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LEGALDATE

Volume 34 Issue 1 2022

lEGALDATE

Volume 33, Issue 1, 2022

The influence of pressure groups on law making

David Hamper, Deputy Principal Teaching and Learning, Malek Fahd Islamic School

The law is ever evolving as it attempts to stay abreast of changing social norms and community expectations. In Australia, the vast majority of legal reform is undertaken through the parliamentary process with only a tiny proportion of reform driven by common law processes. Therefore, elected members of parliaments across Australia are key in amending and transforming the law. Of interest, though is the extent to which pressure groups influence the decisions of politicians around law making and law reform and whether such pressure groups are able to exert so much influence that law reform processes are not reflective of society as a whole. 

What is a pressure group?

There are a number of terms used to describe groups that seek to influence the law making and law reform processes. They are often referred to as lobby groups – this term, which is widely used in the media is of American origin and is now used to broadly describe individuals or groups who seek to influence political decisions. An important type of lobbyists is referred to as paid lobbyists. These are companies or individuals who others pay to use their influence and contacts to pressure or lobby political leaders. 

In a 2019 submission to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the NSW Council of Social Service (ACOSS) noted that there is an important distinction between advocacy and lobbying. ACOSS argued that the work undertaken by them and other non-government organisations (NGOs), and community-based groups, is around advocacy for the public interest and the wider good of the community. This stands in contrast to the work of lobbyists and industry based pressure groups, who typically represent for-profit organisations, notably large businesses. This contrast can be seen between environmental organisations who apply pressure to governments and lawmakers around environmental issues, such as climate change, and lobbyists representing fossil fuel industries.

Paid lobbyists

Paid lobbyists are individuals or companies who act as third parties to present the views of others to the government. Paid lobbyists began to emerge in the 1970s. They have now developed into a multi-million-dollar industry. Paid lobbyists aim to meet with decision makers and explain concepts. In doing so, they represent the interests of their clients to the political leaders. 

Here in Australia paid lobbyists are regulated and are required to be formally registered. This process is managed by the Attorney-General’s Department. The Department administers both the Register of Lobbyists and the Lobbyists Code of Conduct. The Code outlines how lobbyists must act in regard to their dealings with political leaders and also explains the rules around transparency so that the public can make themselves aware of any influences.

The most recent update to the Code, which was released on 28 February 2022, (Attorney-General’s Department, 2022) outlines a number of important additions. Perhaps most notably are additional requirements for paid-lobbyists who were former government representatives. This has been an area of considerable public debate. The debate centres around the way that former ministers and other senior members of government undertake paid lobbyist roles after they leave their government roles. Many people have argued that such people have unfair access to their former colleagues and this represents an abuse of power. For example, there has been much criticism of former defence ministers leaving the Commonwealth Parliament to act as paid-lobbyists for defence industry bodies and companies.  In addition to the Code, there is other legislation, which seeks to regulate paid-lobbyists. For example, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (Cwlth) contains relevant sections to regulate lobbying and influence from foreign companies, governments and individuals. 

While there have been significant attempts to regulate paid-lobbyists there is less regulation around other pressure groups. For example, trade unions, industry associations, employer groups and many other community-based organisations, whom all interact with lawmakers all the time. This does not amount to any wrong-doing but it can be argued that when certain groups gain access to political leaders that others do not have then questions arise as to whether the decisions of our lawmakers truly reflect the interests of the wider community. 

One way to partially address this issue is to publicly release the diaries of ministers and senior government officials to see who they have met with. In New South Wales the Department of Premier and Cabinet is responsible for collating and releasing each minister’s diary every three months. Ministers must enter all meetings and this allows the public to see which paid lobbyists and other pressure groups may be attempting to influence the decisions of the minister. The diaries are released via the Department’s website. A similar process is used in Queensland. In recent years there haven’t been increasing calls for greater transparency of who meets with federal ministers

Community based pressure groups

Community based pressure groups are playing an increasingly relevant and powerful role in law making and decision-making. The rise of so-called resident action groups (RAGs) has had a profound effect particularly on local government decisions as well as state decisions. This is especially the case around issues of land zoning and development therefore having a significant impact on aspects of environmental law. 

