Politics One

Fourth edition

by Ian Ward and Randal G. Stewart

Interest Group Politics

Further reading suggestions

  • Harman, G. 1980. ‘Pressure Groups and the Australian Political System’ in A. Parkin, J. Summers and D. Woodward (eds) Government, Politics and Power in Australia. 2nd edn. (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire). A dated but still very helpful introduction to pressure groups.
  • Mathews, T. 1997. ‘Interest Groups’ in R. Smith (ed), Politics in Australia, 3rd edn. (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin). Describes major groups, their strategies and tactics, and influence.
  • Warhurst, J. 2009. ‘Interest groups and political lobbying’ in D. Woodward, A. Parkin, and J. Summers (eds) Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. 9th edn. (Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson.) Warhurst examines different ways of categorizing interest groups and underlines the importance of lobbying.
  • Vromen, K.A., Gelber, K. and Gauja, A. 2008. Powerscape: Contemporary Australian politics 2nd edn. (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin). Chapters 9 and 10 on pressure groups and social movements respectively.
A further note on lobbying 
Why do people join together and form interest groups and social movements rather than work through political parties? One reason is that political parties can not devote their efforts to specific causes since they must build a broad coalition of support to win seats in parliament. Parties are also losing their grip on the policy agenda and, with this, their capacity to forge political coalitions. Ian Marsh refers to this function as ‘political integration’ and he argues that the major parties’ weakened capacity for political integration, ability to set policy agendas and to steer the ship of state is now becoming something of a problem. In a sense it has created a vacuum into which social movements and single issue groups have moved. As Craig (2004, 138) suggests, the increasing complexity of late-modern Australian society has ‘resulted in people seeking more direct forms of political expression and representation through pressure groups’. Public opinion is now more likely to be framed through campaigns mounted by single issue activists than by parties. 

Single issue groups and NGOs (see Dalton and Lyons 2005, 6-7) which have sprung from social movements have joined those organised interest groups long part of the political process. ‘Government business relations’, Weller (2004, 69) argues, ‘are part of the political process’ and industry and business associations have long been important political actors. Since the 1970s they have moved to institutionalise relations with the national government, in many instances establishing headquarters in Canberra and acquiring research staff to assist their lobbying of policy makers. Lobbying involves influencing the politicians and public servants involved in making public policy decisions. In the 1950s and 1960s it appears to have been largely conducted by former public servants and politicians relying on their ‘old boy’ connections. It has since moved from the backrooms and corridors and evolved into a highly professional activity. One measure of this is the increasing use of ‘research based advocacy’ which often sees groups employing expert firms such as Access Economics to ‘Treasury proof’ policy proposals by carefully calculating their economic costs and benefits. 

Singleton et al (2002, 343-44) argue that interest groups have available a potentially large range of strategies for influencing governments and policy makers. These include publicity campaigns conducted via the media; approaching ministers, their advisers and the public service; undertaking research and analysis and making the findings public; making representations to parliamentary committees; taking court action; and building alliances with other groups. It is often argued that the resources that individual groups possess dictate the how they will press their case. For example, groups well established within policy communities are unlikely to pursue public campaigns in the media or via mass action. Groups seen to have a legitimate cause will find it easier to lobby politicians and public servants. Well-funded interest groups are more able to undertake detailed research or mount advertising campaigns in the media. Groups whose principal resource is a large membership tend to rely upon letter writing campaigns or rallies and similar mass actions designed to capture headlines and draw attention to their cause. Business groups with economic power may threaten the retrenchment of workers or to invest elsewhere, thus causing economic conditions likely to electorally damage a government. 

Lobbying takes two broad forms. It can directly involve interest groups and their members. Indeed many NGOs and other organised groups employ staff in Canberra specifically for this purpose. But there are also many specialist lobby firms which can be hired and who work to advance the interests of their clients. Some rely on former public servants, ministerial advisers and others with a special knowledge of Canberra. But large public relations and accountancy firms have also begun to develop a ‘government relations’ function and to attract clients and engage in lobbying on their behalf. Lobbying has become an increasingly professional activity. One unfortunate effect of this has been the emergence of ‘astroturf’ which involves the use of direct mail, the internet and methods such as patch telephoning to ‘manufacture’ grassroots concern about an issue in order to capture the attention of politicians. A danger is that the sophisticated exploitation of new technologies now allows interest groups which have no real constituency but are merely ‘letterhead groups’ relying either on business or direct mail appeals for their funding.

The professionalisation of lobbying has also been mirrored in the increasing use of research based advocacy and in the activities of ‘think tanks’ who undertake research to support the policy proposals they wish to press on government. In turn governments have come to welcome the specialised knowledge that interest groups can bring to policy making. As a consequence it is necessary to reconsider some of the assumptions implicit in the term ‘pressure group’. It is no longer appropriate to think of groups making demands upon governments from outside. There are a great many ‘insider’ groups who are routinely consulted as stakeholders or who have an institutionalised access to decision making and are involved in the ‘self regulation’ of policy areas precisely because of the expertise they bring to the table. In the past governments may have felt it necessary to consult business and other stakeholder groups in order to minimise the political costs of introducing new policies. Increasingly they now routinely consult with, and even rely upon the expertise of, interest groups. 

Indeed governments now have an interest in supporting some interest groups and will even contribute financially to their operation. A great many single issue groups and similar NGOs have a charity status which allows their supporters to claim tax deductions. Some are the direct beneficiaries of government grants. The Howard Government appears to have exploited the financial dependence of groups on government to manage the public debate of policy issues. It showed a propensity to ‘freeze out’ NGOs (see Maddison, Dennis and Hamilton 2004) and other groups who were critical of it and used the threat of withdrawing funding to buy their silence. Simply put, governments can seek to ‘manage’ interest groups and the public debate of issues which they regard as politically sensitive. Here is a further aspect of interest group politics which calls into question the conventional wisdom that pressure groups make demands upon government. Why people form interest groups turns out to be a much more complex question than it initially appears. 

Sources 

Marsh, I. (2000) ‘Political Integration and the Outlook for the Australian Party System’, in P. Boreham, G.Stokes and R. Hall (eds) The Politics of Australian Society(Melbourne: Longman) 

Singleton, Singleton, G., D. Aitkin, B. Jinks, and J. Warhurst. (2002) Australian Political Institutions. 7th edn. (South Melbourne: Longman) 

Craig, G. (2004) The Media, Politics and Public Life (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin) 

Maddison, S., R.Dennis and C.Hamilton (2004) Silencing Dissent: Non-Government Organisations and Australian Democracy, The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper No. 65 (http://www.tai.org.au/Publications_Files/DP_Files/DP65.pdf) 

Weller, P. (2004) ‘Parliament and Cabinet. The Centre of Government’ in E. Vanc Acker and G. Curran (eds) Governing Business and Globalisation. 2nd edn. (Frenchs Forrest: Pearson). 

Dalton, B. and M. Lyons (2005) ‘Representing the Disadvantaged in Australian Politics: The Role of Advocacy Organisations’ Democratic Audit of Australia, Report No. 5 (RSSS, ANU: Canberra) 

Discussion point 
‘Public choice theory’ sees interest groups selfish and self-serving—as ‘rent seekers’ who distort public policy by seeking private advantage at the expense of the public purse. An alternative view sees interest groups as contributing to that robust public debate on policy issues which is essential for a healthy democracy.

Which view should be preferred and why?