Elite Theory in Australia [essay]

Elite Theory in Australia [essay]

Not sure if anyone is interested in reading this, but I thought I would share an essay I wrote on Elite theory. It still needs some work (I got a bit lazy around the ending), but it might provoke someone’s interest 🙂

It has been said that pluralism is one of the main characteristics of a thriving liberal democracy, and it has been long accepted that Australia is, indeed, a pluralist democracy (Henderson, 1990, p.201). A manifestation of a truly pluralist democracy is the existence of interest groups that compete for government attention, and actively try to influence government policy.

Pluralism refers to “…a form of democracy that operates through the capacity of organised groups and interests to articulate popular demands and ensure government responsiveness.” (Heywood, 1997, p.77) This has been a long-held ideal for Australia: the notion of a ‘fair go’ that manifests in all interest groups having a chance to influence government — irrespective of wealth, size or the political status of those being represented. However, there has also been significant criticism of this opinion, arguing that despite the ideals of pluralism, Australia more closely fits the ‘elitist model’ – in that some groups are the most influential in the Australian system (Henderson, 1990, p.201).
Elite theory is defined in many different ways, depending on whether it has been seen as desirable, undesirable or simply as inevitability (Heywood, 1997, p.78). Modern elite theory, however, has been generally associated with American thinkers such as C. Wright Mills and Thomas Dye. It refers to “…a minority in whose hands power, wealth or privilege is concentrated.” In other words, a highly-concentrated number of ‘elites’ control most of the wealth, most of the power and most of the privilege in society – and use this wealth, power and privilege to influence the decisions of government.

According to C. Wright Mills, the ‘elite’ in America consists of three areas: the highest political leaders including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; major corporate owners and directors; and high-ranking military officers (Mills, 1956). The media can also considered to be a recent addition to the elites. The criteria for being considered part of the elite depends on a number of factors: wealth (for example corporations), the number of people they represent (in the case of churches) or status (as in the military, or the media). These factors tend to overlap, for example, churches are wealthy, represent a large number of people but also have significant ‘status’ as moral leaders; the media are also wealthy, represent a large number of people, and hold significant status in society.

Government (at least, members who are not part of cabinet) is generally not considered a part of the elite, but merely a mechanism for the elite to exercise its collective interests, in this case, through interest groups. Of course, there has been much debate as to whether the elite do actually have a ‘collective interest’; however, for the purposes of this essay it is assumed that the wealthy would like to stay wealthy, and that the powerful would like to stay powerful, and with that comes a collective set of goals – including deregulation, lower taxes, maintenance of the status-quo, and other policies that directly benefit the ‘elite’ class.

How does this apply to interest groups and their influence? Davis, Wanna, Warhurst and Weller (1993, p.27) state that “access to government [by interest groups] is unequal. Some groups are so close to government that they can be regarded as ‘insiders’.” The question to ask is whether the same interest groups that form the ‘elite’ (those with the most money, size and status in society), are the same groups that form the inner circle of government influence. A secondary question would be: are we a pluralist or an elitist democracy? The answer is money, size and status do impact on a group’s ability to influence government, and particularly to enter that inner circle of ‘insiders’.

However, the Australian system is not entirely elitist. Our decentralised, federal system of government serves smaller interest groups that do not have a lot of money, size, or status, because senators, state governments and local councils are still able to effect change, and are generally more accessible than federal cabinet members. Most of this essay focuses on federal government policy decisions, however, this can equally apply to state governments (particularly Premiers and cabinet members).


The amount of resources an interest group has access to has a significant impact on their ability to effectively lobby governments. According to Davis et al (1993, p.148):
 “…making representations…is an expensive business. It requires expertise in the field and an understanding of the government’s policy options. It also requires a knowledge of the structure and processes of government so that leverage may be applied in the appropriate place and at the appropriate time.”

