Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsApril 3, 2023

The case for an inquiry into lobbying

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It might not reveal much more than what most informed observers of politics already know – but then again, it might.

This article was first published in Henry Cooke’s politics newsletter, Museum Street.

Stuart Nash had to go.

As my old boss Luke Malpass wrote, his wrongdoing seems to have been more hapless than devious, but it is still, well, wrong.

The Cabinet Manual has rules you can get away with breaking and rules you can’t. No minister has been fired for talking up Zespri overseas or their favourite comfort food at home, despite that clearly breaching rule 2.99.

But talking about cabinet conversations to a donor who has some sort of interest in the outcome of those decisions is a much clearer red line, especially if you’re already on your last chance.

The fact that Nash thought this was OK is indicative of more than just his haplessness, however. It’s part of that general sense you get that some New Zealanders seem to be able to get answers out of government far easier than others – whether it be because they donated big money to a party, paid big money for a lobbyist, or just move in the right circles.

This is the thread Guyon Espiner has been pulling with his recent series on lobbying, raising some well-grounded concerns with the revolving door between staffer and lobbyist, and the saga of the New Zealand First Foundation. It’s also a thread some people on social media pull so far they end up wrapped in silly conspiracies. I think both of those ends of the thread are good reasons to call up a few retired judges and take a look at all this with some kind of inquiry. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. But wouldn’t it be a good idea to show that clearly?

The smallness problem

It doesn’t take a very long look at the list of appointments to public boards and inquiries and whatnot to see some names pop up who have worked with various government figures before, or indeed, have been government figures before.

This is why the public sector has conflict of interest procedures. The country is simply not big enough for everyone who knows politicians or has worked with them in the past to never get a job anywhere near them. Politicians generally come to office by being very active in their communities and forming relationships with various leaders within said communities, after all. And the people who genuinely understand the public sector and can work well in it are rare – just look at how many reviews Sir Brian Roche has been roped into. It’s no wonder that sometimes the best person for the job happens to have done some kind of political stuff in their lives.

This extends into the murky world of what some call “government relations” and others call “lobbying”. Lobbyists who have never worked with or known anyone in the political system would not be very good at their jobs. And because both lobbying and “having another job after working in politics” is legal, it is unsurprising that the top lobbying firms are staffed with folks who have been close with politicians for years.

But we must be careful to not let this “well everyone knows everyone, it’s a small world” response be a hand-wave that covers all. That is why we have these conflict of interest rules, and why a check up on them in a public inquiry might be a good idea. It’s also why other countries insert cooling-off periods for certain jobs – so that you can’t quite retire as a minister and set up a lobbying firm just a few months later, as Kris Faafoi did last year. My rough principle on this is that it is probably OK (or is at least hard to make illegal) for people who have worked in politics to make money from their expertise, but that expertise shouldn’t include knowledge of decisions that haven’t been made yet.

Another issue here is clearly one about avenues of communication – former staffers/MPs likely retain phone numbers of others in government, and might still see them socially. It’s hard to envisage making that “illegal” (people are allowed to have friends) but it is also an avenue of communication that the general public does not have, so those in power should be careful to make sure that it is not used by the other party to their advantage. This is not easy stuff, but hey, that’s what we could pay the inquiry to sort through.

Kris Faafoi speaks to media at parliament
Former broadcasting minister turned lobbyist Kris Faafoi (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

The lobbying/government relations/communications vortex

I know a few lobbyists. They are generally very good gossips, and my old job required a lot of gossiping. Also, please see the “smallness problem” above.

My general sense of the job is that a lot of the wider sphere of “government relations” is quite mundane work that political professionals are well suited to.

A lot of it just expertise. If you know the Green Party well you can tell your client that they are wasting their time trying to explain the ongoing usefulness of natural gas as a “bridging fuel” or whatever not because you have some short of shady connection, but because you understand politics. Similarly you can help a client who is about to appear before a select committee know exactly what levers to pull with individual MPs by doing a bit of research on their recent speeches in the House etc etc.

Indeed, I think a key part of the profession is mystification, reselling what is essentially public information as incredible insider knowledge. See: the $1000+ book Saunders Unsworth sells on MPs. Perhaps you add a little spice garnered from some conversation you had when you attended a leaving drinks a few months back and boom – insider knowledge.

This mystification is key to the ongoing value proposition because the truth is anyone can submit to a select committee, for free, and if they are reasonably well-informed may even influence things. Graeme Edgeler has probably had more influence on various bits of legislation than anyone not elected to parliament, not because he is a shady operator but because he is a huge nerd. The New Zealand Law Society similarly has had a massive role impacting legislation through the years – because they know how to submit to select committees.

And if you’re a big enough company or organisation, you can probably get a meeting with the minister. Government agencies and ministers obsess about consulting with the sectors they regulate or serve these days. If you are a big player in X space they probably want to hear your view. But then, if you’re a big enough player you probably have the money to hire a lobbyist. Because then when you have that meeting you go in armed with the best possible argument – a goal that is perhaps achievable instead of just a laundry list of complaints.

A separate thing that clearly blurs into this is pure communications and think-tankery. The New Zealand Initiative, for example, is a business-funded right-wing think tank that acts in the public eye, writing columns and appearing on TV. Then there are “peak groups” of business entities or unions who see a big part of their role as actively influencing government policies. Bodies like BusinessNZ act as a single voice to talk to ministers and fund ad campaigns against those minister’s policies in the media. The lines between all this activity are not particularly clear, and probably never will be, but it is worth being clear that this is not just one specific activity. It is a host of them. Any inquiry trying to sort through all these differences would have quite a job!

The big question: can a lobbyist influence an event or profit from foreknowledge of one?

If I were to set up this proposed inquiry I think the main question I would want it to answer would be the above.

When you get down to it, this is what would be really worrying. But this is not an easy question!

Clearly in one sense this is absolutely the case. The big peak/lobby groups in New Zealand have had huge impact on public policy. See: the inability for any government to properly tax agricultural emissions.

But you could easily argue this isn’t really “lobbying” or anything untoward – it’s just a peak group representing its members, being consulted on policy, and having a public say. Those on the left who spit tacks about this influence obviously don’t get upset when a union gets a major policy win. And it is pretty clear when these events happen – as they usually play out in newspaper opinion columns and in select committee submissions and whatnot.

So then we look behind the scenes. One of the things we are all clearly uncomfortable with is the idea that a policy might have been influenced away from the public eye. Similarly we don’t like the idea that someone somewhere knew about a government policy before the public did, and could use that lead-in time to make a commercial decision.

Obviously this has probably happened in recent New Zealand history in some way – whether it be a small clause to stop a new law accidentally destroying a company or something more nefarious.

I suspect a close look at this world would probably find plenty to be embarrassed about but not reveal all that much more than what most informed observers of politics know: entrenched groups in the New Zealand economy are fairly good at stopping things they don’t want to happen from happening, and have direct lines of communication to ministers unavailable to most. It might reveal far more.

So why not announce some kind of inquiry, taking in the last decade or so politics, and the rules that have governed it? If nothing else, it would give the lobbyists a chance to show whether they were really worth all of that money they’ve been charging.

This article was first published in Henry Cooke’s politics newsletter, Museum Street.

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