Culture shock

Culture shock: Liberal exodus from Canberra to lobby as Labor staffers flock

After 9 years of coalition rule, a Liberal run out of parliament means political and social upheaval in the nation’s capital. Exit the old political culture, make way for the new. Stephanie Tran reports on the wave of political change.

Once upon a time, a change of government in Australia was an orderly event, at least for civil servants. When Gough Whitlam swept Labor to power in 1972, he flew from Sydney to Canberra to meet the people known as the “permanent heads” of the civil service. Men whose names were revered and feared in the nation’s capital: John Bunting, Arthur Tange, Alan Cooley, Keith Waller and Lenox Hewitt. Whitlam had revolutionary ideas for his new government, but he had no intention of challenging those establishments.

In the 50 years since then, the ‘permanent leader’ has become fiercely aware of his impermanence (there are women now, unlike in 1972) at the head of a government department.

Today, the idea that any senior civil servant would have more permanence than a short-lived political office holder would be considered laughable. In the case of Gough Whitlam’s top adviser, John Menadue, Menadue even seamlessly evolved, despite the drama of The Dismissal, to become Malcolm Fraser’s top aide.

Today, even the supposedly independent heads of the bureaucracy, let alone advisers to politicians, are becoming political fodder.

Over the past 50 years, Australia has moved ever closer to the American system where a change of political party in government triggers a massive turnover of senior civil servants.

Hard times for conservatives are good times for progressives who have been warehoused in state Labor governments, universities and left-leaning think tanks over the past decade since the last PLA government.

ScoMo heave-ho at PMO

A survey of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and other ministries under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed an influx of fossil fuel lobbyists, including Morrison’s top private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, who had been managing director of the liberal lobby firm Crosby Textor. Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel, came directly from the Minerals Council of Australia, the country’s most powerful coal lobby.

The new regime of Labor advisers is unlikely to have anything like the same fossil fuel bias, although Labor is heavily influenced by the gas lobby.

And this exodus of Morrison advisers will usher in a new culture in Canberra leadership as former staffers seek to deploy their influence and lobbying expertise elsewhere and a new batch comes to advise Anthony Albanese and his ministry. Also leaving will be former News Corp employees who advised Morrison on the media, wrote speeches and more.

It is difficult to quantify all this. There is little transparency around political advisers. Some come for special projects, others, even if they are on staff, are not revealed on any complete register with what they actually do.

And the rest

Such sudden departures of senior government officials with the Liberal rout bode well for a substantial change in culture in the nation’s capital. Where bob former treasurer Josh Frydenberg? The talk is that Frydenberg will be parachuted into a safe Liberal seat to stay in politics. Greg Hunt, the former health minister has not revealed where he is moving, and new careers await a host of his fellow Liberal colleagues such as Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson and Jason Falinski.

Michael West Media will track movement in and out of the policy over the coming months through our Revolving Doors offering. It is essential to the accountability of democracy that the people who will now influence the government, perhaps working for the Big Four consultancies or outside firms specializing in “government relations” (lobbying), are disclosed and tracked.

While culture shifts are difficult to accurately gauge, human movements are key to identifying corporate influence in government decisions.

End the old, make way for the new

The proverbial “changing of the guard” marks the beginning of an all-too-familiar political phenomenon. The gears of Australian politics’ ‘revolving door’ have begun to turn as fallen politicians and their aides prepare for a life outside of politics.

But it’s not all bad news for failed politicians and employees. Many will be cushioned by generous severance packages and after a soul-searching sabbatical, many will rely on the comfortable relationships they have compiled during their time in public service to soften the blow.

No doubt lobbying firms and big business will be lining up to offer a soft landing. Like America too, corporate lobbying is now a billion dollar business in Australia these days.

Corporate lobbying, a billion dollar business

What is the “revolving door”?

The “revolving door” refers to the practice of politicians migrating between public service and well-paid roles in the private sector, often in the same industry they were once responsible for regulating.

It is a lucrative practice that allows former elected officials to profit from their connections and leverage their political savvy.

The practice raises a clear conflict of interest.

“The real problem with the current rules is that they are unenforceable”

“We see politicians making decisions that seem to favor their comrades…powerful and influential industries tend to get what they want, even if it’s not in the public interest,” Serena said. Lillywhite, CEO of Transparency International Australia.

“It really undermines our confidence that the government is acting in our best interest and it leads to an erosion of our democracy.”

Where are stranded pollies likely to end up?

There are a number of organizations that have historically been one-time hotbeds. The politicians.

Many will take up lobbying or hold positions in conservative think tanks.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) (insert context). Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson and former Goldstein Liberal MP Tim Wilson had previously been there before their appointment to public office. The Menzies Research Institute directed by Murdoch columnist Nick Cater is another option

It received $258,000 in federal funding and has been led by News Corp reporter Nick Cater since 2015. Andrew Bragg was there briefly before joining the Senate.

  • Coal/gas lobby: Minerals Council (Helen Coonan, John Kunkel)
  • Lobby groups aligned with the Liberal-National Party: Barton Deakin, National Premier/Premier State, TG Public Affairs, Nexus, WPP, CT Group (Crosby Textor).

Current Lobbying Legislation

Under the Lobbying Code of Conduct, Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are prohibited from engaging in lobbying activities for a period of 18 months after leaving office. However, enforcement of these standards is entirely at the whim of the Prime Minister and recent history has shown that a number of former voters take to lobbying before this ‘cooling off’ period has passed without consequences.

Most notably, (Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop)

“The real problem with the current rules is simply that they are unenforceable,” said Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute.

“If someone leaves a ministerial post and starts a lobbying role, the prime minister can say they have breached ministerial standards. They won’t necessarily be incentivized to find out that their former colleagues are in violation, but even if they do, there’s very little to do because that person is no longer a minister.

What does this mean for our democracy?

The revolving door of Australian politics diminishes public trust and promotes plutocracy. According to Wood, there are three main ways the revolving door undermines our democracy.

“First of all, there is comfort. The fact that you have this kind of close relationship between powerful sectors and political offices runs the risk that these sectors end up having much more influence on government decision-making than they would otherwise have.

“The second big risk on the corporate front is that people could start making decisions while they are in office for their future jobs. The risk is that ministers don’t make a tough decision that could upend industries, if they seek a role there.

“The last way I think it hurts democracy is just this question. How do we protect sensitive information that a minister is necessarily going to come across in the course of his job after he leaves? There are ministerial standards required to keep all of this information confidential, but there are just subtle ways to disclose it and help inform their new employer, which is obviously a concern when dealing with potentially sensitive information.

Story by Stephanie Tran. Edited by Mark Sawyer. We will be relaunching our revolving door offering next week and will cover not only political operatives and major lobbyist movements, but also senior bureaucrat movements. Who is in and who is out. For any advice, please contact [email protected]

revolving doors

Stephanie is studying a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism)/Bachelor of Laws at the University of Technology Sydney. She has a keen interest in investigative journalism in the public interest and is president of the UTS Journalism Society. As a junior journalist at MWM, she built our database of grandfathered companies and their political donations.