Lobbying bill a sledgehammer

DAVE HENDERSON
Last updated 12:07 08/11/2012

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OPINION: The idea of increasing transparency of decision-making at the parliamentary level has wide support among community and non-profit organisations.

In principle, the intention of Green MP Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill is widely acknowledged as good.

There is sound reasoning for bringing a measure of transparency and disclosure to lobbying activity in Parliament.

Ms Walker's presentation to the select committee considering the bill contains four guiding principles:

1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity.

2. Open and accessible government and Parliament is vital.

3. The public has a right to know who is lobbying MPs on which issues.

4. A lobbying disclosure regime needs to be practical, workable and fair.

No-one can disagree with these, but the bill before the House does not meet the last of the four. It is a sledgehammer for a nut.

What is being proposed doesn't differentiate between the so-called bad lobbyists and those organisations and individuals who are participating in a democratic right to discuss and put forward a particular point of view.

This latter group accounts for 95 per cent of the lobbying that takes place in New Zealand.

These discussions are often about informing MPs and officials on the impact of particular policies and issues in our communities. These are crucial to a functioning democracy.

The bill is in danger of stifling these discussions through bureaucracy. It appears to be written around an assumption that a few unidentified suppliers of independent advice are somehow acting inappropriately and thus need to be regulated.

Under the bill, the onus of responsibility for disclosure is on the organisations and individuals, rather than the MPs they are talking to. That means providing detailed documentation of all lobbying, even though lobbying by community organisations is already reported widely. They tell anyone who will listen what their views are.

The bill, if passed, will create an additional layer of bureaucracy with further compliance burdens on the severely strained resources of community organisations.

Many community organisations are struggling with static or reduced funding. They do not have the resources to report continually to the Government.

Accounting and auditing requirements for charities and community organisations are a great illustration of the unnecessary compliance burden. A new word has become part of their lexicon - they are over-audited.

At a huge cost to productivity, organisations are required to jump through many hoops to satisfy multiple auditors for multiple government agencies, all wanting slightly different reports, before they can get out there and do their job.

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This bill will keep charities and community organisations from fulfilling their purpose as they spend their time, our donations and taxpayer money creating lists of all their interactions with MPs.

How can this work when many people expect to see their MP at the supermarket on a Saturday or at the school fair on a Sunday?

There has been discussion about exempting charities and community organisations from the bill. But that will serve no-one well when many large corporations and businesses - which one assumes are the intended target - already have charitable trusts in place as a vehicle for their community sponsorships. Those trusts can just as easily be used as a vehicle for lobbying, making even more nonsense of the bill.

We need a regime that is fair and workable. That is why we are proposing that the auditor-general draft a regulation that requires ministers, when making announcements of significance, to place on the record all the advice they received in arriving at their decision. It would sit nicely alongside a code of ethics (and possibly also the complaints process) proposed in the bill.

It would also meet all four of the guiding principles.

Transparency about who is talking to whom is fine, but what we really need is a framework that allows you to have a friendly conversation with your MP on the street and not worry about whether your opinion could be defined as lobbying.

Dave Henderson is executive director of the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations of Aotearoa.

- The Dominion Post

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