26 Pressure groups

Moira Byrne

Key terms/names

collective action, disturbance theory, exchange theory, framing, incentives, insiders, outsiders and thresholders, political opportunity, population ecology, resource mobilisation theory, sectional interests

Groups that pressure governments and political parties seeking government to change policy are vital features of democracy.[1] Without the combined actions of people participating in groups, those who wish to hold office may not be aware of issues affecting constituents or how changes to policy may affect them.

Knowing about pressure groups is critical in considering democracy, government and policy making. This chapter discusses what pressure groups are, when they form, who joins them, how they work, and why they cease to exist. These considerations shine a light on some of the important theories about group power. The chapter also reflects on whether these groups are good for democracy and discusses the kinds of pressure groups that exist in Australia.

What are pressure groups?

Political scientists use a number of terms to describe pressure groups, including interest groups and lobby groups.[2] The term ‘pressure groups’ refers to organisations that pressure government to change policy, whether for their own interest or in the interest of others. A pressure group more broadly is defined as an association that seeks to represent a sector of society and make a direct or indirect claim on government to influence policy, without wanting to govern.[3]

Interest groups seek to represent their own interests in government policy without wanting to govern. Advocacy groups advocate for others. Some pressure groups are both interest groups and advocacy groups.[4] They might represent some of their own interests, but also the interests of others.

Pressure groups differ from ‘social movements’ because they are specifically organised to influence policy. Social movements evolve more organically and are less concerned with changing government policy than with changing society more broadly. Social movements may develop as people accept changing attitudes on an issue, or because a political voice is required to address social exclusion. Movements can place pressure on politicians at a grassroots level as people in society accept a change about an issue,[5] but this is not their reason for being. In essence, social movements are formed solely in the community, rather than forming in relation to the state. Counter-movements is a term used to describe opinions mobilised in opposition to a social movement (e.g. the men’s rights movement in reaction to feminism).[6]

Collective action is intrinsic to pressure groups because they employ group power to alter public policy.[7] Many activities may not be directly political, but groups spend at least some of their time and resources trying to influence public policy. This may include indirect methods through networking or participating in government consultations, or more direct methods such as electioneering or professional lobbyists links to government by being close to government decision makers, either geographically or politically.[8]

In practice, however, there is considerable overlap between social movements and pressure groups. Often, what begin as social movements later spawn pressure groups. Likewise, some groups that may form as pressure groups to address a policy issue may focus their effort on broad-scale mobilisation and changing public opinion as a way of bringing about the policy change they seek. For example, the campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia began as a pressure group (stemming out of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights movement, which sought legal and policy change). As the quest for same-sex marriage gained traction in the broader community, support for marriage equality became a social movement.

When do pressure groups form?

A number of theories explain the formation of pressure groups. While these theories are explained separately, in practice, many factors affect formation of pressure groups.

Disturbance theory

David Truman observed the formation of pressure groups as a response to the growing complexity of society. Any disturbances arising in the community upset the balance within society. This in turn prompted pressure groups to form to oppose these threats to the status quo. Truman also noted that in almost all organised groups, an ‘active minority’ governed on behalf of the many.[9]


Population ecology

The theory of organisation population ecology illuminates the challenge to balance outcomes for all interests. In the 1970s, scholars attempted to understand group formation in the context of the politics of the day, as well as those who were trying to promote ideas or change policy.[10] Groups form depending on the population density of other groups at the time of their formation, which ‘both legitimises and constrains’ group formation.[11] A group with the same motivation may arise because great numbers of people wish to join them in a particular location; another group with the same motivation may founder because it does not offer a unique perspective and there are already groups at that place. These groups frequently compete for the same resources, membership and funding.

Because pressure groups are in competition with each other, the existing density of groups in the population affects a new group’s prospect of formation.[12] Further, low density of groups increases the legitimacy of the organisations that exist. Yet as more organisations form, competition for resources means some groups cease to exist.[13]


Political opportunity

Political opportunity is a third theory advanced to explain group formation, noting that group formation depends on the political environment. In this framework, favourable political conditions prompt advocacy groups to form. This can include changes in government, which provide the impetus for groups to form whose ideas align with those elected. But it can include structural factors, like the openness of institutions to lobbying, litigation, or other forms of political practice that groups have expertise in.[14]

Overall, non-profit organisations and advocacy groups also increase as a more diverse, inclusive and democratic polity offers the potential for them to exert influence (political pluralism).[15] Group formation can also be a reaction to the rise of perceived threats to the interests of the group.[16]

Who joins pressure groups and why?

