Lobby groups and front groups: industry tactics in the climate change debate.

Author:Hodder, Patrick


Australian industry (1) has had an extensive and often hidden engagement in the climate change debate in Australia. Industry has actively influenced both the formal and public agendas and shaped policy outcomes. I begin with theories of agenda-setting to indicate the main approaches used by particular players depending on their resources. I then place the fossil fuel industry within an economic and political context, and outline the formation and overall strategic approach of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN) and the Lavoisier Group. Lastly, I introduce the backfire model and use it to analyse significant differences in the tactical approaches of the AIGN and Lavoisier Group.

There are two broad agendas in liberal democracies: the governmental agenda comprising issues for discussion and the narrower formal decision-making agenda, and the public agenda comprising the media and public opinion. (2) Issues for policy consideration may be placed directly on the formal agenda or may cross over from the public agenda (3). Industry generally approaches government to ensure its interests are protected and promoted. Although many interest groups may gain direct or 'inside' access to government, the level of access and the degree of influence exercised is primarily a function of the value of the group's resources to government. (4) The economic power of corporations gives heads of industry enough political leverage to gain privileged access to government and lobby for their interests. This inside access allows an elite group of powerful players to apply selective pressure to the formal decision-making agenda of government in order to achieve a favourable outcome. (5) Generally, this power is exercised by 'blocking potential items' from reaching the formal agenda. (6) This approach is most successful when proponents such as industry hold the same set of values as the people they are dealing with in government and the bureaucracy. (7)

Many interest groups pursue inside and outside strategies simultaneously. (8) Outside strategies typically involve media campaigns. When the media select an issue for coverage, this gives it visibility and has an impact on the public agenda because the issue is perceived as important. (9) However, progress between public and formal agendas is uneven due to the frequently disproportionate dynamics of political attention and information processing (10). Furthermore, definition of the issue may be modified significantly during processing, and formal consideration may not occur, particularly if the issue might arouse significant opposition. (11) Given the capacity constraints of the public agenda, an issue may drop off the public agenda as it is superseded by more pressing concerns (12), or it may remain on the public agenda while being blocked from consideration on the formal agenda.

The fossil fuel, resource, and metals processing sector has a vested interest in activities that lead to emissions of carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]), and therefore has a direct interest in the outcome of the climate change debate. Fossil fuels underpin nearly all major activity in the modern world from electricity generation to transportation and industrial processes. For example, coal generates 85% of Australia's grid- connected electricity, and black coal exports from NSW and Queensland are Australia's largest commodity export worth more than $50 billion in 2008-09. (13) The coal industry in Australia is dominated by four large, majority foreign-owned, trans-national corporations: Xstrata, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American. (14) The central importance of fossil fuels, coupled with the size of the corporations that produce and consume them, enables the fossil fuel industry to exert considerable leverage over government. (15) In addition to direct approaches, corporations have developed a range of strategies and tactics to actively shape the public agenda in a direction favourable to their interests. One of the methods used by industry to counter the influence of environmentalism on the public agenda has been the development of industry front groups. (16) Direct influence by lobby groups and indirect influence by front groups are two different strategic approaches used by industry to exert influence over both the formal and public agendas.

The AIGN is a cross-industry lobby group (17) representing the coal, oil, aluminium, chemicals, iron and steel, cars and trucking, and farming and forestry sectors. It comprises industry associations such as the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the Australian Coal Association (ACA) and the Australian Aluminium Council (AAC), and corporations such as ExxonMobil, Alcoa, and Xstrata (18). These industry associations and corporations still lobby extensively in their own right. For example, they use both inside strategies to lobby the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers directly, and outside strategies such as media releases and advertising campaigns to communicate to a broader audience. (19) However, these public initiatives are restricted to a critique of the potential impacts of climate change policy on investment, jobs and wealth, all issues on which it may be legitimately expected that industry would protect its interests. There is no public criticism of the scientific underpinnings of the policy.

Beginning in the 1980s, the corporate and industry interests that later formed the AIGN identified the sources of political, economic and scientific advice on greenhouse policy within government and concentrated on influencing them. (20) Important sources of advice to government within the bureaucracy included the Industry Department (21), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Senior bureaucrats working in the areas of energy, industry, and trade, including ABARE which used to be located in the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, had a strong tradition, going back to the late 1980s, of identifying with, and promoting the interests of, the fossil fuel intensive export industries. This included preventing greenhouse considerations from impinging on energy policy. (22)

A key aspect of the AIGN strategy involved hiring several of these senior Canberra bureaucrats to lead AIGN industry associations. Many, particularly from the Industry department, had twenty years experience drafting and shaping policy on both energy and greenhouse. (23) When they returned to lobby the bureaucracy in their new roles as AIGN executives, they had the advantage of extensive policy experience, inside knowledge and connections, and seniority over many of the junior bureaucrats that replaced them. (24) Direct intervention by the AIGN was an important factor in blocking initiatives from the Department of the Environment and stopping the Howard Government discussing an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in Cabinet. (25) This supports the observations of Kingdon that powerful players typically exert influence by preventing certain items from being considered on the formal agenda. (26) It also indicates that the AIGN meets the criteria identified by Maloney, Jordan and McLaughlin for a 'resource-rich group' including 'the ability to organise' around specific demands; 'organizational cohesion'; 'strategic location--the control of "resources indispensable in society"'; 'economic significance; size (membership); knowledge (technical expertise or political sophistication) [and] implementation power'. (27Emphasis original)

In contrast to the behind-the-scenes lobbying activity of the AIGN and the media campaigns focussed solely upon the issue of jobs and investment, the Lavoisier Group publicly disputes the science of climate change. The Lavoisier Group presents itself as a group of 'concerned' individuals and disinterested observers. (28) Yet it is run and supported by well-connected figures from industry and politics. The Lavoisier Group was established in 2000 primarily by executives from Western Mining Corporation (WMC). (29) These WMC executives included CEO Hugh Morgan (30), Ray Evans (31) who became Secretary of the Lavoisier Group, and Ian Webber who became Vice-President. Another former WMC CEO, Sir Arvi Parbo, is also a supporter of the Lavoisier Group. The Treasurer of the Lavoisier Group is Harold Clough, CEO of Clough Engineering, which services the resource and mining industry. Peter Walsh, former federal Labor Finance Minister in the Hawke Government, was President of the Lavoisier Group between 2000 and 2009.

In effect, the Lavoisier Group acts as a front group on behalf of industry because it serves the interests of a particular industry sector, but it is not up-front about its backers or its motivation. (32) The Lavoisier Group promotes scientific uncertainty and climate denial, but conceals its backers and the fact that those industry backers have a vested interest in undermining policies to reduce CO2 emissions. A position can be advanced by a front group as though it arises from grass-roots public concern, but the same position advanced by a corporation would be regarded as suspiciously self-interested. (33) Front groups therefore deceive the public into attributing greater credibility to a perspective that serves industry precisely because the viewpoint appears to be advanced independently.

The Lavoisier Group functions as part of a global network of denial funded by industry that includes other front groups, think tanks and organisations in Australia and abroad. Many of its strategies and tactics, such as using the work of contrarian scientists (34), have been honed in previous industry operations such as the covert campaigns financed by major tobacco corporations. (35) The Lavoisier Group promotes the work of climate contrarians such as Bob Carter. This lends credibility to...

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