This means that in order to effectively lobby the federal government, interest groups need to have access to a high level of expertise in order to get their concerns heard. Further, this requires the interest groups to hire high-level staff, or to utilise an independent, professional lobbyist. Along with the structural expenses of maintaining an organisation, such as offices, staff and computers, marketing and advertising campaigns can run into millions of dollars.

Of course, there are cheaper alternatives to mass media campaigns and professional lobbyists. According to Davis et al (1993, p.154), “organising a protest is the traditional technique for demonstrating support.” However, these are only most effective when they represent a significant proportion of the population. We need look no further than the anti-war protests this year, which had numbers in the tens of thousands in each capital city. This is an example of a well organised campaign that represented the opinions of a significant number of Australians. However, according to Davis et al (1992, p.155), there are many groups that cannot organise in sufficient numbers to get support, such as the unemployed, Aborigines, the homeless and the poor, because they represent a minority opinion.

So, those groups that represent a sectional interest or minority opinion often have no choice but to organise a formal interest group, to lobby government and attempt to change government policy. Alternatively, they can try to change public opinion through media campaigns and advertising. Both of these options are expensive.

Another option for interest groups is to contribute to election campaigns of parties that support their aims. For example, tobacco companies have a long history of making donations to both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party in order to influence their policy-making decisions. A leaked Philip Morris Corporate Affairs Plan “…revealed that at least one tobacco company set aside $100,000 a month to target politicians in Australia.” (Action on Smoking and Health Australia, 2001). According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (Seccombe, 2003), Australian political parties received donations of $142 million in the 2001–2002 financial year. In June 2001, the NSW Liberal Party’s fundraiser, Michael Yabsley, admitted collecting $3.5 million in 16 months from major corporations, using a Liberal party fundraising organisation called “Millennium Forum” – that not only does not need to disclose donations, but offers an opportunity to talk directly with the Prime Minister after a donation is made (Browning, 2001).

Some organisations have much greater access to senior bureaucracy and government than others (Davis et al, 1993, p.150). A study of advisory committees for the Royal Commission on Commonwealth Government Administration (1976, cited in Davis et al, p.150) stated that ‘more than


our-fifths of all groups represented on advisory committees were producer groups: and of these almost half were business associations.” Even though business does not speak with one voice to government and there are several different groups with different aims and influence (Beresford, 2000, p. 121), some groups wield significant influence over government. The Business Council of Australia (BCA) “…has an operating budget of over $5 million and a staff of 16, many of whom are former senior government officials.” (Beresford, 2000, p.121). However, it does not end there. According to Singleton (Cited in Beresford, 2000, p.121–122), many influential business organisations were selected to sit on various committees and forums, and were represented by government departments. In the Kennett Victorian government, there have been links between the awarding of un-tendered contracts and Liberal Party donations (Steketee 1995, p.9).

How do those interest groups that represent the poorer members of our society fare against the interests of the elites? The relationship between governments and these sorts of groups is generally volatile and dependent on the groups’ position on any given issue. For example, despite the ACTU being considered an ‘insider’ under the Hawke and Keating governments, after the election of John Howard, the ACTU became marginalised and undermined (Beresford, 2000, p.123). The same has been said about ACOSS, the peak organisation representing approximately 250 community welfare associations. According to Beresford (2000, p.124), ACOSS was drawn into the policy-making process, ‘…but the relationship was not always an easy one…due to the differences it had with the Hawke/Keating governments…” Despite Gruen and Gratten (1993, cited in Beresford, 2000, p.124)) considering the relationship productive as a whole, it does show the difficulties that can be faced with organisations that represent interests that are not in tune with business. In contrast to business-related interest groups, that generally transcend governmental change (Beresford, 2000, p.123), interest groups that lack economic clout seem to be ‘insiders’ only at the discretion of the government.

This implies that business groups do use their economic clout to influence government – by threatening job losses, or through more covert measures like party donations. This is consistent with Elite theory: the corporations that form the ‘elite’ use their money to persuade governments. The evidence also suggests that interest groups with less money, and those that do not make generous donations to political parties, tend to get fewer opportunities to impact on public policy.


