Neale Jones and Jenna Raeburn: lobbyists of the left and right. (Image not to scale)

Selling influence: meet the lobbyists shaping New Zealand politics for a fee

Neale Jones and Jenna Raeburn are partisan lobbyists, doing their clients’ bidding at opposing ends of the political divide. But, as Asher Emanuel explains, they have a surprising amount in common.

Three framed Labour Party posters hang in Neale Jones’ new office at the parliament-end of Lambton Quay. Two are items of affectionate nostalgia: anti-nuclear testing and “Homes for all”. The third, a grinning Jacinda Ardern above the word VOTE, may soon be too. Jones has only just moved in and it feels like pop-up retail — wary of long leases and aware of the brevity of opportunity. Jones spied an opportunity a few months ago when he left his Labour Party job for his new role. “You get these windows in politics — if you don’t jump at the right time, that window closes,” he says.

Jones did his time in union administration (E Tū) and working on issues campaigns in the UK (climate and tax) before becoming a parliamentary staffer in 2013. He rose quickly.

Communications director, later political director, and finally chief of staff — the most senior post — where he served under Little and then Ardern until the election. “Jacinda — sorry, the prime minister — had asked me to consider staying on.” But four years was enough. Now Jones is a lobbyist.

Jenna Raeburn has spent most of her adult life at or very near parliament. Right after finishing law school she made the short trip over the road to work for National.

Raeburn was drawn to the party for its their “ability to compromise, rather than sticking hard and fast to principles that weren’t going to get anywhere”, and its “willingness to accept solutions outside of government”.

Over time she worked for John Key (prime minister), Chris Tremain (variously minister of Internal Affairs, Local Government, Tourism and Civil Defence), and Gerry Brownlee (variously minister of Defence, Transport, Energy and Resources, and Christchurch Regeneration). Raeburn left parliamentary employment in 2016 to become, like Jones, a lobbyist.

Jones is the New Zealand director of Hawker Britton, an Australian-based firm which lobbies Labo(u)r administrations in both countries.

Raeburn is the New Zealand Director of Barton Deakin, an essentially identical firm but which lobbies only National Party/Liberal Party administrations.

They’ve spent their careers working for opposing political camps, and still only engage with their former employers, but they share more than a vocation — they’re ultimately employed by the same multinational.

Both firms are among the many properties of the Australia/New Zealand subsidiary of WPP plc, a UK entity that is one of the “big four” multinational advertising and public relations groups and recently notable for its chief executive being paid £70 million (NZ$132 million) in 2015. (WPP stands for Wire and Plastic Products because, before the well-paid chief executive took it over in the ‘80s as a vehicle for consolidating a large portion of the advertising industry, WPP was in the business of making shopping baskets.)

Common ownership facilitates cooperation between what one might think would otherwise be opposed firms. While separate entities, they work, Raeburn says, in tandem. “We’ve worked quite closely on transitions following elections.”

Despite the change of government, there is continuity of service for the clients of Barton Deakin and Hawker Britton. “Since the election basically what I’ve been doing is transitioning most of my client workload over to Hawker Britton.”

Not that she’s leaving town, though. After the fall of the National government Raeburn had considered closing shop. But she says a lot of clients are still interested in National, even though they are no longer in power.

There’s an easy complacency in making favourable comparisons of New Zealand government to other English-speaking democracies, whose political trends our own often echo.

The United States, where a recent, failed presidential campaign cost well over a billion dollars and aspiring monopolies Google and friends spent $50 million last year seeking to influence Washington legislators. Australia, where lesser but still vast sums slosh about Canberra and lawmakers are either absurdly villainous or flamboyantly corrupt. And the United Kingdom, the “mother” of Westminster democracies, where some politicians are at once members of parliament and paid lobbyists.

While our elections are quaintly cheap (the parties together spent $9 million on the 2014 general election), as far as the lobbying goes any confidence might be misplaced, even if only because we know very little about it.

We can’t answer with any accuracy the questions “how many”, “how much”, and “for whom” about local lobbying. Now that New Zealand has become a seemingly permanent home to two firms which are revolving doors by design (to the point where Hawker Britton Australia has been called the “privatised wing of the Labor Party”), the story that lobbying is just another professional service, no different to legal and accountancy, may require interrogation.

