Lobbying. The term itself conjures up images of old men in bowler hats smoking cigars in a smoky, dimly-lit room while money changes hands in brown paper bags. The practice seems dirty and corrupt and there are many examples where it has been proven to be so. It is interesting to note that, until 1853, bribing members of the US congress was legal, and lobbyists did so regularly. It was seen as the way a Congressman would earn his normal wage. In the same way that a waitress in the US earns a small salary and relies on tips, a Congressman received a six dollar per day sitting fee – and then topped that up with bribes.

Lobbying today is a much cleaner process but when people discuss the concept of lobbying, I tend to think of advocacy rather than lobbying – if for no other reason than the negative connotations of lobbying. Both lobbying and advocacy attempt to influence policy and deliver outcomes that are more favourable to people in a certain area.

It is often expected by ratepayers that their Council will perform advocacy to State and Federal Governments to influence them to deliver better outcomes for their town or city. Pointing out areas of need in a local government area so there is a greater chance of money being spent on better facilities seems like a normal – and entirely legal and ethical – practice. But does it actually achieve anything? When one of the 565 Mayors in this nation knocks on the door of a politician in Canberra, is it realistic to expect a major policy change to be made simply because Mayor Bloggs paid a visit to Canberra?

Think about that question while I tell you the story of the NBN. On 9 April 2009, NBN Co. was established and the first task of the newly appointed CEO, Mike Quigley, was to commission an implementation study. Before this study was even released, the Mayor of the Day, Allan Smith, had the first of several meetings with Senator Stephen Conroy, the then Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The implementation study was finally released on 6 May 2010 and concluded that the NBN could be implemented and made 84 recommendations, including expanding the fibre footprint to 93 per cent (from the original 90 per cent). My focus at the time was still heavily on technology and I could see some of the benefits if Dubbo was one of the earlier sites to receive the NBN. I spoke with the Mayor of the day, Allan Smith, and Council’s General Manager, and they could also see the benefits of the NBN in Dubbo. Without it being stated, it was decided that we needed to be advocates for Dubbo to receive the NBN as early as possible.

Within months a meeting was arranged with NBN Co. and on 18 August 2010, I attended a meeting with Mayor Allan Smith, GM Mark Riley and several staff from NBN Co. including our main initial point of contact, Duncan Bremner. Our focus was on determining how we could push Dubbo up the timeline. At such an early stage, NBN Co. did not have set criteria to determine which sites would be rolled out first. It was decided that we needed to push down both the operational path (with NBN Co.) and a political path (with the Federal Government). After we returned from this meeting, we created a submission (although no submission process formally existed) and lodged that with both NBN Co. and the Federal Government in September 2010. Over the next year, Mayor Smith had further conversations with Senator Conroy and with NBN Co. to ensure that Dubbo was not forgotten about. When I became Mayor in September 2011, I needed to continue the good advocacy work of the former Mayor so I continued to seek out meetings with our local Member, Mark Coulton; Senator Conroy and his advisers; NBN Co. and anyone else that would listen. During that time at NBN Co. our main point of contact moved on to Joe Dennis and then another staff change saw Michael Tyler as our point of contact. There was also a minor issue with a change of Federal Government which brought with it a new direction in relation to the NBN rollout.

Finally, on 16 July this year, a month shy of four years since our first official meeting with NBN Co., our Federal Member issued a media release that said around 2,700 premises in Dubbo are a step closer to gaining access to the NBN because “in coming weeks, contractors will be out in the streets, laying out fibre to connect premises in the months ahead.”

This was a significant announcement and confirms what we had been advocating for over many years – Dubbo will receive FTTP – Fibre to the Premise (at least for this first component).

After that cut-down version of events leading up to the announcement, what is the conclusion as to the effectiveness of advocacy and lobbying? My main question is this? If Council had done absolutely nothing in relation to the NBN and sat back and waited, would we have received this exciting announcement this week? Would we be standing alone as the only area in the entire region to receive FTTP – and only one of two EvoCities to receive FTTP? I don’t have a convenient parallel universe to allow me to answer that question definitively but I do know that having strong advocates in leadership roles will always mean a City has the best possible chance to receive more than a fair share of government funding and services. There are no guarantees, but if you don’t ask you never know the answer.

Tell me your thoughts on advocacy at mayor@dubbo.nsw.gov.au

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