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Lobbying is Key to Australia-US Relations

19 Jul 2016
By Dr Alan Tidwell
Malcom Turnbull and Barack Obama at the White House. Photo credit: By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Diplomatic lobbying is an under-studied phenomenon and its impact on US foreign relations is rarely examined. Since 1987, diplomats in the Congressional Liaison Office, part of Australia’s embassy in Washington, have been lobbying the US Congress and getting impressive results. 

During the 2000s it was commonplace to hear about the close friendship between John Howard and George Bush. For some, that close friendship was all that was needed to describe the Australian-American alliance. That view, perhaps typified by the likes of The Australian newspaper’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, profoundly oversimplifies the management of arguably Australia’s most important security relationship. Since 1987 the Congressional Liaison Office (CLO), part of Australia’s embassy in Washington, has been working to protect Australia from unwanted legislation while at the same time promoting Australian interests.

The origins of the Congressional Liaison Office

The CLO is Australia’s “own in-house lobbying firm”, according to AIIA National President and Australia’s former Ambassador to the United States, the Hon Kim Beazley AC FAIIA. He described the CLO as a “critical enabler” of Australia’s interests. The necessity for the CLO comes from the unique structure of the US government requiring congressional approval for presidential action. In July 1986 Australia’s Minister for Primary Industries, John Kerin, led an all-party parliamentary delegation to Washington seeking changes to the Export Enhancement Program (EEP). EEP, the name given to American wheat subsidies aimed at European countries, caused considerable political turmoil in Australia. Not surprisingly, however, the US Congress cared little about the negative impact the EEP was having on Australian interests. Congressional eyes focused on their own constituents and after that considered the EEP impact in Europe; Australia came in a distant third if at all.

Getting results on Capitol Hill

Today, the CLO reduces risk and creates opportunities in the Australia-US relationship by building strong political support in the US Congress for Australia. Three examples of the work undertaken by the CLO are the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), the E3 visa and passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The AUSFTA signaled a fundamental political shift in the Australian-US relationship. Australians no longer bemused members of the US Congress. In seeking passage of the AUSFTA the CLO enlightened members of Congress. The CLO supported passage of the United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act, with the House of Representatives voting in favor by 314 to 109 and the Senate by 80 to 16 on July 15, 2004. While the economic consequences of the AUSFTA are debated, the diplomatic result is a clear win for Australia.

One thing missing from the AUSFTA was human mobility. In a move unconnected to Australia, the US Congress removed human mobility consideration from free trade legislation starting in 2003. Undaunted, however, the Australian Embassy sought a separate piece of legislation that would give special mobility status to Australians, the E3 visa. Passed into law in 2005, the E3 is valid for two years and has unlimited renewal. As a former CLO staffer explained, “it was unconscionable for Australian nationals not to be afforded” a human mobility deal. As it turned out the CLO won a deal far better than any other county had been able to achieve.

The final legislative area for consideration is the TPP, which has yet to face an up or down vote. Efforts at securing passage of the TPP include many of the tested lobbying activities such as the provision of information and argumentation. In addition, before he left his post in Washington, Ambassador Beazley travelled around the US giving the Australian view on the value of the massive trade deal. Ambassador Joe Hockey has continued in the same vein as Beazley but has also staked out ground in opposing anti-TPP rhetoric. Presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed the proposed TPP was akin to the rape of the US by special interests, Hockey tweeted the claim was “offensive” to Australia, a TPP signatory.

Making a difference for Australia

Today, many on Capitol Hill use words such as exceptional, informed and sophisticated to describe the work of the CLO.

There is one other area in which the CLO work deserves mention. The office undertakes political analysis of the US political system for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This includes analysis of the US Presidential primaries, conventions and elections. It works to develop relationships with the political campaigns of the candidates. By establishing relationships with the campaigns, the CLO places Australian diplomats at the head of the queue in gaining access to the new president. This happened in the election of President Obama, when the CLO had already made important contacts with the fledgling administration.

The CLO has proven to be a clever and successful diplomatic innovation delivering results for Australia. By taking advantage of the structure of the US government, Australia has not let tradition get in the way of delivering good political results.

Alan Tidwell is the director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He recently gave a presentation titled Diplomats Lobbying the US Congress: The Australian Story on 5 July at the AIIA Queensland. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.