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OPINIONPoliticsOctober 7, 2022

Kris Faafoi and the revolving door


It’s perfectly legal for the former cabinet minister to move straight into a job as a lobbyist. But should it be?

Kris Faafoi’s got us all in a spin. A cabinet minister barely three months ago, and now the country’s newest lobbyist, he has gone through the revolving door between politics and corporate life so fast it must still be spinning. And of course one of his new roles, at lobbying and public relations firm Dialogue 22, will be… spinning.

Why does this matter? Because it highlights a key weakness in New Zealand’s integrity rules. As a cabinet minister as recently as July, Faafoi will have been privy to the most important political discussions in the land, compiling a treasure trove of information. And normally that knowledge is held confidential. Admittedly, elements of cabinet discussions leak, and the government publishes some papers after the fact. But the vast majority of the information surrounding such discussions – the arguments made for and against in cabinet, the motivations and positions of individual ministers, the political realities that determine a given decision – is kept under wraps.

In particular, confidential public information is not supposed to end up in the hands of commercial interests. With good reason, we do not simply sell information about cabinet debates to the highest bidder. That information is supposed to be used for the public good, not to advance private interests. And if private firms or individuals do get hold of it, they gain a completely inappropriate advantage over their rivals.

All these values and protections are rendered somewhat irrelevant, however, if Faafoi – or indeed anyone else – can simply step through the revolving door and, taking confidential public information with them, immediately turn it to the benefit of their clients. Dialogue 22’s website makes clear that Faafoi’s former life as a cabinet minister is a core part of its pitch. And the man himself told the Herald earlier this week that in looking to drum up business, he had been “speaking to people I’ve had relationships with in the past”. Given it’s a long time since Faafoi did anything except politics, those are presumably people he has met in his capacity as an MP and minister.

Kris Faafoi speaks to media at parliament
Former cabinet minister Kris Faafoi speaks to media at parliament. (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

The concerns about the revolving door arise well before ministers leave politics. If, while still in post, they spy the prospect of a lucrative corporate afterlife, it is hardly inconceivable that they will start to bias their decisions towards – or at least form overly close relationships with – the firms able to deliver that career. While there is no reason to think Faafoi has behaved in this way,  it routinely happens overseas. Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s celebrated book on America’s opioid-pushing Sackler family, shows how they built a cosy relationship with a regulator whom they persuaded to approve their dangerous drugs – and then found said regulator a job at the family firm paying US$400,000 a year.

None of which is to say that lobbying itself is bad, even if the term usually has negative connotations. Everyone is entitled to (try to) contact an MP or a minister. And if people can do it themselves, they should presumably be able to pay someone to do it on their behalf. Lobbying becomes a problem only when it happens in secrecy, involves inappropriately close relationships between officials and lobbyists, creates an imbalance of power – such that some voices are heard much more than others – or, as in this case, may involve turning confidential public information to private benefit.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward policy response: the cooling-off period. In many countries, former decision-makers have to wait some time before they can lobby the public institutions that once employed them. Principles set out by leading global NGOs, including Transparency International, recommend a minimum cooling-off time of two years. In Taiwan, the period is three years, in Canada five, and in some US states six. Because politics moves rapidly, the individual’s confidential knowledge is, by the time such periods end, far less relevant, and thus less likely to be used for private benefit.

If we were to implement such a policy in New Zealand, we would have to pick an appropriate period – three years, the length of a parliamentary term, would be one option – and decide whom it covers. Ministers, obviously – but arguably MPs and senior public servants also possess enough confidential information to warrant a cooling-off period, albeit perhaps a shorter one.

Beyond that, we should also require those lobbying the government to disclose their interactions with decision-makers. The Greens’ 2012 attempt to institute such a register may have gone down in flames, but Ireland has long maintained one, suggesting it is not an especially difficult thing to get right. As ever, the tools to ensure openness and transparency in government are readily available to us; the only question is whether we have a real desire to use them.

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