MPs as Lobbyists and the Mendicant Society

Local MPs do just as much lobbying for vested interests as all those industry associations, NGOs and Hawker-esque consulting firms.  It’s just that they’re lobbyists for a geographic vested interest group – their electorate.

I used to see lobbying as an unwelcome attempt to influence ‘independent’ policy professionals and MPs when they try to create good policy.  My mid-life engagement with politics changed that.

Not only is lobbying an essential part of the policy development process – how else are reasonably uninformed bureaucrats going to get access to practical, on-the-ground information – but it is undertaken by lots of organisations with good intent or great social contribution.

More importantly, any principled examination of MP behaviour could easily categorise it as a form of lobbying. And a form of lobbying that frequently results in direct cash payoffs to the geographic vested interest they represent.

MPs lobby for highway upgrades, school refits, hospital extensions, festival grants – you name it, locals will ask for it, and then MPs ask for ordinary people to fund it out of tax revenue.

The very nature of parliamentary (electorate-based) democracy encourages this kind of mendicant society. A ‘good’ local MP is one that listens to local claims for cash, lobbies government effectively and delivers the payola. In terms of government money or effort for local issues.

Just as with other forms of lobbying, this can deliver vital information to bureaucratic decision-makers isolated from the frontline. However, it can equally subvert good policy for the sake of pandering to a single geographic interest.

You can see this in MP-supported NIMBY campaigns, particularly in opposing increases in housing density in established suburbs against the interests of broader society. This particularly applies to the Inner West of Sydney, where the organised wealthy with good media contacts have put up a “No Vacancy” sign despite population densities being lower than early last century.

You can also see it in MP action to keep local full-function hospitals when all research shows centralising specialised procedures delivers much better medical outcomes. Or in rejections of major infrastructure projects because they may upset local residents.

Yet somehow this direct challenge to good policy is ignored. It is even celebrated as grassroots democracy.

What’s worse is that this becomes the mode of operation for Ministers as much for local MPs. Too often Ministers become the voice of their sector in government. They field demand after demand for extra spending, and receive not one policy paper suggesting where they might find the money. They argue  as advocates in Cabinet for spending in their portfolio. Those Ministers that succeed in getting the cash are celebrated in their sector.

Celebrated for delivering alms to a mendicant society.

In my own limited way I experienced this as a candidate. For six months I fielded request after request for increased spending on worthy (and not-so-worthy) projects. Not one of those requests included suggestions for where to find the money. The entire process was one of begging for alms and of taking absolutely no responsibility for raising or finding the money.

Good policy in broader terms was irrelevant. Any response I gave in terms of broader financial or policy issues was seen as obstructive or unresponsive. It wasn’t the role of the local member. I learned quickly.

The MP as electorate representative is one of the most remarkable conceptual developments in human history. But for all those people who are suspicious of how lobbying affects democracy, the problem starts with the mendicants who insist on their geographic vested interest being considered before anyone else. They also go by another name: voters.

 

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  1. Gang Green

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