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A Missing Piece in the Public Policy Puzzle? Individual MPs’ Links with Interest Groups

Patrick Dumont
Australian National University
Patrick Dumont
Australian National University
Matthew Kerby
Australian National University
Marina McGale
Australian National University

Abstract

In order to address the relations between public opinion, advocacy groups and public policy, a somewhat neglected approach has been to systematically look at the mandates and links individual MPs bring to the assembly they are members of. This clearly represents a gap in this developing research area, as elected representatives do not only relay their constituents’ and party’s preferences, but may also act as agents of a variety of organised interests. There is of course a thin line between the lobbying activities those insiders may perform in parliament and genuine conflicts of interest. This is the reason why in an increasing number of countries all MPs have to declare their mandates and functions and make them public. Since individual MPs intervene at most stages of the public policy process (agenda-setting, policy formulation, decision-making, policy evaluation), we take a step towards filling this gap by analysing the links between individual MPs and organised interests in Belgium using these personal inventories in the last decade (for a similar approach in Switzerland, see Gava et al. 2016). With regard to more classical and therefore studied forms of interest group access, Belgium is a case of moderate to high neo-corporatism but also acknowledges the representation of smaller interest groups at the pre-parliamentary stage in a variety for a variety of public policies. Since the country’s federalisation, interest groups that relate to regionalised policy competences tend to seek access at the sub-national level (Fraussen and Beyers 2015). And at the party system level, reminiscence of the pillarised landscape between socialist, catholic and liberal standen is still felt in the formal and informal ties of unions, health organisations and education systems with those traditional cleavage-based parties (in their central organisations, but also in the group belonging of their members and voters). Are those tendencies also observed in the links of individual MPs with interest groups? What about newer groups such as social movements that may be more or less related to the birth of new political parties? Are identity groups such as women, young people or the elderly, that are less easily or fully connected to either a level of authority or a party (Celis et al. 2016), channelling their interests through descriptive representatives in parliament? These are the main questions this systematic analysis of Belgian federal and regional MPs’ links with interest groups set out to answer. The eventual goal of this paper is to show the potential of this approach bridging those in use in legislative studies, interest groups and public policy for the identification of regularities that may well turn out to be an important missing piece in the public policy puzzle (further analyses will look at committee assignments as well as legislative and control activities of those MPs in a variety of policy areas).