Lifting the lid on lobbying in politics


Dr Bryce Edwards

Tracey Bridges says there was “no flow of information” between the PM’s office and her other clients.

Recent revelations that a lobbying firm owner and director was recruited to work over summer as chief of staff for the Prime Minister, with the expectation he would then immediately return to lobbying, barely raised a mention in our media.

What should have been a major political scandal, was the subject of a must-read investigative report last week on The Spinoff website – see Asher Emanuel’s Conflict of interest concerns over lobbyist turned chief of Jacinda Ardern’s staff. Emanuel’s article is important because it raises unanswered questions about ethics and procedures in the hiring of lobbyists to work for the government.

I had also raised the issue in my Political Roundup column, The Government's revolving door for lobbyists. And Newsroom published my call for greater scrutiny of lobbying – see: More light on revolving door lobbyists.

One explanation for this extraordinary situation going largely unreported is Wellington political insiders often operate as a “political class” who are careful not to step on each other’s toes. For the media, in particular, a symbiotic relationship can make it problematic to report on powerful individuals who they depend on for stories and access. I spoke briefly about some of this to RNZ’s Jessie Mulligan in an interview: What's the deal with political lobbyists?

Yesterday Danyl Mclauchlan pointed to a second, important, factor in why so little public scrutiny had been applied to this lobbyist. He writes, “a jaw-dropping conflict of interest” such as this could have been massive: “If such a thing happened during the Key government there would have been a huge outcry: protests, online petitions, twitter hashtags, Radio New Zealand flooded with academics lamenting the death of our democracy. Instead, there was an indifferent silence” – see: Simon Bridges and the opposition vacuum.

Partly, Mr Mclauchlan attributes this to partisan bias. But, crucially, he suggests another important component of New Zealand’s “political class” – Parliament’s opposition – decided not to make the issue a scandal. He says “Most government scandals need opposition leaders asking questions in the house, crafting lines so that the voters can understand what’s happening, providing optics for the TV news, and having their research units breaking new angles to keep the story live. If none of these things happens, then there’s no scandal.”

The opposition is supposed to be a check on executive power – it’s the opposition job to expose the government’s ethical transgressions such as any misuse of power or willingness to allow conflicts of interest to occur at high levels. So why didn’t National push the issue? According to Mr Mclauchlan: “National has no interest in progressing such a story because it in many ways spent the last nine years acting as a vertically integrated lobbying and fundraising operation, and its former chief of staff is now a consulting partner with the same lobbying firm as Labour’s former chief of staff.”

National has chosen to push harder on another conflict of interest in the Prime Minister’s Office. PR professional Tracey Bridges recently appeared as an independent political commentator on RNZ’s show The Panel, despite being employed in the PM’s office at the time. This was exposed last week during parliamentary question time, by a number of questions from National’s Melissa Lee to Communications Minister Clare Curran. You can watch the five-minute video here.

The allegations were confirmed by RNZ – see RNZ’s own report by political editor Jane Patterson: National raises questions about RNZ commentator. RNZ says it was not aware Ms Bridges was working for the Beehive, and programme manager David Allan is quoted saying “It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.”

Bridges' defence, that she also had other commercial clients, had the effect of raising questions about potential conflicts of interest in her work for the PM’s Office. It raised the question of who these clients are, and whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had suitably dealt with these in employing Ms Bridges. RNZ’s Jane Patterson then investigated, interviewing Ms Bridges and G J Thompson – both of whom gave assurances that there was nothing to worry about – see: Commentator welcomes conflict of interest debate.

Thompson said conflicts of interest were “handled well.” Ms Bridges is reported as saying “she identified and declared any of her other clients who could potentially pose a conflict of interest to the Prime Minister's office, and then managed any conflicts if and when they arose from there on.” She said there was “no flow of information” between the PM’s Office and her other clients.