A variety of motivations prompt individuals to participate. Political economy and public choice theory provide insights here. In this view, ‘special interests’ are interpreted as competing for economic favour in exchange for political power.[17] As decision-makers are seen as utilitarian, they weigh options of who to support based on their resources and group power. In turn, those joining pressure groups are viewed through the lens of transactions: groups provide personal incentives to potential group members, and group members provide legitimacy for the group.

While theories of public choice and economics do not explain all pressure groups, these dimensions are significant to understanding pressure groups in politics and policy in contemporary Australia – particularly those with vested interests, such as organised labour and capital. Other groups advocating on behalf of, or for, the interests of others seek justice to address structural inequalities in society or act altruistically to address inclusion and representation for a diverse population, which is often not well explained by these economic models.

Incentives and exchange theory

Clark and Wilson categorised benefits offered to group members:

  • Material benefits: offer tangible advantage for the member, such as economic benefits (publications, or discounts on services and products) or improved working conditions. This is often associated with Robert Salisbury’s exchange theory, namely, that organisers offer incentives and benefits to potential members for joining.[18]
  • Solidarity benefits: are intangible, offering a sense of identity and community through education, involvement and participation. This also brings a collective identity, marking one as belonging to a group or standing for a cause. This, in turn, can bring status, enjoyment and social capital.
  • Purposive benefits: relate to the group’s purpose, such as to change a policy, promote an idea, or pursue a particular action.[19] These purposive benefits are also termed ‘expressive’ benefits, as people join to voice their values and ideals.[20]

Clark and Wilson argued that one or more of these benefits must be provided to members to either entice them to join or to remain part of the organisation. A pressure group’s continued existence depends upon members sharing in the group benefits, and group organisers extracting advantage from those members.[21]

Collective action and free riders

This leads to debates about how public-spirited pressure groups are. Mancur Olson argued that collective action was primarily motivated by desire for individual benefit, but a benefit not available to a person acting alone. This ‘rational choice’ approach focuses on the cost–benefit calculation of members in joining groups. In this model, groups form because some individuals perceive opportunities to benefit, possibly at the expense of others.[22] Thus, some pressure groups have been seen to profit at a higher expense, such as seeking a subsidy for a small group paid for by general taxation.

This approach also explains paradoxes in group formation: if groups produce public benefits that all can access, what is the incentive of participation for the individual? If groups become too large, some may benefit without paying the costs of the group. This problem of ‘free riding’ can be seen in the way some groups attempt to restrict the benefits of their collective action to their membership, such as when unions historically enforced ‘no ticket no start’ requirements that workplaces must employ union members.

Justice and altruism

Other scholars observe that rational choice fails to explain participation, or recognise the role of ethics, justice and morality in tempering the ‘selfish’ motivations of individuals and pressure groups.[23] The field of behavioural economics recognises that human decisions are not always based on perfect rationality, and uses insights from psychology to explore various motivations for behaviour in exchange transactions.[24] People judge intuitively, automatically and emotionally, in line with their experience, and emotions are important aspects of participation.[25] A behavioural perspective recognises that people seek justice for its own sake, superseding their self-interest.[26]

How do pressure groups work?

Political scientists have identified five levels through which pressure groups or citizens convey their ‘demands’ to government:

  • Concerned individuals acting of their own accord represent interests, or advocate for others.
  • Spontaneous group activity occurs, that is unplanned and unorganised.
  • Groups of people sharing a common trait or concerns form non-association pressure groups.[27] Examples include particular cultural groups or localised citizens concerned about a particular development in their town or suburb.
  • Organised groups represent interests in a more sophisticated way through institutions, such as businesses, educational institutions and non-government organisations.
  • Associations and specific lobbying organisations representing particular groups advocate to influence how political, social and economic goods are distributed in explicit policy changes.[28]

How the latter advocate depends on the structure of the pressure group.

