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Downer and Costello's murky world of political lobbying


MegaphoneMany 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 the stories about the role of lobbyists and in-house government relations specialists in the politics of supermarket market share.

Woolworths and Coles are the major players. The challengers include Aldi. The cast of former political players shows how much has changed in the world of lobbying.

Costello and Downer are allies in this conflict. Coles, a subsidiary of Wesfarmers, employs ECG Advisory Solutions directly to supplement its own in-house corporate affairs division. Wesfarmers has its own corporate affairs division, managed by former Western Australian Labor Premier, Alan Carpenter, and supplements this fire-power with lobbying assistance from Downer's Bespoke Approach.

Woolworths, not to be outdone, also has its own government relations team of former Liberal and Labor advisers, under a former federal director of the Nationals, Andrew Hall. Aldi, for its part, uses one of the biggest lobbying firms, Government Relations Australia Advisory (two dozen lobbyists and almost 50 clients), with former federal Labor Treasurer John Dawkins as part of the team.

These big flashy teams of former senior political leaders and their staffs bring process knowledge, personal contacts and political savvy.

The stakes are high. Costello has already been targeted for alleged conflict of interest in Queensland where he both lobbies and advises government. There is certainly room for conflicts of interest when politician lobbyists work both inside and outside government at the same time, as has already happened with earlier state Labor governments. It is an unhealthy development.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. He is the author of the 2007 book Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, lobbyists, Alexander Downer, John Howard, Peter Costello



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Existing comments

"Costello has already been targeted for alleged conflict of interest in Queensland where he both lobbies and advises government." Wow. He's been "targeted" for "alleged" conflict of interest! Shame on him! Anything else?

HH | 31 March 2013  

What was that observation Mr. Marx made about the state and its function as the executive of the bourgeoisie? In order to know exactly what the bourgeoisie requires to flourish and prosper the state needs to be informed of their requirements and who better to perform that duty than former insiders with an intimate knowledge of how the system works. Stands to reason really but how amusing to note that among the former insiders are some whose political ancestors fought against the power wielded by the sort of outfits John mentions in his essay. Life is really a barrel of laughs, isn't it?

Paul | 01 April 2013  

In my opinion former politicians; high level military and public service personnel should be legally barred from any form of commercial lobbying for a period of five (5) years after they leave office/the service. The Huangwei bid for part of the NBN is still fresh in my mind. Alexander Downer and a former Admiral were appointed to the board of Huangwei and took an active part in the PR campaign to gain this company a piece of the action despite a negative recommendation by ASIO due to links of top management in China with the People's Liberation Army. Fortunately the Government was unswayed by the lobbying. The legislation should be wide enough to cover this as well.

Edward F | 02 April 2013  

Thanks, John. I'd note that Woolies is also a major player in the pokies industry, which impacts disproportionately on vulnerable and marginalised Australians. One assumes that their formidable lobbying team is also deployed in support of these gambling interests. Analyses such as yours help all of us to remain alert to this broader picture, and challenge us to renew our efforts to keep the negative side of pokies before our politicians.

Denis Fitzgerald | 02 April 2013  

Absolutely disgusting, these pollies! Thanks for the article John. I can now send this to my friends so they are properly informed!

Nathalie | 02 April 2013  

Why stop at 5 years Edward F, why not a lifetime ban? For that matter, if ex politicians are going to engage in lucrative business dealings post politics why not strip them of their taxpayer funded superannuation entitlements as well? As one who was brought up (many years ago) to believe that Bob Menzies and 'Black' Jack McEwen were the anti-Christ and that no decent working class lad ever voted Tory, it astonishes me today to note the difference between them and modern day politicians. While Menzies and McEwen may not have died in poverty their circumstances after leaving parliament were very modest indeed. Not for them a retirement spent enriching themselves, they were content knowing they had spent their lives in service, as they saw it, to the people. In all fairness to today's politicians, however, it should be noted they are merely a reflection of the rest of us; while ever some workers such as those in the resources sector demand the fabulous wages they do demand and while ever executives are paid fees beyond the dreams of avarice etc. it's a bit much to think that the average pollie is going to settle for less. And they are pretty average, aren't they? Just like the rest of us really.

Paul | 04 April 2013  

Funny headline that. Put a lot of people off reading the article - implication is Downer and Costello are at it again - equally misleading would have been to mention only Labor politicians in the headline. Who edits the headlines? This sort of headlining discredits Eureka Street!

Mary Hoban | 05 April 2013  

There is an excellent analysis by a couple of accountants/economists with an impressive academic record, of the Costello 'audit' that was used by the incoming government in 2012 to misrepresent Queensland's real financial position, sack thousands of public servants, while giving the big end of town more tax concessions. This analysis, submission 62, can be found on the web at (www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Certain_Aspects_of_Queensland_Government_Administration/Certain_Aspects_Qld_Admin/Submissions)

Paola Cassoni | 03 March 2015  

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