Deliberately, openly and exclusively politically-aligned, the partisan lobbyist is a recent innovation in the government relations industry. According to Barrie Saunders — who was a consultant lobbyist from the early 1990s through to 2015, and in-house for other lobbies before that — there are three phases to the recent history of lobbying in New Zealand.

Barrie Saunders: ‘Unless you were in that frame, you really didn’t have much influence’

Prior to 1984, he says, “It was about how much muscle you had; how much political weight.

“There were the big guys — the Employers Federation, the Manufacturers Federation, Chamber of Commerce, the Retailers Federation, the Federation of Labour. They were the big powers.” As Saunders tells it, likely with some exaggeration, it was an era of personalities in which Muldoon would settle an industrial dispute over a bottle of whiskey, and a prime minister visited the head of the Meat Producers Board and not the other way around.

The only consultant lobbyist Saunders knew of at that time was Hugh Sumpter of G Hugh Sumpter & Associates. “S-U-M-P-T-E-R. He had connections, good connections to the National Party. He was was what I would call a Wellington Club [lobbyist]. That was the style of operation, the business lunch, that sort of thing.”

Then the revolution came. After 1984, successful lobbying required adherence to “hard-line economic rationalism.”

“Unless you were in that frame, you really didn’t have much influence.” What happened next is well-documented — the state sold lots of things, withdrew support to various industries and those who relied upon them, and a new class of investors emerged and promptly crashed the sharemarket.

In Saunders’ view, this economic rationalism lasted through to 1993 and the departure of Ruth Richardson from Bolger’s National Government. From then on economic rationalism remained important but “modified by political reality.”

A year later he established Saunders Unsworth in Wellington. The competition over the years included Chen Palmer, a “public law” firm bearing the name of former prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, and a few other consultant lobbying firms.

By 1997, the New South Wales Premier’s chief of staff and communications director — Messrs Hawker and Britton — had resigned their posts to form a Labor-aligned lobbying firm. The new model prospered, expanded, and a right-wing equivalent was established in the late 2000s.

When Raeburn set up in 2014 it was the first time Barton Deakin had established a New Zealand branch, though Jones is not the first local Hawker Britton operator — an office opened under the Clark government and closed on the arrival of Key.

Saunders is at first surprised by the level of cooperation between Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin, unaware they share an owner. “Really?” he exclaims at hearing Raeburn was transferring clients to Jones.

But after some reflection he is not so fazed. It adds up. “People come up with different formulas. That’s the wonderful thing about the market.”

Client confidentiality means what the partisan lobbyists actually do tends to be explained only by metaphor and anonymised example. Thus Raeburn describes lobbying as a “translation service”.

“Business speaks a very specific language, and government speaks a very specific language. And a lot of the time they don’t understand each other.”

Jones provides an example of this kind of translation. The government is passing some legislation which will have an unintended consequence for the business of one of his clients. “I’m dealing with government to try and have them see that that’s an unintended consequence and amend the legislation so that it doesn’t adversely affect my client.”

Raeburn’s day-to-day tasks involve preparing clients for interactions with government by explaining processes and helping them shape a message to best resonate with their audience.

As to why her clients can’t put their case to government themselves, Raeburn points to the complexity of government processes. “It’s really hard for anyone who doesn’t have a background in politics and government to understand how to communicate, whether it’s to select committees, MPs or ministers.”

Access to lobbyists is important to the democratic process in Raeburn’s view, enabling people to let the government know when things are going wrong.

“Whether you’re an individual, a NGO, or one of the largest companies in the world,” she says, “you still have the right to engage people who can help you to understand, to make the most of the time you have in front of government.”

While the Australian mining lobby, the Minerals Council, recently abandoned all pretence and explained it makes political donations in exchange for access to parliamentarians, Jones and Raeburn insist New Zealand lobbying is about neither access nor money. They say anyone can get a meeting with an MP, or a Minister even, provided they have something serious to contribute. But they and other lobbyists do have special privileges, including swipe cards allowing them to more easily come and go from Parliament.

