Thursday, March 08, 2007

The rise of Crosby/Textor

The editorial in yesterday’s Crikey was a damning indictment of John Howard’s tactics in the Brian Burke affair. Crikey was critical of Howard’s statement there is no need for a register or code of conduct of lobbyists. It suggested the real reason that Howard was reluctant to introduce accountability into the $1 billion industry is due to his own allegiance to lobbying firm Crosby/Textor.

The Burke case has launched a public debate on the influence of lobbyists. But this is not a recent concern. In 1983, the new Hawke ALP government created a register of lobbyists, accessible only by ministers. But it fell into disuse and lobbyists can freely enter the parliament building if vouched for by two MPs. ALP supported a registration process in the 2004 election and new leader Kevin Rudd has stated Australia needs a comprehensive national register of lobbyists, listing their clients and the politicians they had met. Howard is resisting the change. "In the end it's a matter of judgement and it's a matter of personal responsibility. There is no instinct for proper behaviour in these matters, you can't legislate it," he said. “I’m not a great believer in substituting rules and regulations and registers for personal responsibility. It is all a matter of judgement."

Crosby/Textor would probably agree with Howard's judgement. It is a Canberra-based market research and communications company with close connections to the federal Liberal Party. According to their own blurb Crosby/Textor offers “an unmatched pedigree combining comprehensive experience in market research, strategic communications and campaign execution”. These skills have been honed by its two principals, Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, in the last four elections. As well as the federal Government, their high powered clients include Telstra, British American Tobacco, Qantas and lately the Qantas takeover bid.

That latter role has brought accusations of conflict of interest over the privatisation of the national airline. The company was hired by the private equity consortium Airline Partners Australia (APA) for their inside knowledge and perceived influence with government ministers and backbenchers to convince them to accept the politically sensitive $11 billion Qantas takeover deal. The bid was accepted by the Government on Tuesday this week. Crosby/Textor is reputedly earning at least $50,000 a month for their work on the deal. Company spokesman John Kent brushed off media concerns by saying "we never talk to anyone about anything about clients."

The company was founded in 2003 by Crosby and Textor. Both men played key roles in the Liberal party’s four successive election victories. Lynton Crosby (pictured) rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party and was appointed Federal Director of the party in 1997. John Howard appointed Crosby as campaign director for his second victory in 1998. He is known for his mastery of dog whistle politics. Crosby was responsible for the 2001 wedge campaign which promoted fear and hatred of refugees in the wake of the Tampa crisis.

Mark Textor cut his teeth in his native Northern Territory when he was part of the successful Country-Liberal Party's election campaign committee in 1994. Buoyed by the success of this campaign, he went on to mastermind the strategy behind the breakthrough 1996 Liberal federal victory and became the principal Liberal pollster for the next three elections. Textor is notorious for his pull-polling techniques which are influential in changing the way people vote. Push-polling pretends to be a typical poll, gathering information about preferences, but quickly morphs into something more manipulative. The questioner will defame or sully reputations by implying drug use or improper behaviour and then asks the respondent whether they would still vote for that person regardless of that behaviour.

Textor and Crosby had immediate success in 2004 when they ran the Liberal federal re-election campaign. Then in 2005 their machine was behind another Howard election campaign. But this Howard was Michael Howard then-leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Crosby was criticised by the British media for bringing many of their divisive tactics with them to the British campaign. Michael Howard used issues such as immigration, asylum seekers, gypsies, law and order and abortion to exploit fear and prejudice to win votes. The Tories paid the Australian firm a million dollars for their services and although Howard lost, blemishing their perfect record, the previously hapless Tories gained 36 seats to put them within reach of Government for the next election.

Crosby/Textor also advised the conservative National Party in New Zealand’s 2005 election. They used the same wedge issues as in Australia and Britain, playing the fear card especially on immigration and security. The tactics were exposed by journalist Danny Hager’s “Hollow Men - A study in the politics of deception” which led to the recent resignation of National Party leader Don Brash. According to Hager the Nationals claimed increased migration put pressure on NZ’s health system and migrants go “straight to the welfare queues”. Ultimately however, their divisive tactics failed in New Zealand as they did in Britain.

Here in Australia, their star still shines brightly in the upper echelons of the Liberal party and John Howard remains deeply indebted to both men. In particular Crosby’s ruthless targeting of key marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning is more responsible than most for keeping Howard prime minister for 11 years. Howard is therefore unlikely to lead any charge to change the rules on regulations for lobbyists.

Not everyone in the industry is happy with the status quo. Danny Pearson, director of Labor-aligned lobby group Hawker Britton, is in favour of regulation but said lobbyists were a necessary part of the political landscape. "You are almost like a translator: you are translating to government the needs of a client or business more generally, but you are also translating to a client basically how government thinks and operates and works."

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