The installation of a new Coalition government has brought former Howard government figures out of the cold shadow of the Labor years and back into the warmth of the right side of politics.
Not that the former politicians have been idle. Many have a portfolio of gigs with paid company board positions, advisory roles with industry and interest groups plus the odd not-for-profit.
And they should get a lot busier as companies and interest groups seek an insider perspective on the workings of a Coalition government and some insight into the political process.
The government relations industry, which once worked all flavours of governments, has become increasingly politically specialised in recent years. Firms tend to have strong expertise on either the conservative side of politics or the Labor camp.
Some do both, and some even have senior politicians from both major parties on the books. Look at Bespoke Approach which has Liberal Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, plus Labor Senator Nick Bolkus. The only thing in common is that they come from South Australia.
Justin Di Lollo, a long-time lobbyist and current head of government relations companies at STW Group, says companies should ask themselves if using figurehead politicians is the right approach for their needs. He regards them as “little more than a marketing tool.”
“There’s a big question over whether they can be effective,” Di Lollo said.
“What clients want now is analysis, to be able to fully understand their exposure to government and what the opportunities are and how to exploit them.
“They also need an active advocacy and that’s very much a full time gig. To have a part-time chairman with their photo on the website isn’t much help to anybody except for marketing services.”
David Gazard, a director and founder of ECG Advisory Solutions and ECG Financial, has Peter Costello, Australia’s longest serving treasurer, as chairman of ECG Financial. Costello is an investor and was was involved in setting up both ECG businesses.
Gazard doubts if any of the former politicians at government relations firms actually do simple lobby work like picking up a phone and setting up meetings. Others perform those tasks. The experienced ministers, he says, will give broad, strategic advice.
“They obviously bring a huge depth of knowledge on regulatory issues, on legislative issues and on the broader impact of politics,” he says. “They are a deep wellspring. The more senior they are the better.”
Business seeking regulatory changes or government backing need insights on the more sophisticated drivers of public policy and politics. Costello, as a former Treasurer, has deep knowledge on competition policy, foreign investment, tax policy and how these affect the political process.
Here’s who the other former Coalition politicians are, what they’re doing and which interests (according to the lobbyist register) their firms represent:
Peter Costello, Australia’s longest serving Treasurer and a former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, is currently chairman of ECG Financial Pty Ltd, a Melbourne-based boutique adviser on mergers and acquisitions, foreign investment, competition and regulatory issues. ECG was founded by Jonathan Epstein, a finance specialist and David Gazard, a journalist. Customers include Wesfarmers, Coles and Westpac. Costello was recently appointed by the government as Chairman of The Future Fund, which he established in 2006 when he was Treasurer under John Howard. He is also on the board of Nine Entertainment and is chairman of the Independent Advisory Board to the World Bank.
Nick Minchin, a former finance minister, became a special adviser at Bespoke Approach, an advisory firm which covers several flavours of politics, including Labor and Liberal. Former Liberal foreign minister Alexander Downer is there as in former Labor Senator Nick Bolkus. Both are South Australians and Minchin was a Liberal Senator for South Australia. Nick Minchin, however, will depart Australia, and his government relations role, for a full-time gig as Consul-General in New York where his day job will be to sell Australia to the Big Apple.
Peter Reith, a former defence minister, Workplace Relations Minister and Deputy Opposition Leader, is at First State which offers corporate and government relations to groups wanting to “develop strategic links with local, state or federal governments and with other businesses”. First State has 36 clients including engineering services group Thiess, computer giant Dell, and global adverting group Young & Rubicam. Reith was a director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development based in London between 2003 and 2009.
Michael Wooldridge, Australia’s longest serving health minister and a former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, is with The Strategic Counsel, a specialist in the health and medical technology sectors. Its customers include Roche, Blackmores, Australian Pharmaceutical Industries and the Cancer Drugs Alliance.
Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest serving former foreign minister, is one arm of three South Australians running advisory group Bespoke Approach. The second is Labor Senator Nick Bolkus and the third is Ian Smith, a former journalist, public relations executive and political adviser. Smith is married to former Democrat Leader Natasha Stott Despoja. Downer’s days at the firm are likely numbered: he is widely tipped to be the next Australian High Commissioner in London. When confirmed, the role will be a very sweet one for Mr Downer. His father, Sir Alec, was Australia’s High Commissioner from 1963 to 1972.
Helen Coonan, the former New South Wales Liberal senator is a former communications minister, assistant treasurer, minister for revenue and deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, is co-chair of Government Relations Australia. The other co chair is John Dawkins, the former Labor treasurer. Among the firm’s clients are Bupa, Clemenger BBDO, Aldi and Pacific Brands.
Santo Santoro, a Brisbane-based politician, a former federal Minister for Ageing and a state minister for Training and Industrial Relations, has established Santo Santoro Consulting. Customers include NEC, the Port of Brisbane and Infigen Energy. Santoro resigned from the Howard ministry in 2007 following a share scandal (he didn’t immediately declare shares he had in a biotechnology company when he was appointed to a health-related portfolio).
Larry Anthony, a former Liberal New South Wales MP, was federal Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Minister for Community Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Trade. He was one of three to establish the SAS Group in mid 2009 offering public affairs and government and business relations. Customers include Carabella Resources, ERM Power and Global Philanthropic.
Phil Baressi, a former Victorian Liberal MP from 1996 to 2007, is a Victorian director of SAS Consulting, and now CEO of the lobby group the Energy Users Association of Australia. He’s a former director of the Australian Retailers association.
Gary Humphries, known as Mr Canberra, is a former Chief Minister, Attorney-General and Treasurer of the Australian Capital Territory and a Liberal Senator in the national parliament. Under Tony Abbott, as Opposition Leader, Humphries was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families, Housing and Human Services and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship. He is now senior counsel at First State which has among its clients Thiess, computer giant Dell, and global adverting group Young & Rubicam.
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