People will never like the idea of lobbying. Like a lot of things that people instinctively don’t like, however, lobbying is rather essential to democracy. The right to make one’s opinion to the King – and by extension his ministers – is a democratic liberty so essential that it predates the right to vote by centuries.
This right must be balanced against the need for transparency and accountability in government. We have never really regulated lobbying in New Zealand and that’s something I’ve always preferred on the grounds that forcing lobbyists to register might discourage advocacy. Reading Guyon Espiner’s report today, however, and anticipating more to come leads me to think that we probably do need to establish some kind of public register to preserve faith in our public institutions.
Politics is becoming increasingly professionalised in New Zealand. As is not uncommon, we have lagged Australia in that regard. An unsurprising result is a continued “Australianisation” of politics as people in our country look to our bigger brothers for guidance on how to move forward.
But Australia is much more corrupt than New Zealand. We have our problems, of course, but we just lack the same culture of political sleaze and feather nesting that has always been a blight on things over the ditch. That gives us a trusting nature that probably does leave us too vulnerable to those eager to cash in on the public trust.
The other issue is our small size. In a country where everyone seems to know everyone, personal relationships can often come into play. This can create a reluctance among those involved in politics to speak out against or report on the activities of lobbyists if friendships are at stake.
The "high point" of all this came a few years ago when a lobbyist was appointed Jacinda Ardern's chief-of-staff, allowed to retain his financial stake in his lobbying job while advising the then prime minister on appointments(!) and not telling the prime minister who his clients had been(!!) and then, at the end of it, just return to being a lobbyist.
All of which was bizarre enough. The "meta" story, however, was how reluctant the media was to cover the story initially and how ineffective the belated coverage was. A pretty bad precedent was set that will be tempting for future prime ministers of all parties.
The only cure for that is a strict legal regime.
Regulations on lobbyists vary around the world, but they tend to have the same basic components:
- A requirement for lobbyists to register with a designated government agency, including their clients.
- Establishment of a code of conduct for lobbyists, including transparency, integrity, and confidentiality.
- Requirements for lobbyists to disclose their activities, including communications with public officials and expenditure on lobbying activities.
- A cooling-off periods for certain government officials before they can engage in lobbying activities.
If we wanted to get ahead of the game, I would also suggest that we also regulate former public employees and political staffers undertaking other consultancy work for government entities. We would not need to go as far as we would with lobbyists in terms of detailed registers. A few commercially sensible protections for taxpayers against the costs of having consultocrats constantly in and out of the revolving door would suffice.