Greens’ progress for transparency
Although the above examples should be alarming for anyone with an interest in democratic transparency, there is also recent cause for celebration. The Green Party should be congratulated for its announcements on Sunday, that it is taking real steps to be both more transparent and less vulnerable to lobbying. This is best covered by Henry Cooke, who reports James Shaw saying: “At times it feels like access to politicians, particularly ministers, is the grease that keeps Wellington's wheels rolling … We think it's about time New Zealanders know who's in those meetings and why” – see: Green Party to open diaries, refuse lobbyist-funded perks.

The appointment diaries of the Green ministers in government will now be published every three months. And “All MPs and staff will not be allowed to accept ‘corporate hospitality’ – freebies like corporate box tickets to rugby games or all-expenses-paid dinners.”

Long-time blogging watchdog, No Right Turn, was impressed: “It’s good to see a party living up to its values on eliminating corruption from politics, and it’s a challenge to other parties to follow suit. But while media attention has focused on the refusing bribes aspect, the proactive release of ministerial diaries may be more far-reaching. This is something transparency advocates have been calling for years because it will expose who is attempting to influence ministers. Lobbying is so effective partly because it is secret, behind closed doors. Being able to connect the dots between ministerial meetings and policy changes will mean exposing that influence and force ministers to either publicly justify policies or refuse lobbyists' demands. And that's good for the public” – see: A good move.

However, the blogger raised the question of other government ministers, saying it “puts Labour's ‘Minister for Open Government’ to shame. Shouldn't she be announcing measures like this? Or does Labour's view of ‘open government’ not actually extend to real openness?”

And in terms of questions about the government’s openness, and following proper procedures, there are still questions about Claire Curran’s breakfast meeting with an RNZ news boss, as reported by John Drinnan late last year – see: Minister And RNZ news boss breakfast at The Astoria. David Farrar has raised the issue again – see: Unwise meeting and answers.

Finally, on a related topic, my Newsroom column from yesterday calls for a debate about the murky role of PR and communications professionals and lobbyists, who also have a sideline in political commentary – see: ‘The conflicting interests of commentators.’

Related Video:  Susan Wood talks to Wayne Eagleson about political satff moving into lobbying.

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6 Comments & Questions

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Surely it is the employer of the lobbyist that should come under the microscope?
Paying someone to gain your business political favours is at best unethical.
Should be illegal but is probably both legal and tax deductible!!!

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Dont pretend to care about fairness and equity after that last election Mr Left your government has no credibility whatsoever with my viewpoint.
Respond to the referendum on smacking, the promises by the Right Honourable Winston Peters on that topic or be quiet.
If we tried in business what these politicians have done in government we would be facing charges for obtaining by deception.

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On the subject of "equity" I wonder if all the kiwis that get their homes smashed after the latest cyclone rolls through, will get the same thing from the current govt that the PM is doing at the moment... handing out countless millions of taxpayers money to pay for it all. Or will they just have to claim on their very high insurances, like most people that want to live a developed world lifestyle have too.

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Lifting the lid was the heading.......are you kidding ....there has never been a lid to lift.
It has always been open slather and still is.
What will change it is the the new line up in the National party.....they will make it much worse until the beans get spilt everywhere.

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It’s a strange thing in New Zealand that there is such a blind spot on conflict of interest. In the past as an employee of a regulating authority I found it incredible that officers of the authority thought it ok to take consulting work for industry members they were regulating. It also seems ok for people acting as authorities in other guises to take part in making decisions which could be favourable to them.
On the current issue.
Of course it is necessary for industries or companies to try to get the regulatory environment that best suits their business and most industry bodies regularly meet with parliamentarians to discus how legislation affects their sector. They are also free to publish anything that puts their point of view. However this needs to be an open process and not subject to inducements of any kind. The “lobbying” system as practised in the US is the complete antithesis of this and is something we should not accept if we are to retain our place on the corruption free ladder. The Lobbyist won’t stop as they get paid well so the only way to keep it clean to to instruct the politicians not to play.

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Wellington is a swamp of conflicted interests ... where's the news here?

Just let's stop sending them our money to squander on their unethical depravity. Or will Sir Michael Cullen's "tax review" deem it necessary to change bad behaviours, like being wealthy, more than ethical bad behaviours in Wellington?

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