Structures and roles of pressure groups

The structures of pressure groups depend upon their organisation and expertise. While no single structure is common to pressure groups, typical features can be observed. Pressure groups require spokespeople to provide media comment. Depending on the pressure group’s size, other spokespeople may handle specific policy areas, and organisational teams focus on specific areas of policy. Pressure groups are often quite geographically diverse, so regional co-ordination may be needed (though since the internet became widespread, this is less important). Behind the figureheads and policy teams, administration workers keep the group running.

Pressure group organisations tend to be concentrated in the national and state capital cities, professional, and to varying degrees, integrated into the policy process.[29] Differing constitutional powers means that state governments are lobbied on some issues, whereas the Commonwealth is lobbied on others. Often, both levels of government receive representations. However, representation is only one role of pressure groups.

In their quest to change policy, pressure groups often perform three distinct roles:

  • Representation has a number of meanings in political science, but in this chapter it refers to participation in the polity. Pressure groups represent both constituencies and issues, mostly at the same time. While representing issues is relatively straightforward, representing constituencies is more fraught. Some constituencies expect representatives to convey the demands of the majority – commonly called the ‘delegate’ model of representation. Other constituencies expect representatives to gather relevant research and information, weigh up the issues and use their own judgement to seek the best outcomes for those represented – the ‘advocate’ model of representation. Of these two models, the latter provides representatives with greater freedom of action.
  • Education by pressure groups also takes several directions: educating their constituency, the decision makers (such as politicians and regulators), policy advisors (in the form of bureaucrats or political staffers), and the wider community, including the media. This may entail a variety of strategies, including speaking events, educational literature, letters, submissions to government, talking on radio and even doorknocking.
  • Scrutiny provides an ‘audit’ role: conducting research where necessary, ensuring politicians and bureaucrats are aware of information and arguments, making sure information used by policy makers or in the media is correct, and checking correct procedures are followed. If necessary, it means taking matters to court for judicial review.[30]

Strategies used to influence policy makers

Pressure groups demonstrate these roles in the strategies they employ, including:

  • Direct and indirect lobbying of politicians, policy advisors and political parties, and the public. Indirect lobbying aims to change government policy through lobbying people and bodies which themselves may have influence on government decision-makers, such as lobbying political parties and the public.
  • Agenda-setting through lobbying activities, media work, or direct communications with the public.
  • Electioneering through mobilising support or opposition for candidates or parties based on their policy positions, or influencing public opinion so that the wider public is inspired to act.

Pressure groups can be more experienced and successful than other political players in pursuing their policy agenda: not even political parties can fully control their agenda, as others propose issues that affect it. Ian Marsh notes that ‘veto power’ can be exercised by stakeholders who are negatively affected by a policy change, and this can be more easily mobilised than support for the potential beneficiaries of change. He observes:

Together, interest groups and issue movements challenge the integrating, opinion forming and agenda setting capacities of the major political parties. They do this by advancing and defending a widened and more differentiated political agenda.[31]

Yet despite any success, a group’s reliance on electoral tactics over party politics or bureaucratic involvement is a sign of weakness. This is because it depends on a concerted campaign rather than integration into the policy system. Similarly, although protest can be powerful, it is a less assertive form of leverage because it is often undertaken by groups without ‘insider’ knowledge or contacts, whether from lack of resources or exclusion from consultation.[32]

A group’s choice of strategies depends largely on its resources, but also on the political system and its conventions, and on the goal.[33] A lack of power does not preclude successful lobbying by less-resourced pressure groups, particularly where a pressure group boasts experience and evidence to persuade policy makers of an argument. As a result, such pressure groups may become more formally involved in the policy system.[34]

Excluding electoral tactics, focusing a lobbying effort on an individual politician can be effective.[35] It prevents some difficulties encountered when lobbying parliamentary groups, where party discipline dominates responses. Although contact with a member of parliament is usually referred to the relevant minister or at times to Cabinet, it can also become a ‘fast track’ to raising the issue in a policy area.[36] Of course, lobbying also involves garnering support from others, including the media.[37]

