Warhurst, John: Case studies on the role of pressure groups, lobbyists and public relations people in our democracy

John Warhurst*

‘Case studies on the role of pressure groups, lobbyists and public relations people in our democracy’, Honest History, 20 May 2019

John Warhurst reviews Mark J. Sheehan, ed., Advocates and Persuaders

Advocates and persuaders, also known as peak associations, lobbyists, corporates and the public relations industry, play a central, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, role in Australian democracy. We need our knowledge of this dynamic industry continually expanded in order to keep up with its growth. This new book does that.

Image result for Mark J. Sheehan, ed., Advocates and PersuadersThe great strength of the book is that it contains numerous case studies which illustrate the professional work of this industry. These studies range from the big tobacco and mining industries to local government and the RSPCA. Others include the Victorian College of the Arts, the real estate industry, the Grattan Institute, and the Institute of Public Affairs.

The studies are written from different perspectives, including by government and industry insiders. Some of the studies include types of lobbying, including in the local government sector, which are not often addressed in this way, despite their importance.

It is a book to be delved into as a handbook rather than to be read as an integrated argument in one or two sittings. The writing is generally workmanlike rather than dazzling.  But I did like the description of the well-known former Canberra Times journalist, the late Bruce Juddery, as a person ‘with a Dickensian-sounding name and characteristics that could be accurately described as Falstaffian’.

Each of the twelve chapters is one small part of a larger puzzle. While the editor, Mark Sheehan, a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Deakin University, describes the collection as pitched at analysis rather as a ‘how to do it’ guide for prospective players, many of the chapters do have a practical orientation and are not necessarily any the worse for that. Description is, after all, a necessary prelude to analysis and we still know too little about this industry.

Sheehan also makes the case for a new ‘public relations’ perspective on advocacy and persuasion. This orientation does bring a somewhat wider range of literature into play – Sheehan makes good use of the archives of the Canberra Times in his historical introduction – and, in some cases, fresh perspectives, but, in general, the case studies are still recognisably out of the traditional government and political science stable. That comment might be seen as just an old political scientist defending his turf, but there is certainly room for a mix of perspectives. Sheehan has brought with him several other academics from the fields of political communication, media and public relations. The advocacy industry and the academy are moving in the same direction, both recognising new directions at play.

The weaknesses of this book are those commonly found in edited collections, especially those which may have been published with a university student market in mind. This means that too many of the chapters are self-contained rather than tightly integrated with each other. They are often slow to begin as some basics are set out. Chapters which come later in the book, such as that by Paul Williams on politics and the media in lobbying and public advocacy, set up a framework for analysis which could have informed many of the earlier chapters.

There’s more to be said, including on attempts to regulate the industry, and there is more drawn from Victorian examples than elsewhere. But you can’t do everything in one hit.

As it stands, the range of topics – MPs, staffers, think tanks, public opinion polls, local government (two chapters), public relations, stakeholder advocacy, media, and a personal account of a successful campaign for a medically safe injecting centre – provide stimulating content (most of the necessary ingredients are included) and a comprehensive framework for discussion by anyone from young undergraduates to seniors in a U3A course. The advocates and persuaders themselves should have a copy on their shelves too.

* John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former Chair of the Australian Republican Movement. Among his publications is Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry. For Honest History, he reviewed Benjamin T. Jones’s This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future and Shaun Crowe’s Whitlam’s Children: Labor and the Greens in Australia.

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