Keeping foreign minister Bob Carr in check, “watching” journalists at the ABC, lobbying prime ministers. Mark Leibler has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to power and influence. Jommy Tee and Michael West reveal the master lobbyist’s playbook in his own words.
Mark Leibler is the tax lawyer, Australian Jewish community leader and staunch Israel defender behind the initiative to get six former Australian prime ministers to sign a letter in favour of Israel in Gaza. Paul Keating, the notable living exception to this line of signatories, famously outed Leibler as the man behind the strategy.
Leibler has been an influential player in Australian politics for decades, a Zionist community leader with the ear of successive prime ministers and media chiefs.
On Monday night’s Q+A program on the ABC, Leibler – in his role as chairman of the Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) – was involved in a tense debate on Israel and Gaza, which has reverberated on social media since. Much of the criticism centred around what many viewers believed was preferential treatment given to Leibler by host Patricia Karvelas over the UN and Palestinian representatives on the show.
Anticipating a furious reaction, the ABC had even opted to close the Q+A show to a live audience.
The backlash on social media since the program ran on Monday night is in stark contrast to the treatment of the Gaza tragedy in Australia’s mainstream media which has mostly favoured the position of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu over that of the oppressed Palestinians.
It has been a vexing question for many, given the massive slaughter of Palestinian civilians and myriad human rights abuses in response to the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, why the mainstream media in Australia – and indeed politicians of the two major parties – have been so partisan in favour of Israel.
Archived speeches made by Mark Leibler on lobbying and the media shed light on the power of the Israel lobby in Australia.
An archived aide-mémoire from the Arnold Bloch Leibler (Leibler’s law firm) website provides a fascinating insight from the man himself on political lobbying.
The document appears to have been prepared for a talk at the Jewish Community Council of Western Australia (JCCWA) in Perth on July 24, 2018. Publicly identified engagements on that trip included a business breakfast where Leibler spoke about tax, an address to the Carmel School, and an address as a guest of the Friends of Israel WA. Access to these speeches are still available via the ABL website.
However, there is no mention of Leibler’s participation at the event held by the JCCWA. Mark Leibler was approached for comment for this story but was unavailable.
The speech provides a fascinating insight on the art of lobbying.
The document outlines three lessons on lobbying.
Lesson 1 – Choose the style and the manner of lobbying that’s most appropriate to the situation
Lesson 2 – Get the timing right
Lesson 3 – When it comes Israel it’s important not to go about it as though we are Israel’s mouthpiece
The document provides some extraordinary details on how Mark Leibler influenced Bill Hayden when Hayden was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Hawke government.
“I came up with an example of this going back to the mid-1980s, when we learned that the then Foreign Minister Bill Hayden had agreed to open an exhibition of art for the PLO – some of the works were deeply offensive and I felt a responsibility to call him.
“While the Minister argued the toss with me, he finally conceded, after viewing the exhibition, that it was probably inappropriate and would pull out simply on the basis that he was not available.
“But he told me that if I ever indicated to anyone that his decision was a result of my lobbying, he would deny the conversation ever happened, and never speak to me again.
“I feel that enough time has elapsed to take you into my confidence today …”
Moderating ABC journalists
The document also details how the “advocacy” of the AIJAC extended to representations to the ABC – both publicly and privately – to seek to moderate Sophie McNeil’s coverage of the middle east when she was the ABC’s correspondent.
“She should never have been given this posting by the ABC because she was ideologically attached to the Palestinian cause.”
“I don’t believe the ABC would have sent her if they’d known but they weren’t going to create a controversy by pulling her out. That said, our representations, both public and private,
undoubtedly moderated her behaviour because she knew she was being watched.
The document also details how Leibler lobbied some influential ALP power brokers ahead of the 2017 ALP National Conference to stymie “Bob Carr and his associates”.
“Bob Carr and his associates were making worrying in-roads on the diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian State, particularly in western Sydney electorates with a strong Muslim influence.
A great deal of sustained, behind-the-scenes lobbying was done – with the leader and with individual politicians whose voices carry weight – to ensure that the damage was limited. This kind of lobbying changes as circumstances change, but it’s never done, never finished”.
In terms of working a hierarchy of political influence, the speech notes that on some issues the lobbyist is better off avoiding politicians and going to their trusted minders.
In the case of John Howard, for example, I would often turn first to Josh Frydenberg over the period Josh served as one of the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisers.
It also reveals how Leibler worked closely and collaboratively with the Israeli ambassador.
“Israel has an embassy – I work closely and collaboratively with the Ambassador, often presenting a similar perspective on something but I won’t do it together with him. We have different constituencies.”
The document stresses the need for bipartisan political support and for shaping the narrative for supporting Israel by emphasising the commonalities of the major parties, rather than the differences.
If we focus too much on the differences, we run the very real risk that this emphasis can become self-fulfilling.
“The final point on the issue of how best to promote and defend Israel, and it’s a point I often make to young lobbyists, is not to waste their time trying to justify settlements because they’re never going to win that battle. I tell them to focus instead on whether or not settlements are the cause of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Because the compelling truth is that eliminating settlements wouldn’t bring about peace.”
The latter point was reiterated during the Qanda debate, where Leibler appeared to trivialise the impact of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
MWM contacted Mark Leibler for an interview. He was unavailable.