Participation and involvement within policy-making institutions

Placing an issue on the policy agenda, lobbying and developing policy is a time-consuming process of ‘continuous contestation’. It often involves participation from a number of pressure groups to reach policy decisions.[38] Negotiation is important in policy making, as is ongoing interaction within the policy cycle.[39] Ideally, the policy process engages local communities and an array of voluntary groups, but for decades governments have preferred to deal with one ‘umbrella’ group, rather than a number of smaller organisations.[40]

Although some political lobbying is secretive,[41] most pressure group attempts to intervene in the polity are part of broad public consultation on the public record. Pressure groups are useful to governments, offering representation, lending authority, and providing knowledge – often gathered through close involvement with the subject at hand.[42] This can assist policy bureaucrats to gather invaluable information and arguments about a particular policy before a decision is made, and is useful for policy specialists providing briefing or advice.[43] Governments use this expertise and the advice of pressure groups in policy development,[44] so engagement yields mutual benefits. It can broaden the government’s support by demonstrating stakeholder participation. Pressure groups achieve attention and credibility from the wider community, and leverage to pursue their own policy priorities if the opportunity arises.

Yet some pressure groups are relegated to the periphery of the policy-making process, despite access to the bureaucracy. Access alone is insufficient; without influence, meetings are likely to be held with more junior officials.[45] Consequently, pressure groups invest considerable effort and resources to demonstrate that the broader community supports their position, and sustain their argument that their view should be taken into account by policy makers. This explains their efforts to develop public opinion which promotes their own policy concerns, and supports their claim to speak for broader sections of the community.[46]

Groups without sectional power or economic leverage have been excluded from participation in policy making by their lack of representation in policy-making institutions.[47] Restrictions on representations from particular lobbyists and pressure groups can be a calculated strategy by governments to achieve particular political outcomes.[48]

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends that a lobbying framework should include strategies to promote a ‘level playing field’. Information should be made readily available, conflicts and preferential treatment avoided, and policy makers should be accessible to the broad community and not just a privileged few, so that all voices can be considered.[49]

Insiders, outsiders, and thresholders

Wyn Grant noted that pressure groups, like many other political entities, are frequently categorised as political ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ in their access to government.[50] Insiders are very close to government, and numbers of pressure groups are integrated into government. Others remain excluded, presumably because they lack the requisite power, contacts or expertise.

Consequently, certain stakeholders are relatively subservient subjects of ‘bureaucratic citizenship’, while other groups enjoy a ‘right’ to consultation and participation in the policy process. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) is one of the few welfare or advocacy groups represented in policy advisory committees. In many ways it is an insider group, as it retains ongoing consultative status. Its lobbying role is accepted, but unlike ‘producer’ groups, ACOSS is not able to use economic sanctions to achieve a policy result.[51]

Although groups are normally more able to bring about change as insiders, some pressure groups prefer to be ‘outsiders’. An outsider signals a separation from government, which affirms a philosophical commitment to an issue and provides freedom and independence to express views or pursue agendas without real or perceived censorship. While some other outsiders may respect this position, outsiders tend to be valued less by politicians – particularly if the strategy could be perceived as extreme or unlikely to affect electoral results. However, changes in societal values or recognition of the pressure group’s role and primary cause can change these perceptions.[52]

This delineation may be too simplistic, however. In the University of Aberdeen model, both insider and outsider strategies can be used by the same group, especially those who have only occasional involvement in the political sphere, or with limited opportunities to exert leverage (so-called thresholder groups).[53]

Communication work

Throughout the last three decades, as internet use became widely adopted, many pressure groups became able to use websites and social media to frame and communicate issues and mobilise people online. The internet significantly reduced the costs of recruitment and participation as public meetings, street encounters, and mailed newsletters became increasingly redundant in comparison to the low costs of internet engagement. While the internet supplemented traditional activism, it has also provided virtual spaces for exchanges and engagement.

This talks to how issues are ‘framed’ by pressure groups to garner support for a social movement or for policy change. Framing refers to how groups link interpretations of individual interests, values and beliefs with their activities, goals and ideology. Entman provides a useful definition of framing and its policy implications:

to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.[54]

When a particular event is framed as meaningful, individuals can be prompted to bring others together in collective action. Moreover, the event may serve to guide pressure groups.[55]

Why do pressure groups cease to exist?

