Top lobbyist and former acting chief of staff to the PM GJ Thompson (Image via Thompson Lewis website)
Top lobbyist and former acting chief of staff to the PM GJ Thompson (Image via Thompson Lewis website)

The BulletinJune 14, 2019

The Bulletin: More questions around lobbyist’s role with Ardern admin

Top lobbyist and former acting chief of staff to the PM GJ Thompson (Image via Thompson Lewis website)
Top lobbyist and former acting chief of staff to the PM GJ Thompson (Image via Thompson Lewis website)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: More questions around lobbyist’s role in Ardern administration, Hong Kong protesters look to NZ, and more progress made between govt and teachers.

Further questions are being raised about the role of influential lobbyist GJ Thompson in the Ardern government. It concerns the time he spent as PM Ardern’s chief of staff when the government was being set up, and the questions come from the ACT Party’s David Seymour. In some ways it could be seen as a minor technical matter, but it could also be seen as symptomatic of something much wider and more concerning.

The story goes like this: ACT put out a release saying there are conflicting accounts of whether Mr Thompson continued as a director and shareholder of his firm Thompson Lewis while working as the PM’s acting chief of staff. Written answers from the PM said he had stepped down from those roles, but Mr Seymour points out the Companies Register was never updated to reflect that. Here’s a Parliament TV video of Mr Seymour trying and failing to press home the point during Question Time. There’s clearly two conflicting accounts there. But then the more substantive matter comes up too, and I’ll quote at length here:

“The Prime Minister has also confirmed to ACT that, while he was her acting chief of staff, Mr Thompson received all Cabinet papers and was briefed on all legislation. Yet, her office appears to have put in place no processes to ensure that he didn’t access material that could benefit his clients. As far as we can tell, Mr Thompson retained a duty to act in the best interests of his lobbying firm as a director and retained an ownership interest as a shareholder.”

Now, aspects of the question around processes have been addressed before. Concerns around the matter go back a long way – Asher Emanuel wrote about it for The Spinoff in February last year, for example. In that story, Mr Thompson said all conflicts of interest were managed by the Department for Internal Affairs, and that he “declared the potential conflict at the very outset of my short-term appointment.” But the PM also confirmed in one of those written answers that she was never provided with a list of Thompson Lewis clients while Mr Thompson was her chief of staff. Recently, one of those clients has been revealed as Chinese technology company Huawei, which gives an insight into the high-powered nature of the firm.

It should be made absolutely clear – the above paragraphs should not be taken as an allegation that any laws have been broken. But that’s partly because there aren’t really any laws around lobbying to break. That’s explored in this recent feature from Newsroom, in which it is noted that there’s no requirement for a stand-down period between government and lobbying, no lobbyist register, and no requirements to disclose clients. The story also includes assertions that the PM and Mr Thompson never discussed any matters that he had client interests in. Really, the PM said, the close links were just a matter of New Zealand being a small country, reports One News.

Lobbyists, by definition, are always to a degree going to be insiders. It stands to reason that the type of person who becomes the PM’s chief of staff is going to be highly effective and well connected – exactly what clients of lobbying firms are looking for. And politics and government involves a significant degree of managing relationships, and obviously there’s a place for lobbyists within that.

But with connections this close, the wider question around principle still stands – is this how a democratic government should work? And for supporters of the government who don’t see anything to be concerned about with this – would you feel the same way if the PM in question was John Key?

You might have heard about a crackdown on protests in Hong Kong recently. Basically the issue is this – Hong Kong has always enjoyed a relative degree of autonomy from the Chinese mainland, but that is being severely tested by a new law that would allow China to extradite criminal suspects to the mainland. For obvious reasons, there are huge fears that would be abused by the repressive Chinese government. One outcome is that those in Hong Kong with ties to elsewhere are considering leaving before the law goes through. The NZ Herald’s Lincoln Tan profiled a mother who also has NZ citizenship, who says freedom for Hong Kong is fading, and that “some people have said this is the end game.”

Meanwhile, on the Chinese NZ Herald, a very different angle comes out if you run it through google translate. Readers are told the people of Hong Kong “from all walks of life” support the extradition law. It’s weird, there’s the same Herald logo on both stories, but with entirely contradictory sets of facts. Maybe it’s a bad translation, or maybe it’s something to do with the stuff detailed in this Newsroom story about Chinese language media being encouraged by Beijing to promote the Chinese government’s line.

Further progress has been made in the dispute between secondary teachers and the ministry, reports Stuff. Rolling strikes set down for next week have been called off, and the union says the discussions so far have been “very productive.” Negotiations continue of course, but One News is reporting this morning that there is hope a new offer might be put forward today, which could finally resolve the crisis.

