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Lobbying for change

Sep 22, 2011 4:44:22 PM - www.ft.lk

How the business lobby should involve itself in public policy implementation

Lobbying is the systematic attempt at influencing the decision making process of the government. This is a no mean task for an individual but collective efforts by the likeminded individuals and organisation could have a drastic effect on the policy making process.
Lobbying is a highly specialised profession and regulated in most of the Western democracies. However, the tactics or the process of lobbying is quite new to Sri Lanka. The influence of the business lobby in Sri Lanka is relatively insignificant and has virtually no bearing on policy making process.

Lobbying in US and other European capitals has a major impact on the policy making process. Group interest and special interest groups play a major role in shaping public policy in these countries and reason for that being the involvement of free media.
There are ample opportunities for associations, labour unions and business organisation and special interest groups to form coalitions and lobby the government to bring about policies, laws, and regulations in favour of the industry.
The Dictionary of American Government and Politics describes lobbying as: “Any individual, group or organisation that seeks to influence legislation or administrative action. Lobbyists can be trade organisations, individual organisations, good-government public interest groups, or other levels of government. The term arouse from the use of the lobbies, or corridors of legislative halls, as places to meet with and persuade legislators to vote a certain way. In US, the right to attempt to influence legislation is based on the US Constitution which holds that the Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the government for a redress or grievance.”
The Constitution of Sri Lanka provides legislative safe guards for lobbying and individuals, organisation and labour unions have resorted to public interest litigation in the past and on some cases have won their rights. This is purely a legitimate and a democratic right and must be exercised by the business lobby.
What is important is the strength of the organisation to challenge legislation and create public awareness thereby forming a public opinion either in favour or against a particular policy of the government.
Will of the people
We live in a world where freedom of speech, thought and action are quintessential to the advancement of civil society. An elected government receives a mandate by the people to carry out the policies place before them in the run up to an election. It is therefore imperative that civil society participates in all actions of the government. In order to participate constructively the government must afford an opportunity for the civil society to voice their opinions freely without the threat of being penalised.
Lobbying the legislature or executive through mass media, interest groups, trade unions, farmer associations, professional associations, and business chambers is a basic tenet of democracy. Once a government is elected to power it is responsible for the people at large including those who voted against it.
In order for a government to run its business it must communicate with all stakeholders of the society. The way in which it communicates has a huge impact on the popularity and credibility of the government.
Political decisions are made on the basis of public choice theory where political decision-makers, either elected representatives or bureaucrats, are assumed to be economically rational and tend to make common sense approach to policy issues.
All members of Parliament are mainly motivated by the chances of re-election, the prospects of which are determined by the law’s impact on voters. Voters too are rational actors and vote according to their economic self-interest. Critics argue that special interest groups who wield political influence in the Legislature influence legislation, and grass roots lobbying could provide early signals for legislators on the electoral consequences of their actions and provide information to constituents that may reframe an issue and possibly change the mass opinion.  
Eugene Ridings proves in his research study Business Interest Groups in the Nineteenth Century Brazil, the extent to which special interest groups “assumed… the responsibility of…compensating for the administrative weakness of government….to advise and aid the government in their area of speciality. The commercial associations, for example, were consulted on all matters related to economics, regulated business practices” and Brazilian associations were given a supervisory role by the government by ensuring their participation in government decision-making process. Today Brazil is one of the largest economies competing with traditional super powers.
There have been major policy matters that affected the industry, such as GSP+ and abolition of visas on arrival, and the pressure from the industry was marginal. A business lobby must have the necessary clout and this can be augmented by making coalitions with other business organisations and chambers of commerce.
Tax Amnesty Bill
There has been intense lobbying by the People’s Alliance and allied parties when they were in opposition to withdraw the Tax Amnesty Bill introduced by the then UNP administration and the pressure mounted had a drastic impact on its implementation and it was a major policy setback for the then UNP Government.
It was a classic case in lobbying in Sri Lanka and had a resounding success solely because pressure groups resorted to using multiple mediums such as media, advertising, legal remedies and public opinion. The bill was successfully challenged in the Supreme Court and there were huge advertisements creating awareness on the merits and demerits of the bill. This resulted in creating a massive awareness among the people. There were also critical televised debates and the arguments mounted in favour of the bill could not be sustained.
A business lobby must have special Political Action Committees (PACs) in place and should be in a position to mount a campaign so that advocacy groups could undertake public education programmes thereby making a strong case against or in favour of a particular policy.  

(The writer is a freelance journalist and a political lobbying and government relations consultant. He is the author of ‘Political Diplomacy & Lobbying’ and ‘Political Theology for Atheists in America’.)

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