And their line that New Zealand democracy is incomparably open reveals itself as more a point of procedure than substance when they reflect on the special skills and sway of an insider compared to New Zealanders generally.

“Anyone can submit to Select Committees,” Jones says. “Pick a person off the street who’s literate and has access to an internet connection — they can find out how to do it, they can write a submission, they can appear. But they may not have much impact.”

Anyway, Jones and Raeburn do more than just polish up your select committee submissions. Those services have been available from consultant lobbyists like Saunders or public law lawyers for decades now. There’s additional and special value to be had in hiring a partisan lobbyist.

All lobbyists need to have a good understanding of internal political party dynamics. “It’s not just between parties you’ve got to worry about politics, it’s within parties,” Saunders explains.

“Someone might be in favour of this, and someone over there is deadly opposed. People joke about this, but your most vicious enemies are behind you.”

For him, this information would come from conversations with colleagues, following the news, and bits and pieces MPs would tell him. But Raeburn and Jones are yet more attuned to the workings of their parties and people.

“It’s not just the standard ‘This is how parliamentary processes work, this is how Cabinet processes work’,” Raeburn says of her firm’s “political model”.

“The fact that I have worked with National for a very long time means that I understand the way things work. The way that decisions are going to be made, the particular priorities of different individuals. And I can help my clients understand them as well.”

The closeness between the lobbyists and their parties can lead to suspicion, but Raeburn says that is misplaced. Partisan lobbyists are not doing “dirty deals behind the bike shed”.

“That’s not the advantage being an insider gives you — the advantage is the depth of understanding of the issues and personalities involved.”

Jones explains his advantage is “relationships of trust” he has with the Labour members of parliament which gives him “greater insight”.

“You understand the driving forces behind the changes, the pressures on a person, what they have to deliver, who they have to deliver it to, the philosophical reason they’re doing it.”

He has a practical example: “You might be an organisation, you might say ‘This thing here is going to affect me, I’m going to go and have a talk to the minister about it.’ But we might know that they’re not going to move on that. They’re just not. So we can say, ‘Look, you’re not going to win that battle, so don’t worry about wasting your time and spending your political capital on this thing here when there’s something else they can move on.’”

Neale Jones and Jenna Raeburn are both ultimately employed by the same multinational

It comes close to what might, in other contexts, be regarded as sensitive inside information. And you might think they would not be short of it. Jones was on Labour’s coalition negotiating team and as a former chief of staff may well know more about some goings-on than the prime minister. And, alongside from her own career in the Beehive, Raeburn’s fiancé, Chris Bishop, has been a member of parliament for National since 2014.

But Raeburn and Jones are confident they can balance loyalties to their clients and their parties. Jones’ coalition negotiation insights are not for sale: “I would never, I would never divulge what happened there.”

Raeburn says she and Bishop don’t discuss her clients and he doesn’t give her information. Also, he’s police spokesperson now and, she says, her clients don’t have much of an interest in the police.

She points also to her firm’s ethical principles (which include things like not lying, acting in the public interest et cetera), the general law against breaches of confidence, and the inevitable need to make professional ethical judgements about what she can and can’t work on. For instance, Christchurch matters, with which she was involved as an adviser to Brownlee.

“I think that was really important, just for the sake of optics, that I wasn’t involved in any of that. I never wanted to end up in a situation where I had information which would benefit a client but which would have been a breach of confidence to disclose.”

As with Christchurch for Raeburn, there are areas in which Jones will not be working, though he doesn’t want to say which. He doubts anyone would get away with what he calls a “breach of faith” in Wellington anyway. “It’s a small town and all you have is your reputation. People can see it. People observe. People in that building would know.”

Saunders agrees that, because of its size, Wellington is self-policing. “You’d get called out. That doesn’t mean to say it would appear in the newspapers. But people would know around town.”

Ethical quagmires of what’s secret and what’s saleable aside, both are supporters of their respective parties and likely disinclined to sell them out. Nor would either use their knowledge to attack their parties — Raeburn and Jones say they are not the right people to run those kind of campaigns. If a client wanted to attack the government, Jones would step out.