Just to continue this week’s coverage of the economic situation in the Tararua District, here’s an interesting announcement reported by the Wairarapa Times-Age. A rail hub for Dannevirke is being investigated, which could have big implications for how goods get to ports – particularly Napier. At the moment, the area’s road network is under severe pressure because of the closure of the Manawatū Gorge. What jumps out about the story though is the practicality of it all – in Budgets, we hear massive numbers being thrown around about investments in rail and all of that. But this story is much more about the specific details that would make that deliverable.

Remember the Hobbit Law for film workers and how Labour said they’d repeal it? Well, they won’t be doing that, reports the NZ Herald. Iain Lees-Galloway says what has been worked out actually goes further than a repeal of the law, reports Radio NZ, and Mr Lees-Galloway says film workers will once again have the right to negotiate collectively. But strikes in the industry will be banned, which will rather undermine one of the main tools by which workers can assert their rights.

The primary industries are having a roaring time of it with exports at the moment, reports Radio NZ. It’s rising across the board too – dairy, beef, wool, honey, forestry, and big gains for horticulture. It’s the second year of growth in a row, and has come against a challenging set of conditions including the M. Bovis response, droughts and fires.

Residents of the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi say it has been overrun with very large rats, reports Stuff. It’s believed to have been caused by too much food being left out for a wild chicken population. Residents say the rats aren’t scared of humans, and have become increasingly emboldened. It’s a worrying sign for a suburb with so much tree cover and bird life, not to mention the fact that rats can be disease carriers.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Tara Ward tests out a new Taranaki road made in part from old plastic. Sam Brooks casts his eye over the major announcements in gaming made at the E3 event. Tom Hartmann from Sorted gives a bit of rebuttal to a recent Spinoff article about insurance you don’t need – his view is that you cover people, then money, then stuff. And Sapeer Mayron reports from Apia about the decision to ban Elton John film Rocketman from cinemas, and what the decision means for Samoa’s LGBT community.

Thank you all so much for the feedback on the NZ Herald paywall. New feedback records were set – well over 250 of you got in touch, and even now emails are still coming in. The tranquility of my inbox has been destroyed, and that’s fine. There’s a huge depth of feeling around the topic.

But in terms of summarising it, that’ll be nigh on impossible, so I’ll just pull out one or two points that came up repeatedly. Quite a few of you were frustrated about the way pages on the site are laid out, even if they are premium pages – some asked why they should also see ads on something they’re paying for. And there was still quite a bit of conflation between the really strong journalism and reporting done over there, and, well, the tabloid trash that also gets run up on the site. In my opinion, it’s one of the major problems with it all going up under one masthead.

But there was also praise for some of the quality of the work going on, and a sense from many they could see where the money was going. Interestingly, a couple of people mentioned stories in the area of health, particularly around dentistry and maternity stories. That stands to reason – they’re truly relatable real life issues so it’s not surprising the stories there struck a chord with some.

Finally, for my money the most thought provoking comment of all came from Krista, and it’s one to think about in the context of media as the forum for democracy –remember, regional titles are also paywalled.

“I understand the rationale behind the paywall, but paying for a subscription is not in our budget for this year, and may never be. Where I am really concerned though, is the impact on local news, particularly coverage of the upcoming local body elections. As you may be aware, there are a couple of distinct factions in the running in the Rotorua elections, but all election news is paywalled, as are the letters to the editor. I’m disappointed that potentially valuable information to inform a democratic decision is now only available to those who can afford it.”

The Black Sox softball team are getting their World Cup campaign underway this morning, against the hosts Cezch Republic. The game is in progress right now, so in the meantime here’s an overview from Stuff about the tournament format, and what to watch out for. Incidentally, it’ll be the first time in a while the Black Sox, winners of seven championships, will have to navigate a sudden death knockout phase, assuming of course they make it.

And in the cricket, well, what a disaster. Rain has played a punishing role on the tournament, and the latest forced washout has been India vs NZ. So while we wait for the tournament to resume, you can listen to this bonus episode of The Offspin, where we were joined in studio by Suzie Bates. She’s up there with the greatest NZ cricketers of all time, so it was awesome to get her thoughts on international franchise cricket, the two-tier system of professionalism in NZ and the future of the women’s game.

From our partners: A two-tier system of energy use is developing, with those on high incomes much more able to reduce their bills than households on lower incomes. Vector’s Chief Risk and Sustainability Officer Kate Beddoe outlines what the company plans to do about that.

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