Govt relations 101: The first rule of successfully engaging with politicians …

Perhaps the seminal moment for me in understanding the reality of politics in Australia occurred in a lift about 10 years ago.

I was heading off to grab a cup of coffee with a friend and colleague who was heavily involved in one of the major political parties.

You know the thing about lifts … especially when they are crowded: Everyone stands like a tin soldier, looking forward, their backs turned to the people behind.

As we rode the crowded lift down to the ground floor my colleague muttered to me: This reminds me of party politics – you're more worried about the people BEHIND you – than the ones in front who you can see! (i.e. at least you can see if they are about to stab you in the back!)

That is an observation that is worth contemplating, especially if you or your organisation needs to engage with politicians and Government.  For example, too often we assume that a Government or party has an agreed view on any particular topic.  While they might talk about "the policy" and even be seen to toe the party line in media interviews, the reality can be very different.

The factions within the Labor Party in Australia are well documented.  It was said at one time that the right of the NSW Labor Party hated the Left Wing of the party even more than they hated the Liberals!  But the same thing applies in the Liberal party.  And even in the so-called factions there are pockets of divisions.  When it comes down to it most politicians (out of sheer necessity if they are honest) have to focus on their own self interest.  Job number one if you're an MP is to retain your seat.  If that means taking a contrary view to the party leaders, well that's just the way it goes.

My point is that if you have to deal with government on matters of public policy, don't assume that you are dealing with some singular view of the particular issue or situation.  You may find within Government that there are actually three or even four quite different views.  (And they may change as pragmatic necessity dictates).  The Minister thinks one thing, the Premier or Prime Minister thinks something quite different and the Chief of Staff to another Minister is madly advocating the opposite of both of them!

Trying to reach a consensus is often the best you can do.  So anyone wanting to do business with Governments and politicians needs to learn that flexibility is essential.  The old saying rings true:  Politics is the art of compromise.