Public affairs regulation experiences boost in Portugal
The year 2015 might very well end up being the best year for public affairs and lobbying in Portugal due to three significant changes.
Lobbying is currently not regulated in Portugal. The term ‘lobbying’ is still taboo, and the same goes for ‘lobbyist’. Common citizens tend to perceive lobbyists as influential, seeking undercover contact with politicians, frequently in a secretive way and with a complete lack of transparency. This bad connotation implies why professionals do not call themselves lobbyists, but rather experts in Institutional Relations or consultants in Government Affairs. As for public affairs, the term is not yet understood in the Portuguese market and, as the direct translation to “Assuntos Publicos” would be nonsense, practitioners preferably call themselves “Consultores em Relações Institucionais”, meaning “Institutional Relations Consultants”.
The question then is who are the lobbyists in Portugal? At a first basic level, they represent all people working for interest or pressure groups such as NGOs, corporate associations or Unions; all fully recognised in the Portuguese constitution. Ironically, they do not consider themselves as engaging in any lobbying activity at all.
At a second level, there are about 60 external consultants, with different backgrounds. Half of these (around 30 people) are lawyers from the main law firms and with good connections in Government. They usually work at direct and top lobbying level (also known as Inside Lobbying). There are also ex-politicians (around 20 people), who in the past had a seat in Government or Parliament and who now offer their services based on a good network of influential people and political decision makers. Similar to lawyers, this group also works at a direct and top lobbying level, known as “business facilitators”.
Finally there are about a dozen people with a communications background who make up a third pool of practitioners. They work in the public affairs department (or so-called institutional relations department) of the biggest PR Consultancies. They mainly act at grassroots level, using the media, the Internet, events and other tools to put pressure on decision makers through the mobilisation of public opinion. Just for the record, to this date there are only two Portuguese public affairs consultancies acting at national and European level.
In short, in this small country of 10 million inhabitants there are about 60 people working in the field of public affairs.
Public affairs regulation
Taking into account the country’s political landscape, it is easy to understand why until now there has neither been any professional organisation representing lobbyists or public affairs professionals, nor any code of conduct applicable to them. On several occasions during the last decade, however, it has been announced by decision-makers that lobbying should be regulated in order to have more transparency but nothing has happened so far.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that about one third of MPs are not working exclusively in parliament, but only part-time. And what do these 75 MPs do when not in the Parliament? They work for big law firms or in big companies of the private sector (Iberdrola, Microsoft, Novabase, etc.). In other words they are part-time MPs and “part-time lobbyists”, naturally defending the interests of clients or companies they work for. And, let’s be clear about that, their situation is totally legal, as the Portuguese constitution allows it.
As long as those 75 “MP-lobbyists” continue to exist, it will be difficult to pass any bill seeking to regulate such activity. In order to have lobbying recognised and regulated in Portugal, we will have to pass through a change in the constitution forbidding part-time MPs.
Nowadays, however, the situation seems to be changing at a fast pace. Like some others countries, Portugal saw several high profile cases of corruption and influence peddling in these last two years, committed by high level politicians and civil servants (we have an ex-Prime Minister in jail waiting for a verdict…). These events, occurring in the midst of the economic crisis and receiving huge media coverage, almost led to a revolution by the public against politicians. This unstable situation drove all political parties in Parliament to discuss new ways of fighting corruption and to propose projects for new laws aiming to achieve this specific objective.
The public affairs landscape is also changing due to several factors happening quite simultaneously.
First, Transparency International recently released their report on “Lobbying in Europe: Hidden influence, privileged access”, bringing the idea in Portugal that “to fight corruption it is necessary to regulate Lobbying activities”. This was the first trigger, which drove all sectors of our society to look closer at the relationships and influences between politicians and representatives of bigger corporations in the private sector, such as in energy, financial services and construction.
Two months later, the Government (a coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats), with the next October 2015 elections in mind, decided to prepare a new legal framework on transparency, to be presented in June and aiming to fight corruption. And, of course, under the “umbrella” of transparency, the regulation of lobbying/public affairs is going to be one of its main cornerstones.
Finally, the EU-US Transatlantic Trade deal (TTIP) seems to have made everybody aware of the need to understand and control public affairs activities before starting any negotiation with American counterparts.
Since the beginning of this year several things happened as a result of these developments. Industry, Agriculture, Trade Associations and Confederations began to implement public affairs training courses and seminars for their associates, in order to provide them with “new” and powerful Management tools. Several big companies started the restructuration of their corporate structure, now including public affairs departments. Some Portuguese PR and communications consultancies are being transformed into public affairs consultancies, with new activities such as lobbying, intelligence, stakeholders’ management and so on. In short, these three factors demonstrate that Portugal will finally experience a boom in the public affairs market.
Joaquim Martins-Lampreia, President of Omniconsul, Canela PR’s partner for Public Affairs in Portugal