Project Overview

Organised interest systems that seek to influence public policy-making are undergoing rapid transformation. What is the scope of this change? What drives change? And what is the impact of change on the policy making process in modern liberal democracies?

Transformations in party political systems and dissatisfaction with electoral politics in western democracies has re-focused attention on the potential role of organised interest systems in voicing the views, preferences and interests of citizens to political institutions. Interest groups, in turn, have been transforming themselves in response to changes in the political landscape and the advent of the internet and its associated technologies of communication.

Some researchers focus on the post-war professionalisation of advocacy; others suggest that the internet is positively (re)shaping the structure of such systems and their democratic capacities. This project adjudicates on such accounts through exploring the size and composition, through time, of the Australian system of organised interests, as well how these groups are organized and whose interests are most prominent in the policy process. The result will be a better understanding of processes crucial to the quality of Australian democracy and public policy.

The project develops the following four themes:


  1. Size and composition of the group population and the political prominence of different group types.

A central task for generations of scholars has been assessing the composition of national organised interest ‘systems’. How many groups are there? To what extent do traditional economic interests dominate? How prominent are internet-based groups? We expect the answers on these questions to vary depending on the specific arena one focuses on. Our empirical focus will span the formal political arena, the print media and on-line.

  1. Organisational capacity and the impact of new technologies

Here, our focus in qualitative variations in the group universe. Do we observe generational shifts? How accurate are accounts suggesting that the dominant group form has evolved from a membership-based model, to a professionalized staff-directed form, and finally to an internet-based mode of organizing? Are organizations like GetUp! part of a broader transformative trend, or simply a high profile one-off? And what does variance and evolution in organizational form imply for the capacity of groups to act as both democratic actors and suppliers of valuable policy input and expertise.

  1. The politics of agenda setting and issue prioritization

Groups cannot chase down every single issue. They must make choices. In a next step, our focus will shift to the agenda setting process within groups. How they decide which policy issues to prioritize? To what extent do groups pursue broad integrative issues, or rather concentrate on advancing a specialized single issue agenda? And can we relate variation in agendas and issue prioritization to differences in organizational form? Do groups that more closely involve members (through direct or online participation) take a more generalist, bottom up approach than staff-dominated organizations, whose policy engagement might be more closely linked to the current government agenda?

  1. Australian interest group politics in comparative perspective

Finally, to fully understand and clarify the characteristics and trends of interest group politics in Australia, our findings will be compared to results from similar ongoing research in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. This comparative exercise will enable us to single out the political and institutional features that most strongly shape the representation of interests in Australia. As importantly, this work will help drive the emerging comparative study of interest groups and public policy by providing authoritative data on an important (yet understudies) national case.