Just as groups continue to form and act in response to their context, they also disappear if they are no longer relevant.

Mortality and salience

Recent studies of organisational mortality look at the life cycle of interest groups. Some pressure groups are not formed to persist and cease to exist once they achieve their goal.[56] Other groups that have longer-term interests may be less concerned about competing with other or new groups. Rather, they focus on identity, purpose, and adaptive responses to endure.[57]

A group’s salience (prominence and suitability) is also reduced if it does not contribute to policy change and its influence is not recognised. That said, measuring influence is fraught as many intersecting factors affect the policy process – a pressure group’s contribution is one factor among many. Funding and resources both affect how a group operates, its chances of contributing to change, and its ability to last.

Funding and resources

The resources pressure groups have at their disposal vary. If a group does not have sufficient numbers to support collective action, they may require more financial resources to support their operations. Many groups have membership income, whereas others rely on patrons or donors.[58] As groups form or begin to develop, they may overcome the ‘free rider’ issue without significant expense if they have a patron.[59] A range of figures and institutions can be patrons for a group or an issue, including benefactors, celebrities, and even the state itself.

In fact, some advocacy groups have received government funding to represent the interests of those unable to represent themselves politically. Funding was mainly provided to organisations who would advocate for citizens without sufficient skills, power, resources or funds to advocate for themselves or participate in public debate. This offered a way to connect unrepresented people to government through peak bodies, helping to address inequalities in society.

A number of organisations, including the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), had funding withdrawn in the late 1990s, prompting speculation about alternatives for the representation of such groups.[60] Some groups, particularly organisations providing welfare support, appear to have replaced some of this funding through government service delivery contracts. These contracts included provisions to refrain from commenting on policy, so receiving the funding limited their capacity to comment on policy matters and undermined their ability to participate in robust political and policy debate.

Are they ‘good’ for democracy?

Within the framework of political economy and public choice theory, organised interests can be seen as a risk to good governance. Interest groups operate ultimately from the same selfish motive: to benefit themselves, even to the exclusion of others. They behave to maximise their economic, societal and legal or regulatory conditions as they pursue their objectives in the political sphere. Political and policy decisions may be attributed to the expedience and motivations of politicians and political parties, such as electoral advantage, rather than policy best practice.[61]

Ultimately, while governments determine which interests to indulge, interest group behaviour cannot be separated ‘from the surrounding institutional and cultural framework’.[62] In other words, governments cannot always be relied upon to ensure a balance of optimal outcomes for all interests.[63] In this critique, interest groups potentially undermine governance and the economy.

Democratic participation

More positively, Beer identified pressure group types which governments can harness to achieve superior policy outcomes. In this way, pressure groups are functional: they support, rather than destabilise, governance and democracy (although Beer cautioned that special interests had the potential to ‘impair’ a political system’s action for the long-term interests of its citizenry).[64] Beer’s more optimistic approach suggests that participation, making a contribution and concern for quality of life are the values which inspire pressure group formation, rather than the self-interested interpretation of some rational choice scholars’ view of pressure groups.[65]

Beer’s interpretation recognises that pressure groups arise from various political environments. With this more ‘contextual’ perspective, each pressure group can be examined and assessed in the context of its own history and situation. In this view, collectives are motivated by the freedom of members of society to choose, as part of a democratic and inclusive ‘provider’ society. Interest, or pressure, groups are organised representations of citizens who facilitate democratic participation. The motive to form a pressure group is egalitarian rather than selfish, as groups lobby to address disadvantage.

Of course, motivations for pressure group participation overlap at times, as those motivated by egalitarian aspirations and robust democracy realise they can benefit from involvement in pressure groups, and can foster support from others motivated by their own benefit. Few groups could be definitively categorised as singularly motivated in a polity where different organisations and constituencies represent a variety of interests. Either way, the representational role of groups is critical for connecting the governed to their government.[66] Moreover, Putnam’s characterisations of ‘bridging groups’ that interact with others, and ‘bonding groups’ that provide solidarity for a minority, can each be seen as both actors in government and society and precursors to more involved democratic participation.[67]

What kinds of pressure groups are in Australia?