Interest groups often claim to represent a ‘silent majority’, or to represent a significant proportion of the population. It generally goes without saying that government is more likely to pay attention to a group that represents 50% of the population over one that represents 2 or 3% — because to lose even half of those 50% of voters can be disastrous for any government. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the majority of ‘insider’ groups are large, national organisations. Davis et al (1993, p.142) state that “national representation has become the key to participate in tripartite agreements and to having a voice in Canberra.” Because of this, smaller interest groups often merge with other groups with similar aims, in order to better represent their interests to government. For example, ACOSS represents over 2500 community welfare organisations (Beresford 124), and ACTU represents the majority of trade unions at the federal level.

With greater size also comes more access to money and resources (Davis et al, 1993, p.143), including the ability to hire professional lobbyists, and the ability to make donations to political parties, and the ability to fund media campaigns. The ACTU, officially representing 12% of the workforce in 2002, have been influential purely because of their ability to utilise their numbers. The ACTU was central in the formulation of the Accord in the 1980’s (Smith, 2000, p. 287). The sheer size and influence of the unions over ALP policy (they have a 60:40 ratio at the National Conference), meant that the ACTU had remarkable sway in areas like industrial relations and income policy.

The size of an interest group and the amount of money it has are, for the most part, interrelated. Massive corporations like Kerry Packer’s PBL and Rubert Murdoch’s Newscorp, are both incredibly wealthy and own a significant amount of property and businesses. Not only that, they can also wield tremendous influence over the electorate (Smith, 2000, p.333). The Catholic and Anglican churches own billions of dollars in assets, and together represent 45.9% of the population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001). These organisations can also have a tremendous influence over the population, because of their high moral status. Both of these very large interest groups have significant influence of the government, and can most certainly be considered ‘insiders’.

For an interest group that is not wealthy but large, however, there seems to be less of a tendency for them to be able to influence public policy. ACOSS, for example, represent the poorest people in the country, despite representing a large number of organisations. Similarly, Veterans’ organisations, consumer groups and Aged Care organisations represent significant numbers of people that are underrepresented in Australian Politics. In a study of federal Department of Health advisory committees (Australian Consumers Association et al, cited in Davis et al, 1993, p.150), “…professional organisations had about 220 representatives on 65 different committees, [yet] consumer or community organisations only had 30 representatives on 23 different committees.”

Does size in itself improve an interest group’s ability to influence government? The evidence seems to show that, even though groups that are nationally organised and represent larger groups have a better chance at influencing government policy, it is only those groups with money as well as size that form the group of ‘insiders’ in government policy. Even the biggest interest groups that represent poorer citizens are usually outsiders.

This is consistent with Elite theory in that there is a select group of large, wealthy organisations that are getting greater access to government, and, in turn having greater influence over government decisions. The key point in Elite theory, particularly when it comes to interest groups, is that money, size and status on their own do not mean that a group will be considered insiders. It is often those groups that have wealth, size and status together that form that inner circle.


An important factor that determines how much government attention a group receives is the status of its members. ‘Status’ can be social, economic or political, and refers to the level of societal status the group represents. For example, doctors, lawyers and even teachers are considered to have a high level of social status, and this manifests in how the government responds to their requests. The Australian Medical Association, for example, is one of the more visible professional associations, and its position as an ‘insider’ has generally transcended governmental change. According to Beresford (2001, p.124), the AMA has a “multi-million dollar budget and is actively involved in liaison with government through membership of official advisory councils.” They are usually the first group approached with regard to health policy changes, and a stamp-of-approval from the AMA is highly sought after by the political parties. Upon her appointment to the Health Ministry, Kay Patterson made it a priority to forge a close working relationship with the AMA (Fonesca, 2001). During the 2001 election, the AMA actively campaigned on a single issue:

