Guest Notes

Beltway Notes

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

Like Oscar Wilde’s demand that ‘the man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one’ – people like me who are constantly speaking of the benefits of globalisation should be compelled to travel on planes and do some of our Australian work overseas. In my role as adviser to companies that inhabit the world between business and government, I head over to Washington DC to work with my global colleagues on some clients operating in both the United States and Australian political jurisdictions.

It is fundraising season in DC. From Georgetown to Foggy Bottom, the cans are being shaken for candidates and causes. At such events, talk quickly moves to one topic – and that topic is Hillary Clinton. In the past six months, discussions have moved from ‘will she or won’t she run?’ to ‘what does it mean for the Democratic Party to put all their eggs in this particular basket?’ Despite her prominence, she unifies Washington, only to the extent of a heart-felt scepticism from both sides of the aisle.

Despite the demographic advantage the Democrats have with a large voting base in the Hispanic, African American and female populations, Hillary appears too corporate and pragmatic for the progressives. The consensus in Washington is that she will need to do a Democratic version of what Richard Nixon established as political orthodoxy – appeal to the base in the primaries and then head towards the centre for the election.

Even though the Republican candidates do not have the star power, money or resources – and their number is increasing by the day – Washington insiders are not convinced the Hillary ascendency is a sure thing.

I camp out at our FTI office on K Street. I run into one of my colleagues to discuss a client, but cannot help myself from asking how his old boss (and my political hero) is going. He is a former staffer of James Baker, a one time Secretary of State and Chief of Staff in the Reagan administration.

It does get me thinking that the first telephone call every Whitehouse Chief of Staff (including Democrats) traditionally makes is to Baker to ask his advice on how to achieve impact in this important Cabinet post. This contrasts to Australia, where the recurring debate seems to fixate around how we can make the Prime Minister’s chief of staff less powerful.


It turns out Baker is still fighting fit at 86, and still active in civic affairs (particularly the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas). He is also a regular at political reunions and still taking calls from Democrats and Republicans alike.

My FTI colleagues leave the office to go to a series of fundraisers that evening.

I am sitting in a meeting room on Capitol Hill waiting for an Australian-friendly Congressman. Meanwhile, a young staffer approaches me. As he walks towards me, I am expecting him to be asking for my view on the ‘pivot to Asia’ policy or Australia’s stance on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Instead, he explains he spent a semester at Wollongong University and wanted to know if the UniBar still had Thirsty Thursdays. I commit to act as his special envoy to ensure that the pub still does the ‘two drinks for the price of one offer for all those with a valid student card’. It is not the Paris Peace Accords, I will grant you, but this sort of soft diplomacy is vital for Australia’s national interest. At least I will be able to dine out on this story at the next fundraiser I attend.

As I leave Congress, I am introduced to a big time business lobbyist. Recent news about Australia getting more aggressive about taxing multinational companies has hit the news here. He remarks that Australian business should avoid the move to a Brussels-style system. He says: ‘All they do there is surrender politely.’

A green revolution is happening in America – and it has nothing to do with the environmental movement. The legalisation of marijuana is spreading across the US, after it started in Colorado. The problem for the District of Columbia is that its local laws need to be overseen by Congress. So although locals have voted to legalise, some of the feds are not happy.

Just when I thought I could light up in a Georgetown restaurant, House Republicans advanced a budget plan that would prevent legal sales of marijuana in the District until at least 2017. I know Bill Clinton did not inhale, but taking two years to exhale may be too much to ask.

It is announced that Barry Manilow will headline the 4h of July show at the Washington Mall. It was always a matter of time that music and passion would be part of the fashion in Washington DC. Which has always been regarded as the hottest spot north of Havana. Is this further evidence behind the thawing of relations behind the US and Cuba? You be the judge.

Manilow will pay homage to the show he gave at the Statue of Liberty 30 years ago. This will also be reminiscent of the concert he gave at the funeral of Tutankhamen in 1332 BC.

Washington is not renowned for its sports teams, but the Washington Capitals ice hockey team is giving the locals a reason to cheer (and face paint). The Capitals are in the play-offs with the New York Rangers. The Washington streets were full of fans to see a win over New York. But don’t get too excited. In what looks peculiarly American, the playoffs are a series of seven games. There are no sudden deaths or penalty shoot-outs. If you loose one game, you have six to catch up. There are almost as many play-offs as fundraisers.

It proves that those who like their politics tough, have a more benign taste in sports.

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Robert Skeffington is Managing Director of strategic communications firm FTI Consulting.

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