Editorial: Shine a little light on lobbyists

Last updated 05:00 11/04/2012

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OPINION: The disclosure of ministers' credit card expenses has made a material difference to the way public money is spent. It is some time since a ministerial card was used to replenish a mini-bar or pay for a massage or blue movie.

Changes to electoral finance law have made it more difficult, but not impossible, for major donors to political parties to conceal their identities.

It is time similar attention was devoted to political lobbying, as proposed by new Green MP Holly Walker in a member's bill drawn from the parliamentary ballot that is likely to be debated later this year.

Writers of television drama credit lobbyists - the anonymous influence peddlers who shuttle backwards and forwards across the no-man's land between lawmakers and the public - with immense power. In fact, much of what they do is routine, bordering on the dull.

Nevertheless it is indisputable that lobbyists can wield disproportionate influence. In the United States the financial services sector spent US$3.4 billion (NZ$4.14 billion) lobbying federal lawmakers between 1998 and 2008. It is surely more than coincidence that their lobbying blitz coincided with the deregulation of the financial sector - a deregulation that enabled bankers to take greater risks, and make bigger profits, but eventually led to the global financial crisis.

Here, evidence of the impact of lobbyists is weaker, but that may be because lobbyists are not required to disclose who they are lobbying, how they are lobbying or who they are working for. But lobbyist charge-out rates - among the highest of any profession in the capital - suggest there is no shortage of clients wishing to retain their services.

Ms Walker's bill, inherited from former Green MP Sue Kedgley and modelled on Canada's public disclosure regime, would shine a light on this dim corner of public life by establishing a register of lobbyists and a code of conduct for them.

Debate can be had about the mechanics of the bill  who and what would be covered - and how it would be overseen.

The Greens have proposed that the auditor-general be put in charge of policing it. However, the principles underlying the proposal are solid.

Decisions about the law should be thrashed out in the debating chamber, not in fashionable Wellington eateries or corporate boxes.

Captains of industry, trade organisations and others with a vested interest in particular issues are entitled to make their views known to politicians and bureaucrats. In fact, they should be encouraged to do so. Often they are in possession of useful information. Who knows better than a car dealer what goes on in the motoring trade? Who better understands the workings of the labour market than employers and unions?

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However, the success or otherwise of their entreaties should be determined by the quality of their arguments, not by the quality of their lunches or, as legend has it in the era of import restrictions, by their ability to bump ministers up the waiting list for new cars.

- The Dominion Post

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