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Lobbyists have a bad name

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17 August 2013

Lobbyists have a bad name. We think of secret meetings and undue influence. And we think of big money that can distort the whole democratic process.

But at a basic level, most lobbyists or advocates carry out an important task -  trying to influence decision-making on behalf of all sorts of groups e.g. the elderly, farmers, religions, sporting bodies, unions and charities. 

People have always sought to influence decisions. In any system of governance, personal relationships and a quiet word in the “lobby”, or king’s ante-chamber or at the bar at party conference are sure ways to make views known. 

Moses lobbied Pharaoh to let his people go and Esther advocated for her people to her king.  In an early example of democratic decision making in the New Testament church, Peter lobbied church leaders in Jerusalem to accept Gentile believers. And a letter was sent out via messengers to explain the decision (see Acts 11 and 15). 

Elizabeth Fry, the amazing woman of God advocated for the rights of prisoners, and the abolitionists vigorously lobbied MPs to vote for an end to the slave trade. 

But over the last century, “professional lobbying” in the States and more recently in other nations has gone to a whole new level that favours those with wealth. 

One of the grey areas of lobbying is the easy transition that many ex-politicians make from the legislature to lobbying firms. In Sweden, 37% of politicians and aides who have left politics since 2006 have gone into lobbying, which has given them a salary increase of up to 40% (depending on their closeness to Ministers) 

Through their former professional contacts, ex-politician lobbyists offer their clients anything from getting a proposal on the floor of parliament to getting changes voted into law. 

Is this democracy at work? Or self interest? Or a corrupt use of influence gained in public ‘service’ and now used for private gain? 

In many countries, lobbyists are registered so that people know who is influencing whom, but there are no rules to regulate the Swedish lobbying world. 

For a few years when I headed Micah Challenge in Australia, I had a lobbyist pass to parliament in Canberra (for which I needed endorsement from two MPs). It was empowering to be able to flash my pass and walk unescorted through the corridors, meet advisors over a coffee, distribute fact sheets and have chance encounters with MPs in the corridor. Those random three minute chats were often key: they helped to keep poverty issues floating in the MPs’ consciousness and sometimes jogged them into action. 

But I did not wine and dine MPs at local restaurants nor present expensive gifts, nor host lavish events and I didn’t make party donations – all of these practices are a part of the world of “professional” lobbying. American lobbyist Jack Abramoff has said, “Access is vital in lobbying. If you can't get in [the] door, you can't make your case. So the lobbyist safe-cracker method [is]: throw fundraisers, raise money, and become a big donor. 

As MPs would tell me in Australia, “I could dine out every night of the week at some lobbying event.” At the very least such behaviour softens the response of an MP and it just may “buy” their support on a crucial issue. 

Worse than that, MPs can be guilty of “cash for questions” – pushing an agenda for an industry or cause by asking planted questions in return for payment. The latest case in the UK in May this year was actually a sting operation: a journalist approached an MP to offer £2000 a month in return for lobbying efforts on behalf of the Pacific nation of Fiji. 

In the United States, where party discipline is much lighter than in Australia or the UK, and where vast sums of money are required to run election campaigns, lobbying an individual Congressman or Senator with a promise of cash at election time has the very real prospect of winning their vote on an issue. 

There are over 12,000 registered lobbyists working in Washington, with the most influential representing corporations like pharmaceutical giants, agri-business, finance/banking and defence. It is estimated that lobbyists in Washington spent $3.5 billion in 2010 (Paul Harris in the Guardian, 19-11-2011). 

The gun lobby in the US (the National Rifle Association, the firearms industries and the Gun Owners of America), has poured nearly US$81 million into House, Senate and presidential races since 2000, most of it— more than $46 million — since 2010 when the Supreme Court allowed individuals, corporations, associations and unions to make ‘unlimited’ expenditures aimed at electing or defeating candidates. 

Where is the voice of the poor, or indeed any “ordinary” voter in such a huge industry? 

BUT ordinary voices can still be heard in politics. We just need to be well organised, persistent and clever. We can reclaim the essence of lobbying, which is to seek to influence public decision-making. 

Don’t let us make the mistake of moaning about low standards in politics without doing anything! 

Let’s get behind the EXPOSED campaign which wants to shine a light on the murky connections between money and political influence and between corporation lobbyists and politicians. 

We will be following in a biblical and social justice tradition – speaking out for the voiceless and calling for God’s justice to reign. 

You can do 3 things to shine a light on corruption:

1. Sign the Global Call against corruption at www.exposed2013.com 
2. Hold a local vigil of prayers and worship to proclaim God’s heart for integrity in the church, business and government. You can find out more at www.exposed2013.com/globalvigil
3. Make a personal commitment to live with integrity. Check out EXPOSED partner Unashamedly Ethical for ways they promote ethical living.

 

Article by Amanda Jackson, Micah Challenge