“I would say, ‘That’s fine, it’s your right. If you feel you can’t get any further with dialogue or engagement. You go talk to Jenna or someone else. You go talk to Jenna, she’ll talk to the National Party, you go talk to some PR firm, they’ll run a campaign for you or whatever. But you’re not going to see Hawker Britton running a campaign — a public campaign — against the government.’”

According to Jones, some clients engage both Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin at the same time. Clients will now be able to hire both carrot and stick, given Raeburn is, at least for a time, sticking out National’s relegation to opposition.

Though Jones’s job is to help his clients cooperate with rather than undermine the government, does his work subvert the more-or-less democratically determined direction of the Labour Party? No, he says.

“The Labour Party is not the government. The government is the government. I don’t go and try to lobby the Labour Party. The party does have its democratic structures and its policy platforms and manifesto and that is something that the government — the Labour government, the Labour Party-in-government — the government tries to advance. But ultimately there is a giant beast called the government and it’s the public service, it’s MPs, ministers, ministers from various parties.”

That would be especially so, of course, if governments were no longer adhering to the promises their party’s made in campaigning. Take the fourth Labour government, for example:  how can you be subverting the will of the wider party if it’s not really in charge anyway?

“A Labour Party member sitting in a dusty hall in Temuka is not writing the government’s policy”, Jones says. “Eventually there’s an impact. But you’re not dealing with that person in the democratic process. You’re dealing with the government.”

In our representative democracy, elected representatives do have significant agency and independence from their parties and the electorate. Yet it’s this democratic gap — between the aspirations of parties and electorate and what elected representatives actually do — in which the lobbyists can intercede and flourish. In a world with no such gap, in a more direct democracy, you’d have to lobby everybody all the time, which is otherwise known as PR.

Neither Raeburn or Jones will say who they work for. Everyone’s entitled to a bit of privacy. But neither would object to a law requiring disclosure in New Zealand — their firms operate just fine in Australia where there is a mandatory register of lobbyists and their clients.

(During the last government’s second term, the Green Party attempted to establish a register. The bill didn’t make it past the Select Committee which recommended it not be passed, and the submissions show the government relations industry was nearly uniformly opposed.)

In fact, Raeburn says most of her clients could be found on the Australian register anyway as many have interests in both Australia and New Zealand. Jones hasn’t looked at the register recently but agrees it is likely to give a sense of the nature of his clients.

He warns, though, that just because the firm works for a particular client doesn’t mean they work with that client on every issue you might expect. You just can’t tell from the register — who knows what it is they want?

Let’s look anyway.

According to the Australian register, notables represented by the right-aligned Barton Deakin in Australia include: Amazon, AMP, Apple, Bunnings, Dow Chemicals, Fujitsu, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, Serco (whose New Zealand misadventure you may remember), Statoil, Vector, and Vodafone. Also on Barton Deakin’s Australian list, though under less recognisable names, are various mining companies and mining company lobbying collectives, commercial healthcare and aged care interests, racing industry lobbies, property developers and one lonely gun lobby group.

Labor-aligned Hawker Britton’s Australian clients include banks, insurers, agribusiness product companies, a rest home provider, a supermarket giant (Woolworths), oil (Statoil, again), a gambling outfit (Sportsbet), at least one defence technology/weapons firm (Lockheed Martin, again), and the humble family restaurant McDonalds.

But Jones is Team Labour, his firm is Labour-aligned, and it has, he says, Labour values. He has his limits. “I don’t work for tobacco, for example. I would not work for deliberate union-busting, for example.”

He has rejected clients whose interests are “unethical or antithetical” to his or the firm’s core belief system. Yes, there are clients he represents which he wouldn’t campaign for in his own time. But this is the nature of jobs generally — you’re not going to agree with everything you have to do.

“I don’t think there’d be any question if I was doing PR. This is just a different theatre of operation.

“You represent the legitimate, ethical interests of clients. And you just do what you feel comfortable with.”

The Labour Party knows, of course, about his new job. His new boss came over from Australia and held meetings with people in the New Zealand Labour Party. Jones points out that this whole thing wouldn’t work if the party didn’t want him doing the job.