Within Australia, pressure group participation is much higher than membership of political parties.[68] Pressure groups are often divided into two main camps:

  • Sectional organisations represent traditional, recognised interests such as those of the labour force, business or primary industries.
  • Promotional groups advance interests other than these main sectors, such as women’s interests or environmental issues.[69] However, their focus on particular issues can result in representing narrower interests than those of other political groups.[70]

Both prefer different styles of action and different relationships with governments or political parties.[71] Despite some complications, most pressure groups in Australia could fall easily into these two categories; the categories may also overlap.[72]

Sectional groups

Sectional interest groups represent significant sections of the community and the economy, and are usually integrated into party politics and government. Some are frequently involved in policy development, often as advisors.[73] Despite a goal of representing issues of their sector to influence policy, some sectional groups remain aligned to particular political parties, even to the disadvantage of their interests.[74]

Sectional interests represent a ‘fixed’ clientele,[75] and professional groups tend to be well-resourced sectional interests. Somewhat lesser resourced are producer groups who generate goods or services. This includes unions, which represent labour services. Groups representing the interests of state welfare service clients are more inclined to represent groups of individuals who are the clientele of the welfare provider groups. When banded together, conglomerations of interests may be called ‘collectivist’ pressure groups.[76]

Such groups prefer to lobby government through direct contact and raising awareness in the community, and typically defend their own particular interests. Labour organisations, business interests, primary producers’ associations, professional and consumer associations are all characterised as sectional interests. Groups representing localised issues, migrant and Aboriginal organisations and churches are also typical sectional interests.[77]

The major sectional interest organisations operate under established conventions of participating in the policy-making process. Large sectional organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers’ Federation, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions are involved in the policy process, and are often represented on government advisory committees. Sectional groups often employ highly qualified individuals to act for them; businesses frequently recruit former senior public servants for such roles.[78] In fact, business groups are significant sectional interests representing their views to government in Australia. The business lobby tends to be privileged because its resources, significant sectional interests and its production capability afford it power in a market-based economy, described as structural power.[79]

Agreement in sectional organisations can be difficult on contentious issues. Smaller, possibly more autonomous groups in a sector may be more courageous, and arguably more accurate when representing their particular constituency. This is because they can refuse to compromise on an issue for the appearance of unity.[80] In fact, some sectional groups may often promote causes not directly related to the interests of their members.[81] Yet there are advantages when pressure groups in a sector work together.

Peak bodies

Peak bodies are usually strong sectional pressure groups, with several democratic functions: involvement in the policy process of those most affected, developing the capacity of its member organisations to enter into the policy process, but also representing resource-poor sections of the community. Peak bodies represent, co-ordinate, inform, research, and develop policy on behalf of member organisations for their sector. Importantly, peak bodies are not service providers, though there are a number of ways in which they provide services to their members (e.g. in co-ordinating submissions, participating in consultation processes, and perhaps providing information).[82]

Peak bodies bring together a number of organisations in partnership to generate one voice speaking for the collective. For example, community organisations lobby individually, but ACOSS also acts as an ‘umbrella’ group for all of the welfare organisations. Even so, ‘representation’ must be considered by member organisations of the peak body in appointing someone to speak for them as they confer authority upon their peak body to speak on their behalf. In turn, peak bodies convey a strong message and provide clarity for policy makers on whom to approach to speak generally on the issues affecting a particular sector. Moreover, governments prefer to deal with pressure groups that are able to speak authoritatively.[83]

Promotional groups and advocacy groups

Unlike sectional interest groups, promotional pressure groups are more peripheral to government policy making. For this reason, they may use more electoral tactics.[84] Despite promotional groups appearing to succeed at the ballot box through either election of candidates, or significant portions of the voting public supporting candidates, they exert limited policy influence. This is because they are not integrated into government processes and relationships, and can be divisive for parties. That said, particular promotional groups obtained greater access to the bureaucracy during past decades due to some government agencies engaging staff with links to promotional groups, or with a personal commitment to their cause.[85]

