The rise and rise of lobbyists

It is either deeply ironic, or hugely worrying, that it is easier to find out which ears New Zealand businesses are bending in Washington than Wellington.

We know, for instance, that Jeff McMillen, with law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, has lobbied the United States government on behalf of LanzaTech, a company with a Parnell address. His brief was to lobby Capitol Hill on biofuel taxes. And Mr McMillen is not the only fish promoting New Zealand interests in a big pool of about 35,000 Washington-based lobbyists, the best of whom are on big retainers and hefty annual salaries.

Ed Farrell is a registered lobbyist for Fonterra, as well as Meat and Wool New Zealand (now known as Beef + Lamb New Zealand). He was among a group who met members of the Office of Management and Budget last December, according to meetings records.

Others to lobby on Fonterra's behalf include Warren Maruyama, Jonathan Stoel and Clayton Yeutter, counsel to one of America's largest law firms and a former US Trade Representative. A team of four lobbyists were registered as acting on behalf of a lesser-known company, which also happens to list an Auckland address, ReSRC. They listed federal sales of information technology and the "layer-2 cyber security network appliance" as their client's business.

What – other than an Auckland mailbox address – has that got to do with us? Only that compared with Washington – where a succession of corruption scandals have forced legislative efforts to rein in the powerful lobbying industry – New Zealand looks like the Wild West.

It is relatively easy to find out which doors Fonterra's lobbyists have been through in Washington. Here, the only way the media or a member of the public can access such information would be to go through the laborious Official Information Act and, even then, requests for diaries and details of appointments are easily thwarted by a ministerial office that knows how to keep awkward or sensitive meetings under the radar.

This week the Greens raised questions about ministers and ministerial staffers accepting tickets to pop concerts and corporate boxes from Westpac Bank, which is seeking to retain a lucrative government banking contract.

Should we be worried? On the surface, no. It stretches credulity to believe that ministers would instruct Treasury to award the contract to Westpac in the hope that a few more Bon Jovi tickets and box seats for the rugby sevens would flow their way.

But at a deeper level, the Greens have raised a legitimate concern. Corporate boxes are not all about the rugby. They are also places where the movers and shakers gather to flap their lips about issues of the day. There is nothing particularly sinister about that, so long as ministers and their staffers also take soundings in the wider community – at school field days, down at the shops, even from the occasional soup kitchen line.

But as the army of lobbyists grows, the lack of rules around disclosure – not just about what sort of hospitality our ministers accept, but the lack of any sort of transparency about who is talking to who – should worry us all.

The recent WikiLeaks cables reveal why; several detail the extent to which the powerful US pharmaceutical industry – which spent hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to block US healthcare reforms – also sought to influence drug-pricing policy in New Zealand.And the issue hasn't gone away. The US Government – heavily lobbied by the US drug industry – wants Pharmac's drug-buying monopoly scrapped as the price of the trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Have the drug firms also been beating a path to our Government's door? We don't know.

PRIME Minister John Key brushed off the Greens' concerns by pointing to the Register of Pecuniary Interests, a relatively recent stab at forcing some rudimentary disclosure out of MPs. But the register has been of only limited success in forcing MPs to open their financial dealings up to scrutiny. It is far too easy for MPs to pay lip service to the requirement that they list their financial interests by shovelling all their assets into a trust. Consequently, that is what many of them do.

On the issue of corporate gifts and hospitality, meanwhile, transparency is all but non-existent, since most of it falls under the $500 declaration threshold.

That might have done for us once, when MPs believed we were all obliged to trust unquestioningly in the convention that a "member's word is his bond".

But in this day and age, such notions are as patronising as they are out of date in an age where the number of people seeking to peddle influence and plant their "message", not just with government ministers, but ministerial office staffers, grows by the day.

They are not all called lobbyists – their titles range from public relations consultant, strategic adviser, corporate adviser and in-house "government relations" managers.

The highest profile among them is probably constitutional lawyer Mai Chen but others who operate a bit lower under the radar include Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton, Sky TV's Tony O'Brien – a frequent face in Parliament's Copperfields Cafe – and veteran schmoozers Barrie Saunders and Mark Unsworth. Mr Unsworth has been fingered by economist Gareth Morgan as the face of the anti-Pharmac campaign in New Zealand.

Former ACT MP Stephen Franks emerged as a new face on the scene when his law firm was revealed as acting for Don Brash during the recent leadership stoush. He even sat in on Dr Brash's first meeting with John Key after ousting Rodney Hide.

But he is not the only ex-MP swelling the ranks of lobbyists. Others are media favourite Katherine Rich (who, I'll admit it, has been known to ply us press gallery journalists with treats like jam and chocolates in her role with the Food and Grocery Council), former National MP Roger Sowry and former NZ First MP Doug Woolerton.

The ex-MPs have one advantage over many of their rivals – they can retain access to the parliamentary precinct by applying for photo access cards from the Speaker, though the card does not give them free range through ministerial offices.

But they are not alone in being allowed this privilege; Speaker Lockwood Smith also has the discretion to grant photo ID cards to select lobbyists.

Because Parliamentary Service is exempt from the Official Information Act, there is no way to force public disclosure of which lobbyists receive these cards. But the likes of Mr O'Brien, Mr Saunders and Mr Unsworth are almost certain to have them.

Worryingly, the rise of the lobbyist also happens to coincide with growing restrictions on the ability of accredited journalists – traditionally the eyes and ears of the public within the parliamentary precinct – to move freely around the complex.

New rules imposed by the Speaker mean journalists are no longer able to visit an MP in their office unless they are signed in by security – severely curtailing the potential for confidential meetings – or ask MPs questions in the corridors without their permission.

THIS is in stark contrast to the US, for instance, where press freedoms are a fundamental right. When I arrived at the office of US Senator John McCain in Washington with former foreign minister Winston Peters a few years ago, for instance, a posse of photographers were sitting lined up outside his door. At that time a potential presidential contender, Mr McCain was considered public property. The photographers snapped whoever was visiting him on the off-chance they might be important (we weren't).

In the US, the Lobbying Disclosure Act 1995 requires lobbyists to register and list which companies they act for – and the law now also requires that this information be available online.

Corruption scandals forced further changes in 2007 under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The act banned gifts from lobbyists and restricted privately funded travel, among other measures. And as one of his first acts on making it to the White House, Barack Obama started publicly releasing the log of visitors to the West Wing.

The perception may still remain that Washington is a "poison tree of corruption". And the best-connected lobbyists will always find a way around the rules – apparently coffee shops are a favoured meeting place now.

But any sort of rules are a good start.

The Dominion Post