No doubt there’s some advantage to the government in the kind of facilitated engagement provided by Jones, whose clients, absent his good offices, might have to find some other way to attend to the difficulties government causes them (or hook in to the opportunities it creates).

Raeburn and Jones say they represent some interests among many in the messy contest of democracy, pointing to NGOs and unions as also involved in lobbying. The comparison only goes so far, though. Unions and politically engaged NGOs have memberships who govern and fund their lobbying and are in that respect more democratic in character. Even the Taxpayers Union represents an at least notional membership.

Of course there are some charities and NGOs on both firms’ books too, and Jones and Raeburn emphasised they don’t just represent commercial interests. Jones even does pro bono and “low bono” for clients who can’t pay or can’t pay as much as other clients.

But even with a bit of charity work, a pay-to-play system for effective engagement with government has unsurprising systematic consequences. If the mix of clients in New Zealand is anything like Australia, there is an inevitable and structural lilt in the firms’ portfolios towards large and unpopular enterprise.

The development of the industry to now include insiders-for-hire heightens the contrast between perceptions of democracy as conflict between political ideologies or tastes, represented by the parties, and democracy as it actually happens: a rough contest of real interests seeking to have the state do or not do this or that, some of which interests have to make up for a lack democratic popularity with an abundance of resources and ever better tools for influencing democratic outcomes.

There’s no magic to it, though, and it’s not as though hiring Jones or Raeburn will get you all that you want. Jones says to his clients, “I can’t promise you a result.”

But still, they pay.

Why does his job — partisan lobbyist — exist now, when it didn’t 30 years ago? Complexity, he thinks. “Government is becoming more technical, technocratic, complex. Increasingly business and government are becoming professionalised. That’s probably the same force that’s driving [developments in] government relations.”

For sure, the dynamics in which Jones and Raeburn are expert are complex enough without even beginning to consider that other part of government, the public service and officialdom — the preferred terrain of Saunders, who claims to often go a year at a time without meeting a minister and who joked conspiratorially that his favourite contact was the 28 year-old official who wrote the first draft of policy. He’s nostalgic about the way things were and complains that government has now become too “process-driven.”

Government is less an Old Boys’ club than it once was, Jones thinks, but is increasingly dominated by expertise. “The number of advisers in that place [parliament] is much more than it used to be. The amount of people you have to deal with, the relationships you have to have, the number of people looking over things, feeding into things.”

Though whether it’s less of a club, or has simply experienced a change of membership, isn’t so clear in a system where advisers become politicians (Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, Ginny Anderson, Chris Bishop, Todd Barclay) and politicians become lobbyists (National’s former MPs Tony Ryall, Katherine Rich and Roger Sowry). If the trajectory of some former Australian Hawker Britton employees is anything to go by, it’s possible Jones might make a run for parliament someday. Certainly, there are some members of parliament who are far from insiders, but not so many.

As Jones tells it, there’s no escaping the need for expertise anymore. If you’re an organisation wanting to change things, he says, “you do need a decent communications and government relations capacity.” And it helps to be of the political world.

“If you’re not in that world, you don’t know, necessarily, how to engage with legislation and regulation. You don’t know who the people are, you don’t know them personally. You don’t know what makes them tick.”

A certain kind of realism insists that this is simply the shape modern democracy must take. From this vantage, these trends are an inevitability, principle must yield to practicability, and moral conviction is mere aesthetics.

“I got into politics for economic justice issues and I believe in social justice,” Jones says. “But also I’m a pragmatist and a realist and I focus on how to get things done. The measure of what we do is what we get done, or what we achieve. I don’t have much time for people who are in politics as a way to purify themselves morally and show the world that they believe the right things. I think that’s vanity.”

Maybe there’s something in Jones, though, that would, if he could, abolish himself. “It’s like when I was working in comms, I used to say ‘I wish my job didn’t have to exist.’

“But it does. It’s part of the system of democracy and government we have.”


This section is made possible by Simplicity, the online nonprofit KiwiSaver plan that only charges members what it costs, nothing more. Simplicity is New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme, saving its 10,500 plus investors more than $3.5 million annually. Simplicity donates 15% of management revenue to charity and has no investments in tobacco, nuclear weapons or landmines. It takes two minutes to join.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.