When the forest landscape meets the political landscape: why advocacy matters for our industry
ASTROKE of a minister’s pen can affect your business, your profitability, your viability and the future of the industry.
Changes to air quality policy can add millions to processing costs for a sawmill. A change to water policy can impact a grower’s plans for coming decades. Changes to international trade agreements can hit product exports or see huge increases in competition from imports.
That’s why it is vital to have active advocacy for the whole forest products value chain.
Politics is a fascinating beast. So many opportunities to make changes for the better. So many obstacles to prevent those changes happening!
Having worked as a political adviser for four years, I saw many worthwhile policy proposals presented to Ministers. Some were adopted and implemented, but many were not. Some that didn’t make it to implementation had been welcomed by ministers and their departments, but still never got off the ground. By understanding the reasons good policy fails to get traction, we can better position our industry not to fall into the pile of ‘no further action’.
Initially it was a mystery to me why some good policy made it, whereas other good policy was never heard about again. On reflection though, there are three threads that are common to the successful initiatives.
It is a truism that when an idea catches someone’s imagination, s/ he becomes personally invested in its success. When that person is a minister, and the idea is a policy, such a personal investment can tear down obstacles and make things happen quickly. So a key to policy success is finding that spark in a proposal that will speak to the minister’s imagination; is it a creative way of progressing a longstanding issue? Is it a cause for which the minister has held a long personal commitment? Does it speak to a topical party position?
Timing can make or break a policy. Some great public policy advances involve actions that may be initially unpopular to the public, or need a lot of preparation to reach understanding and public acceptance. The time to push these issues is not in the lead up to an election. Whether it is Federal or State, issues that get unpopular headlines will not be welcome during such a time. However, in other parts of the electoral cycle, such an issue can be pursued successfully.
On the other hand, a policy that creates positive headlines (or avoids negative ones) during an election period can be gold. It can be a great time to get commitment from major players, including getting matching pledges from different parties.
Outside of election periods, policy advocates need to be aware of what issues are dominating the political sphere – even if they seem totally unrelated to our industry and its interests. If a government is suffering from a dominant, damaging issue in the media, it may be a perfect time to launch a big policy in a different field – even if it is just to start a public conversation. I have seen good policy that was struggling to get attention be quickly developed under this kind of scenario – something that takes air (media) space automatically reduces airspace for other (contentious) topics. Recognizing and capitalizing on these opportunities delivers results.
The final key to achieving good industry policy is perseverance. Ministers are busy people. Their departmental heads are busy people, too. The important can very frequently be pushed out by the urgent. The only way to make headway with policy proposals is to never stop! To keep phoning, having meetings, sending copies of media releases, knocking on doors and so on. In essence, to be the ‘squeaky wheel’ that just keeps on making noise until it gets the oil!
So there are the three keys to successfully achieving policy change: right positioning, right timing and perseverance. Clearly, most companies don’t have the time or resources to pursue each of these and to always be looking at the political landscape. Even if they did, a combined industry voice will usually achieve more than individual company voices that may be at variance with each other. To both avoid poor policy outcomes and achieve positive policy initiatives, advocacy needs to be cohesive and designed with an understanding of the political needs of the day.
AFPA’s core work of advocacy and policy development, and strong political acumen means that we can make our industry’s case loudly and forcefully to the political decision-makers.