The rise of social media has allowed these groups to become powerful influences on issues of importance to local communities. Virtually any locally significant development, such as transport infrastructure and new housing developments will now see the creation of a resident action group to voice the concerns of local communities. The use of social media allows these community groups to reach a much larger audience than in the past.  Similarly, social media has also provided significant direct access to decision makers. Community groups often rely on petitions, letters to decisions makers and action through local members of parliament. Some have argued that the rise, and in some cases electoral success, of independent candidates at elections is driven by these local issues. It is argued that the big well-established political parties often ignore the local issues and some RAGs are active supporters of independent candidates dealing with more local issues. 

Vronmen (2016) discusses the influence of social media in describing the ability of an 11 year old to attract widespread media attention. Ahead of the 2016 election, 11-year-old Sophia launched a petition through the GetUp! website regarding the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The petition received widespread public support and international celebrities joined furthering its influence. This resulted in the minister engaging with the issue very directly during the election campaign.

Today, GetUp! remains an influential player in Australian politics. The progressive platform claims to have over 1 million registered members and uses donations to promote its progressive agenda on a considerable number of issues. It is not a formal political party but according to its website is an online ‘campaigning community’ (GetUp!, 2022). In early 2022, GetUp! hosted a considerable number of campaigns including campaigns on ensuring the integrity and funding of the ABC, anti-fracking (a type of mining method used to retrieve coal seam gas), bans on neo-Nazi flags and paraphernalia and campaigns seeking greater action on climate change to protect the Great Barrier Reef. 

The aim of GetUp! is to influence the way that people vote in elections through these campaigns as well as to encourage voters to apply pressure on members of parliament to influence their decision-making. For example, the current campaign around Neo-Nazi symbols follows the announcement of an inquiry by the Victorian Parliament of an inquiry into hate crime laws and the NSW Attorney General announcing that he is seeking legal advice to strengthen laws. The GetUp! campaign includes a petition and information on how to make submissions in a bid to influence the laws in these states (GetUp! 2022b)

The New South Wales Parliament recognises the importance of such community-inspired action through the ability to petition the Legislative Assembly and the lower house of parliament. Both online and paper petitions that garner at least 10 000 signatures for paper and 20 000 signatures of online petitions will go to the Assembly for debate after being presented by any member of the Assembly. Petitions are widely used in New South Wales. They must have a demand for action (this is referred to as a ‘prayer’) (Parliament of NSW).

Industry based pressure groups

As mentioned earlier one of the key distinctions with regards to pressure groups are those that represent and advocate for community-based issues and those that represent the interests of for-profit organisation. There have always been groups whose work is focussed in this area. For example, industry associations and employer groups have exercised considerable power in attempting to influence decision-making. Such groups typically have extensive resources to draw on. 

When the Gillard Government introduced the Clean Energy Act 2011 (Cwlth) which came into effect in 2012 the Australian Trade Industry Alliance (ATIA) was formed to advocate strongly against the carbon tax that was aimed to reduce carbon emissions by placing an additional tax on companies around their carbon emissions. The Alliance, made up of mining industry groups and companies, energy producers and other large business groups with emission intensive production methods ran a series of advertising campaigns against the tax and encouraged Australians to take action against the government through the way they voted at the subsequent federal election. The tax was never introduced due a change of government. 

The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 (Cwlth) was another area of legislation that attracted a significant reaction from some industry groups. This legislation introduced a requirement for all tobacco products to be sold in generic plain packaging with very graphic and prominent health warnings. The aim was to reduce smoking rates and limit the capacity of cigarette companies to advertise their products through the packaging used. The tobacco industry lobbied very hard, but was ultimately unsuccessfully against the law. Eventually they took unsuccessful legal action. 

In another example the Australian Food and Beverage Council lobbied very hard against the introduction of container deposit schemes arguing that these amounted to a ’drink tax’ and were and an unfair impost on them. Container deposit schemes, such as the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery (Container Deposit Scheme) Regulation 2017 (NSW) are a way to reduce the impact of litter from glass and plastic drink containers by introducing a deposit of 10c on the container, which is refunded when the container is returned to a designated recycling centre. The pressure applied by the container and beverage industries focussed on the unfair costs to consumers but with widespread public support (reportedly 80 per cent at the time of its introduction) and counter campaigns from community based environmental groups, such as Clean Up Australia, the regulation came into effect. 

