is an, ‘effective way to push their issues onto the crowded public agenda’ (Zhang 2010:81). In the past, policy communities made policy decisions without much input from the public. Policy communities refer loosely to groups of people that are interested in a particular topic, including think tanks, experts, government boards, individuals, and interest groups. Policy communities don’t always share the same policy objectives and as more people become involved, a ‘crowded policy community’ emerges. As more and more issue groups attempt to deliver their concerns to the public and policy makers, it becomes difficult for even well resourced groups to be heard. Some scholars argue that this is one of the main reasons that lobbyists decide to go public.

Freedman develops on the concept of crowded policy communities. He says, ‘the number of “stakeholders” has mushroomed in recent years, and voices that were traditionally peripheral to media policy debates have come to play a central role, crossing both departmental and geographical borders’ (Freedman 2006:910). While his essay is set in America, it is relevant to most lobbying governments. His argument alludes to the aforementioned concept of the pluralization of society, as well as the idea of audience democracies.

In audience democracies, the citizen-public isn’t just present on the political sphere around the time of elections anymore; it is actively involved in the policy cycle year-round (Kriesi 2007:49). As a result, elected representatives ‘face an ever-growing pressure to respond to public opinion and to bring the political debate from the smoke-filled back rooms out onto the public stage where it is taking place in front of the media audience’ (Kriesi 2007:49). Kriesi argues that ‘under conditions of the audience democracy, the struggle for public attention, and conversely, the use of public-oriented strategies, is important for all actors’ (2007:54). According to Kriesi, the ‘growing role of the public and of media-centered political communication’ provides new strategic opportunities and challenges for political actors’ (2007:49-50). An example of one of these strategies is the concept of issue framing. Kriesi argues though, that ‘influence attempts are most effective when they involve multiple tactics’ (2007:53). The most successful type of lobbying can therefore be said to include both insider and outsider tactics. Groups who recognize this are putting themselves in a good position to effect policy decisions.

In conclusion, the lobbying industry in Australia has altered significantly in the last few decades. One of the consequences of this change is the professionalization of the lobbying industry. According to Zhang, ‘lobbyists have now gained wide acceptance in Australia as a legitimate and necessary channel of communication between the executive government and the community’ (2010:80) Lobbying has become ‘a highly evolved professional activity carried out by a variety of political actors with specialized knowledge and expertise’ (Zhang 2010:82-83).

The second obvious difference in the lobbying industry is the contemporary trend of ‘going public’. This change is the result of a combination of different elements. Scholars identify concepts such as; the pluralisation of society; the proliferation of new social movements; the rise of audience democracies; mediatisation and media logic; as well as the crowding of policy communities to be some of the main reasons behind the change. According to a number of scholars, including Zhang, and Miller and Reichert, the most successful lobbyists are those who have adapted to this current policy cycle by utilizing both insider and outside tactics. By going public, lobbyists increase their chances of being noticed by the public, the media and policymakers. When they combine this tactic with professional knowledge, they are in an advantageous position to influence policy decisions, which is, after all, the main goal of lobbying groups.

REFERENCES:

Edelman, Murray. 1985. ‘Political language and political reality’. In Constructing the Political Spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Freedman, Des. 2006. ‘Dynamics in power in contemporary media policy-making’. Media Culture Society 28: 907-923

Kriesi, Hanspeter. 2007. ‘Going Public in the European Union: Action Repertoires of Western European Collective Political Actors. Comparative Political Studies 40:48-73

Louw, Eric. 2010. The Media and Political Processes. London: Sage

Mazzoleni, Gianpietro and Shulz, Winifred. 2010. ‘Mediatization of Politics: A Challenge for Democracy?’ Political Communication 16(3):247-261

McGrath, Conor. 2007. ‘Framing Lobbying Messages: Defining and Communicating Political Issues Persuasively’. Journal of Public Affairs 7:269-280

Stromback, Jesper. 2008. ‘Four phases of Mediatization: An Ananlysis of the Mediatisation of Politics’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 13(228):228-246

Zhang, Juan. 2010. ‘A Study on the Strategic Changes in the Australian Lobbying Industry Since the 1970’s. Journal of Politics and Law 3(1):80-84

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