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Canberra can be a tricky place for the would-be lobbyist.

The how-to-guide for a successful Canberra lobbying trip

My number one piece of advice for clients looking to engage with government is to put the time into building relationships with key influencers or decision makers.

In order to do so, you need to take advantage of all available opportunities to build these relationships – including requesting meetings, attending events where you know you will get the chance to talk to people in a position to help and providing demonstrations, where possible, to showcase your work.

For businesses based in WA, a trip to Canberra can provide additional opportunities to interact with federal politicians and senior bureaucrats. But Canberra can be as hard to navigate as tax legislation without the assistance of a good tax lawyer. In the interests of making the most out of time spent in Canberra, here are some of the things I keep in mind on any trip to the capital.

Parliament House protocols

Parliament House is a busy place – on a non-sitting day around 800 people work there, on a sitting day that number can reach 4000. During Budget week that can more than double, with up to 12,000 people working at the House, including MPs, support staff and officials from Treasury.

To ensure the safety of all parties, a special escorted visitor pass (for which you’ll be expected to go through security screening and show ID) is needed to access the halls of Parliament House. But even with an escort it’s unlikely you will be able to catch the Prime Minister on his coffee break at Aussies (the Parliament House café). Generally, sitting days are long and busy, so a request sent well in advance is your best chance to secure a meeting with an MP or their advisers.

Keep in mind that Ministers are particularly stretched for time, so most meetings will only be set for30 minutes. If you get a meeting, be prepared to use the time wisely and efficiently and have your briefing notes, key messages and talking points refined and ready.

Canberra’s bureaucracy

If you are looking to influence a change to policy, it’s important you keep the Canberra bureaucracy firmly in mind. The central agencies comprising Treasury, Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet, assess all new policies put forward from a whole-of-government policy perspective and with regards to budgetary implications. As a result, these agencies tend to house the most powerful public servants, who have considerable influence on policy implementation.

It pays to take the time to build relationships with these agencies and understand their roles and functions, along with what requirements they may have to support effective delivery of outcomes. And if you find yourself invited to a public service morning tea, my tip for a quick way to build your popularity is sausage rolls from Dobinsons (it’s a rule that you can’t have a morning tea in Canberra without sausage rolls!).

Wining and dining

If you can secure it, a meeting over dinner is a great opportunity to build your relationships in Canberra. Politicians know better than most that loose lips sink ships – and favour restaurants in the Parliamentary triangle that appreciate the benefits of and provide for privacy. Some notable examples are:

  • Portia’s Place in Kingston, where Peter Dutton and Matthias Cormann famously dined the night before Malcolm Turnbull was dismissed;
  • Griffith Vietnamese, whose wall of signatures includes the autographs of Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Laurie Ferguson, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, to name just a few;
  • Canberra power restaurant Ottoman’s Turkish, a fancier and more private favourite of political types; and
  • China Plate in Kingston – the fried ice-cream is rumoured to be a Clive Palmer favourite!

Out and about

Of course, a good way to build your relationships and profile is lobbying at one of the many party gatherings, business conferences, charity balls, private dinners and cocktail nights on offer regularly in Canberra. If you are after something a bit less formal, then staffer and press drinks are traditionally held Wednesday night on sitting weeks – always inner south and usually at Public in Manuka. If you want to combine keeping fit while pollie-watching, you can always go for a run around Lake Burley Griffin (conveniently located in the Parliamentary triangle) – it’s totally up to you whether or not you bust out the lycra.

Lastly, as well as getting in early to secure your meetings, make sure you book your flights well in advance. With only Qantas flying direct to Perth and daylight saving starting in October, a detour through Sydney or Melbourne can eat a day of valuable engagement time. Plus, think of all the possible star gazing you might get with your local MPs on the flight!

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Cannings Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years in Canberra working for the Commonwealth Department of Finance, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Commonwealth Treasury. If you need help mapping out your government engagement, contact Jennifer.

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