The Composition and Diversity of the Australian Interest Group System

Any democratic society requires mechanisms for citizens to have effective political voice. Clearly, political parties provide a key channel for expressing views and preferences. However, organised interests provide another important mechanism for such representation. Our article, recently published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, aimed to provide a first assessment of size and composition of the Australian interest group system. It also addressed the extent to which interest groups in Australia can fulfil democratic aspirations by ensuring the representation of a variety of social and economic interests. As representation requires organisation, examining the shape of the interest group system enables us to assess the extent to which different interests, or segments of society, are able to make their voice heard. In what follows, we highlight our key findings.


national reform summit

National Reform Summit, 2015, Edwina Pickles, The Sydney Morning Herlad


Not just the usual suspects

Most political observers are very familiar with a small number of highly visible groups, such as the main unions and business associations, think ACTU and ACCI, a few environmental and consumer groups such as Australian Conservation Foundation and Choice, and professional associations like the Australian Medical Association. However, our work highlights the need to look beyond these “usual suspects” when examining patterns of advocacy. In reality, there are over 1000 national advocacy groups who claim to represent certain constituencies, professions, industries or social causes. We used the Directory of Associations (edition 2012) as a starting point, and selected all the groups that fitted our definition of advocacy groups: collective member-based organizations who represent a particular constituency. This definition excludes commercial lobbyists such as Hawker Britton, who advocate on behalf of other parties (for an overview and discussion of the commercial lobbying scene in Australia, see this article).

A need to look beyond Canberra

 There is also a clear need to look beyond groups based in Canberra, as they only represent a very small proportion of all interests that are organised at a national scale. Our findings indicate that the greatest proportion of groups, respectively 31% and 36%, are located in Victoria and New South Wales, whereas Canberra is only home to 15% of the national groups that we identified. This proportion of groups that have their headquarters in the national capital is similar to that of some other federal systems, such as Canada, yet relatively low compared to the United Kingdom.

 While these findings could be related to the ambiguous nature of Canberra, at times called “a somewhat distant site in Australia’s political geography”; political institutional factors such as the legacy of federalism provide a more likely explanation. Many national associations originate from pre-existing state-based associations, or have their roots in a particular state. As the Commonwealth Government expanded, several groups opted to move their headquarters to Canberra. Yet, as the table demonstrates, a considerable proportion of them still have their organizational base in other states, including well-known groups as the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

A bias towards economic interests

In the table below, we provide an overview of the diverse interest group types that characterize the Australian interest group system. Economic groups, such as business associations and professional groups, are clearly most numerous; together they account for 73% of the groups we identified. Although this numerical dominance does not automatically translate into political power (see this article for an excellent discussion), it gives some indication of the biased nature of the interest group system.

Table 1. Australian National Interest Groups, by Type

Type n % Staff (median)
Business association 495 40.6 2
Professional group 397 32.6 1.5
Citizen group 218 17.9 2
Hybrid group 58 4.8 8
Trade union 26 2.1 16
Institutional group 25 2.0 5.5
Total 1,219 100.0  

Source: Australian National Interest Groups Dataset

We also examined the resources of these organizations, using the number of staff as a proxy. Perhaps surprisingly, the most numerous group types, such as business, professional and citizen groups, appear to have a lower staff capacity. Still, this picture confirms earlier research in other countries, including the US, where Schlozman for instance noted that most interest groups “do not conform to a stereotype of the well-heeled operation with resources to burn”, as “a majority involve one or two in-house lobbyists or the services of a single outside firm”.

It is also important to highlight the substantial capacity in the union and hybrid sector. By hybrid groups, we refer to organisations that were not explicitly established to engage in advocacy – as by definition interest groups are – yet have policy engagement as an important secondary function. Good examples would be Caritas and St Vincent De Paul. Consider trade unions, for instance. While they are small in numbers in several countries, they often are strong in political voice. Moving back to Australia, recent work has noted that even though corporations are very dominant in the field of third-party campaigning and issue-advertising “the union sector has actually led political expenditure [between 2006 and 2011] – more than doubling the aggregate expenditure of the second-largest spender, the mineral resource industry”. All together, these observations hint at the limitations of drawing implications on political power from the sheer numbers of organizations that are representing a specific group in society.

Not everyone’s voice gets heard (as loudly) 

What about the way specific constituencies are organised? While we know that the interests of businesses are organised through business associations, and professions through professional associations, there is much more diversity with respect to citizen interests.

At one level, one might hope to see that all possible societal interests have a relevant organisation that is dedicated to advocacy work and makes sure their voice is heard on the political scene. But, as it happens, many marginalised or less powerful groups in society have few (or no) citizen groups advocating their interests. Rather, they rely on service-oriented organizations or social groups to also carry the burden of policy advocacy. For instance, 64% of all groups that claim to work for the poor or social welfare recipients are service groups, a similar picture emerges for groups that organize around the interests the disabled or health clients. Why does this matter? This is not ideal in the sense that such organisations are set up to primarily focus on service delivery, rather than political advocacy. Moreover, many who receive government funding will have their capacity for advocacy limited through contractual agreements. It is worth considering that while the political activities of these groups at times are politically contested, excluding these groups from the political scene will diminish the exposure of policymakers to voices of less advantaged groups in society.

Read more: 

Fraussen, B., & Halpin, D. (2016). Assessing the Composition and Diversity of the Australian Interest Group System. Australian Journal of Public Administration. doi: 10.1111/1467-8500.12188

Bert Fraussen is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU). His research focuses on interest groups and lobbying. Together with Professor Darren Halpin, he currently works on the project “The organised interest system in Australian public policy: Size, focus, impact and transformation”, funded by the ARC Discovery Scheme. Together with Professors Darren R. Halpin and Herschel F. Thomas, he recently co-founded the ANU Policy Advocacy Lab, which engages in foundational research, outreach with practitioners and public discussion around themes associated with policy advocacy in Australia.

Darren Halpin is Professor of Policy Studies at the Australian National University (ANU). He is Co-editor of the journal Interest Groups and Advocacy and the Foundation Series Editor for the book series Interest Groups, Advocacy and Democracy (Palgrave, UK). His most recent books include, Groups, Representation and Democracy (Manchester University Press) and The Organization of Political Interest Groups (Routledge).