Why lobbysits are so vital for all communities

29 Jun

My Evening Herald column from last Saturday (23rd June 2012)

Lobby of The Willard Hotel in DC
Pic courtesy of biberfan on flickr

I have an aversion to the term: lobbyist. I resisted its use in describe myself when I worked with a range of national representative groups and I can’t recall ever using it to describe those whom I dealt with while I was a ministerial adviser.

The term “lobbyist” seems to have a pejorative tone to it. Lobbying is viewed with suspicion. Understandable enough after the Tribunal horror stories of men in well cut suits loitering outside Council chambers offering “incentives” to errant Councillors.

The reality is that lobbying is a practice as old as government itself. The origins of the term are often erroneously attributed to the post Civil War US President, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was fond of retiring to the bar of the old Willard Hotel across from the White House. News of his habit soon spread and he increasingly found himself besieged by promoters of this or that project as he passed through the lobby of the Hotel.

The term, in fact, well predates Grant and the Willard Hotel and most probably goes back to 17th century England and refers to the lobbies where constituents and petitioners could meet Members of Parliament.

Yet somehow the image of rail tycoons and land speculators in the lobby of the Willard smoking big cigars while stuffing cash into the pockets of pliable politicians seems to have stuck

This is a great pity as lobbying is an entirely legitimate and democratic activity. It is even protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution which speaks of the right “…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Substitute the words “advocacy” or “campaigning” for “lobbying” and you get a better sense of what it should be about: making the best case you can to the powers that be.

When it descends to kick backs and payola it is no longer lobbying, it is just corruption, plain and simple.

Yet this is the image that still persists: guys in the lobby of the Willard improperly influencing politicians, and their more modern day equivalents.

But it is a false image. Lobbyists today come in all shapes, sizes and types.

People can be advocates on their own behalf, or they can seek the services of others with experience and skills in presenting a case on behalf of others.

They can be from schools, universities, communities, companies, trade associations, trade unions, churches, charities, environmental groups or senior citizens groups

Not all lobbyists are paid. In my experience (from both sides of the divide) most are not. During my time in government I recall getting more calls and emails from volunteer lobbyists than paid ones.

Lobbying is not simply about getting access to a TD, Senator Councillor or Official. These meetings are just the final small step in a much more complex process.

Lobbying is about preparation. It is about research. It is about assembling the facts and honestly analyzing the implications of what you propose. It is a process – and one more about research, education and communication than it is just about persuasion.

I know, from being on the other side, that a dedicated individual pleading a case that they know and understand deeply can be infinity more persuasive than the most costly lawyer or public affairs consultant.

This was the case with those who campaigned for formal recognition of the bravery of those who fought at Jadotville in the Congo in 1961. Not only were they tireless and passionate, they had done their research. No one knew or understood the complexities of this tragic situation better than they. When presented, their case was undeniable.

Far from having something to fear from lobbying such as this, democracy needs it. Just as lobbyists and public affairs people will benefit from a transparent and fair system of regulation.

As Justice Brandeis observed, almost a century ago. “sunlight is the best of disinfectants”.

ENDS

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