“On health, AMA president Dr Kerryn Phelps has already begun tours of marginal seats,

and will campaign for more funds for public hospitals, more aged care places, indigenous health, and higher Medicare rebates for doctors. The AMA will announce its preferred health policy after both parties release costed policies.” (Kingston, 2001)

Another interest group with a very high level of social status is the churches, and more specifically, Christian churches. In the Australian Bureau of Statistic Census data for 2001, 68% of people answered that they were of the Christian faith, with 45.9% of those being Anglican or Catholic. Those that advocate church activism, including James Murray (cited in Beresford, p125), argue that the churches are “…representative of society at large and deserve to be heard…[and] have a vast amount of experience in social areas” However, are they truly representative of society at large? Despite the 2001 Census results showing 68% of people identified with a Christian church, statistics from previous years show an increasingly secular society. ABS comparisons show that in 1901, 95.9% of the population were Christian. In 2001, 68% were Christian, 1.9% were Buddhist, 1.5% were Islam, and 25.3% stated they had ‘no religion’ or refused to answer the question. (ABS 2001). So, despite the status of the church still being an influence, one could argue that as their numbers decline, so does the social status that accompanies it. This decrease in social status does affect the churches’ ability to influence policy, and even their ability to remain as ‘insiders’. Tony Abbott has frequently questioned the involvement of churches in policy decisions, and has called it a “misuse of the prestige of the church.”

On the flipside, groups with very little social, political or economic status are generally not represented in the upper echelons of government decision-making. Women’s groups, despite the fact that they represent half of the population, are often kept as outsiders. Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, consulted with:

 “employers and employer groups, unions, women’s groups and the community earlier in 2002. Over 250 submissions were received from employers and employer groups, unions, women’s groups, community groups, Government, academics, individuals, health professionals, legal organisations and other interested parties. HREOC said the submissions overwhelmingly supported the introduction of a national Government- funded paid maternity scheme.” Despite this, no maternity leave provisions were made in the 2002 or 2003 budgets.

According to an article in The Age newspaper:

“[Pru] was a long-time prime ministerial confidante, but indications are that a chill has descended upon the relationship, possibly over this issue. Goward says she and John Howard have not spoken about the paid maternity leave proposal for more than a year. Her proposal is not faring well in the inner circles of the Government. Canberra gossips speak of her being “frozen out” by the Prime Minister because she embarrassed him by championing a cause so allied to the Labor and union agenda.” (Crabb, 2003).

Elite theory says that it is certain groups of people – those who have money, influence and status in society, that determine the political agenda, and those that do not have very little influence over government decisions. The social status of the groups being represented seems to be an indicator of whether they will be considered an ‘insider’ or not. Pru Goward, once an insider, presented policy that was not consistent with the needs of business. She consulted hundreds of interest groups to formulate her report, and, as a result, was “frozen out”. The evidence shows that, at least in terms of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’ in Australian federal politics, there is most certainly an argument for the existence of elitism.

However, our pluralist democracy is not entirely lost. The Australian system of government allows for pluralist ideals in many ways, including: the federal system; a bicameral system of parliament; thriving local governments; and local community groups provide opportunities for interest groups to have their say on different policies. In the federal arena, the Senate has been a particularly effective system of ‘checks and balances’ against pressure groups wielding too much power.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that interest groups are not equal in terms of their access to government and in their effect on government policy – at least at the federal level. This is because those with more money, those that a bigger in size or those with a high status are generally more capable of lobbying the government. And, continuing from that, the evidence not only suggests inequality of access, but very high barriers to entry into the inner circle. This means that money, size and status, on their own, will not necessarily guarantee strong influence on the government, that it is actually the combination of these three factors that make that inner circle. The essence of elite theory with regard to interest groups supports the idea of a wealthy, powerful elite that affect government decisions. Given that a significant proportion of ‘insiders’ groups are wealthy, large and have significant status, on the face of this we can say that federal politics is not particularly pluralist, and is, in fact, at least partly, elitist.

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