The prime minister has laid out four measures that he says will add transparency to government lobbying activities.
“It’s very important we have a sensible and transparent system that does not give the impression that lobbyists enjoy an unfair advantage over other New Zealanders.” That’s how Chris Hipkins this afternoon introduced four changes designed to address lobbying and its impact on New Zealand democracy.
The announcement of three new measures designed to shine light on public lobbyists’ activities follows reporting by Guyon Espiner for RNZ as part of the series Mate, Comrade, Brother. The title is based on the terms of endearment used by lobbyists in chats with government officials and ministers.
Broader questions around transparency in government were further prompted by revelations last week that Stuart Nash’s office had wrongly ruled out of scope for the purposes of an official information request the email he sent to his donors containing confidential cabinet information. The OIA request had been discussed by Nash’s office with staffers in then prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s office on three occasions.
Hipkins did not address the OIA today, saying it was “a fundamentally sound piece of legislation”, though “there may be opportunities for improvement”. His focus instead was lobbying, where he laid out a policy review and three other measures. What do they amount to and, below, an expert view on whether they go far enough.
Fresh policy review on regulating lobbying
Top of Hipkins’ list was what he called “a major piece of work” to lay out “policy options for regulating lobbying activities”.
He said it would pick up on some of the options contained in former Green MP Holly Walker’s lobbying disclosure bill, which was bounced into the long grass by MPs after passing its first reading in 2012. “Ultimately, he said, that reform “didn’t land because it was too broad in scope. I want parliament to take another look, learning the lessons from that process.”
It could include a mandatory register of lobbyists and a compulsory cooling off period between being a minister or MP and a lobbyist, or vice versa – to address the much criticised “revolving door” issue.
The work would be “complex to work through” and “require considerable work and consultation”, he said, and was likely to be returned at some point next year. Hipkins said he hoped officials could come up with something that was “sensible and fair”, that it was “implementable and can actually work” and that it would “draw on international best practice”. While that work was under way, the following three measures will be introduced…
Swiping lobbyists’ swipe cards
Hipkins said he would ask the speaker of the house of representatives to remove existing swipe-card access to parliament for those across business, NGO and union representatives. Currently, some lobbyists as well as business and union representatives have swipe-card access to the building. The total on the “approved list” is reportedly around 80.
“My view is they should go through the front door like every other New Zealander,” said Hipkins. Whether or not the swipe card gave greater access to policy makers, “symbolically it is something that has been picked up and noticed and it certainly provides the perception of greater access”, he said.
Support for a voluntary code of conduct
Pending the findings of the policy review, Hipkins said the government would encourage and support lobbyists should they wish (as some do) to draft and sign a voluntary code of conduct, with the Ministry of Justice tasked with providing assistance.
That code “would enhance transparency by, for example, including the names of the clients they represent on their websites”, said Hipkins. “Others involved in lobbying, for instance peak bodies, industry associations and other entities may also wish to sign up for this as well.
Cabinet manual, revised
A “refreshed” cabinet manual will be published later this month, said Hipkins, setting out “clear expectations” to guide decisions when they are looking at future employment. It would “make it clear that, while in office, ministers’ conduct and decisions should not be influenced by the prospect or expectation of future employment with a particular organisation or sector”.
There has been no announcement on whether the new manual will include easy-to-follow illustrations.
Is it enough?
“Fairly weak.” That’s the first assessment of the measures from Max Rashbrooke, an author, academic and expert on inequality, donations and transparency issues. The interim changes were “very much on the surface level”, he said, while the timetable meant that it was hard to feel confident that recommendations emerging from the policy review wouldn’t meet the same fate as those put forward by Walker 11 years ago.
“Yes, there are some complexities, and changes do need careful consideration,” he said. “On the other hand, kicking it out for at least a year raises the possibility that nothing substantive will change.”
It amounted to an “insufficient response”, he said, questioning why Hipkins could not instead have announced the launch of consultation on details around a lobbyists’ register and a cool-down period between politics and lobbying gigs, given that “any competent review” would prioritise those measures, which are already in place in numerous developed democracies around the world.
As for the three immediate changes, Rashbrooke declared himself “underwhelmed”. The seizure of swipe cards “makes sense and looks good but doesn’t change anything substantially”. Support for a voluntary code of conduct “sounds largely pointless” given that first word, voluntary, he said.
And the lines in the cabinet manual? “It’s very hard to see what difference that is going to make,” said Rashbrooke, noting that it would hinge on ministers imagining the actions of their future non-ministerial selves. “What are they going to say that would make a tangible difference?”