Promotional groups are often more concerned with advancing a particular issue or cause. Advocacy groups are a type of promotional group that seek to raise the status or profile of a section of society seen to be disadvantaged or deprived – socially, politically or materially. Promotional groups tend to focus on causes to advance the interests of society as a whole, and speak along policy lines rather than as a representative.[86]

Promotional groups can be further categorised into single-issue and multi‑issue groups. This distinction is important, because promotional groups appear to be conflated as ‘single-issue groups’ by government and policy makers, when in fact their concerns can cross a breadth of matters within their cause or promotion. For example, the WEL, which was formed ‘to change social attitudes and practices which discriminate against women’ and works to protect the rights of Australian women, could easily be dismissed as a ‘single-issue group’. However, the WEL campaigns on a number of issues of relevance to women, including ending violence against women, health and democratic participation.[87]

On a cautionary note, at times promotional pressure groups may be proxies for more vested interests of sectional organisations.[88] For example, the Alliance of Australian Retailers was a group ostensibly opposed to the plain packaging of cigarettes because the policy would damage the business of small retailers. It was later found to be an ‘astroturf’ group (i.e. a fake ‘grassroots’ organisation) as it was funded by tobacco companies Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco Australia.[89]

Other types

Single-issue pressure groups focus on raising the profile of a single cause or issue, perhaps as part of a social movement. Fusion refers to when two or more groups join for a common purpose.[90]

In the political sphere, the approach of single-issue pressure groups can be seen as a ‘thin edge of the wedge’, as they concentrate on one particular issue or one aspect of a more complicated issue, and they may not be integrated into either the party system or the machinery of government. They do not become part of government processes or advisory committees. Rather, single-issue lobby groups focus on raising awareness of their particular issue so it is adopted by more powerful pressure groups or the community itself. Ultimately, single-issue groups require politicians to identify themselves as either for or against their cause, and advocate for people to support or oppose the political candidate in turn. Such groups are often criticised by their opponents for a perceived or attributed negative effect on democracy, because they promote imposing a minority view on the majority – an accusation ‘levelled at non-party organisations on both the right and the left of politics’.[91] This view may be reinforced by political parties, who often dismiss the views or work of such groups. Parties are often unsettled by promotional groups, and unwilling to identify themselves with groups that could potentially deprive them of support.[92] That said, a number of single-issue groups, particularly in advocacy roles, play an important role in drawing attention to an injustice or setting an agenda for policy change.

Multi-issue groups promote several, usually interconnected or themed, issues. They are generally better resourced and therefore better able to promote their causes and concerns. At times, the delineation between single- and multi-issue groups is ambiguous. For example, an environmental group could be dismissed by politicians and policy makers as a single-issue group, yet such groups frequently campaign on related concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions, preservation of wilderness areas, and recycling. Similarly, the Australian Christian Lobby may engage on a number of issues including refugees, school curriculum and euthanasia, but is primarily concerned with ‘Christian principles and ethics [being] accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.’[93] An example of a demonstrably multi-issue pressure group campaigning on interconnected issues is GetUp!, which describes itself as a not-for-profit, grassroots advocacy organisation.[94] GetUp! pursues change to a variety of government policies, yet many of the issues GetUp! advocates originate from the same progressive viewpoint.


While the political sphere undergoes change from digital disruption and disaffection with democracy, pressure groups form an important conduit to ensure citizens’ voices are heard and reflected in policy. Theories of pressure group formation can help explain why some groups emerge and last. An individual’s decision to join a pressure group can be influenced by a variety of factors, but collective action can be effective in bringing about change. Groups’ roles of representation, education and scrutiny are used differently by groups who employ insider and outsider strategies. Whether they are political insiders or outsiders, they can use either or both kinds of strategies to exercise influence.


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About the author

Dr Moira Byrne works in law and policy in the Australian government, and as an occasional teaching academic in the School of Politics and International Relations at Australian National University. A former policy advisor and speechwriter, her research interests include lobby groups in politics and policy, democracy, and political communication. With qualifications in theology and economics, she is also a keen observer of the intersection of religion and politics.

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