In the 2018 Victorian election and the earlier Queensland election the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA) emerged as an important pressure group. Rennie (2018) claims that SIFA borrows heavily from the tactics used by the very powerful gun lobby in the United States, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) which directly aims to change government policies around gun control by influencing public views and voting intentions. Rennie outlines that the NRA claims to be a ‘grass roots’ community-based organisation that represents the interest of sports shooters and gun enthusiasts. However, he argues ‘…the NRA’s policies are set by America’s gun industry, which has a vested (financial) interest in lax gun laws’ (p.2). The SIFA, founded in 2014, shares many of the same tactics at NRA and is supported by the gun industry. It is set on winding back the strict guns laws Australia introduced following the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting massacre. However, as Rennie notes one of the key differences between SIFA and the NRA is that SIFA has very limited public support in Australia so its aim to influence political decision-making by attempting to sway voters is greatly diminished. SIFA has therefore concentrated on an agenda of simplifying gun laws, arguing that they are too complex and limit gun owner choice rather than attack the intent of the strict gun laws. In early 2022 SIFA announced its new chair-person – Jeff Gordon (2022). Jeff Gordon is a senior executive at Winchester Australia, a major manufacturer of ammunition and gun accessories.

In conclusion

Lawmakers are always subject to influence. Their own beliefs, networks and connections will inevitably influence aspects of their decisions. Pressure groups can take many forms and use a wide variety of strategies to influence the decision-making of our political leaders. There are always concerns about the extent to which different pressure groups can exert undue influence. However, it is important to note that in many cases, where the views of pressure groups are poorly aligned with those of the wider community, such as with plain tobacco packaging and drink container deposits, lawmakers have represented the views of the public in their decisions. Some jurisdictions in Australia, particularly at a state level, have implemented strategies to maximise transparency around the interactions between lawmakers and pressure groups.

Student activities

1. What is a pressure group?

2. What is a paid lobbyist?

3. How do lobby groups and community groups who are trying to influence government decisions differ? Explain using an example.

4. How are paid lobbyists regulated in Australia?

5. Do you think former government ministers should be allowed to take on the role of a paid lobbyist? Explain.

6. Do you think there should be greater transparency regarding which ministers meet with lobbyists and pressure groups? Explain.

7. Explain the importance of social media to resident action groups.

8. Investigate GetUp! and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having such a powerful lobby group in Australia. Explain one campaign that GetUp! has been involved in.

9. What was the carbon tax and why did the parliament fail to pass it?

10. Explain the ‘drink tax’. Why do you think it was successful in coming into law?

11. Explain the role of SIFA and the tactics it uses.

12. Discuss why pressure groups may not be successful in their efforts to influence a change in the law.

References

Attorney-General’s Department (2022). Lobbying code of conduct – overview of updates to the Code, https://www.ag.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-12/Overview%20of%20updates%20to%20the%20Lobbying%20Code%20of%20Conduct%20%E2%80%93%20Effective%2028%20February%202022.PDF

Department of Premier and Cabinet – New South Wales (2022). Ministers diary disclosures, https://www.dpc.nsw.gov.au/publications/ministers-diary-disclosures/

GetUp! (2022a). About us

https://www.getup.org.au/about 

GetUp! (2022b). No room for neo-Nazis.https://www.getup.org.au/campaigns/racial-justice/stop-hate-in-its-tracks/no-room-for-neo-nazis

Parliament of NSW (2022). About petitions https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/la/petitions/Pages/About-petitions.aspx 

NSW Council of Social Service (2019). The Regulation of Lobbying, Access and Influence in NSW (“Operation Eclipse”) NCOSS Submission, https://www.ncoss.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/20190524_SUB_ICAC-Operation-Eclipse_NCOSS.pdf 

Rennie, G (2018). How Australia’s NRA-inspired gun lobby is trying to chip away at gun control law, state by state. The Conversation 16 November 2018, https://theconversation.com/how-australias-nra-inspired-gun-lobby-is-trying-to-chip-away-at-gun-control-laws-state-by-state-105667

Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (2022). News desk

https://sifa.net.au/sifa-welcomes-winchester-australias-jeff-gordon-as-chairman/

Vronmen, A (2016). New style lobbying: how GetUP! Channel Australians’ voices into politics. The Conversation 14 June 2016,  https://theconversation.com/new-style-lobbying-how-getup-channels-australians-voices-into-politics-60625

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