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Downer and Costello's murky world of political lobbying

  • 02 April 2013

Many more former political leaders are now becoming commercial, third party lobbyists. Ex-politicians are now central rather than fringe players. This includes two of the top three Howard Government ministers, the former Treasurer Peter Costello and the former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

This development is one of the most noticeable trends in the politics of influence over the past 30 years since the Hawke Government won office. Shortly afterwards the new Labor government was faced with the Combe Affair. This quasi-security scare morphed into an ultimately ill-fated lobbyist registration scheme.

Special Minister of State Mick Young commented then that the lobbying profession was now an established part of the democratic process in Canberra. Now former political leader-lobbyists are an established part of that process.

This development has slowly achieved acceptability. During the 1980s and 1990s former politicians started to infiltrate the political advice process, but tended to do so as individuals semi-privately trading on their individual standing as former prime ministers, like Bob Hawke, or by joining the 'respectable' end of the lobbying continuum as advisers to law firms or banks such as Macquarie Bank, as former NSW premiers Nick Greiner and Bob Carr did.

This 'consultancy' activity was cloaked in respectability and not perceived as being at the hands-on murky end of lobbying. That pretence now seems to have ended and Downer and Costello are good federal examples. There are many others at the state level.

In these two cases lobbying is just one part of their diverse portfolios, including journalism, diplomacy, company boards and Liberal Party advising. Downer was recently touted as a possible new state leader of the Liberals. He serves on the Australian board of China's Huawei Technologies with former Victorian Labor Premier, John Brumby.

Costello has worked for the new Coalition state governments, including heading the Queensland government's post-election Commission of Audit.

Downer formed the South Australian lobbying firm, Bespoke Approach, with former Labor minister Senator Nick Bolkus and Ian Smith, husband of former Democrats leader, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. They are deliberately multi-partisan.

Costello has effectively transplanted his former political office into the world of lobbying as a new company, ECG Advisory Solutions, with his former staffers, Jonathan Epstein and David Gazard. Their image is very much Liberal Party in exile.

Costello and Downer join a new world of lobbying which is dotted with former leading politicians as well as the usual former party officials and ministerial staffers. This has become clear in