Inside political lobbying

03:16, Jul 17 2011
Shout or whisper: The mining protests worked with people power.

On a wall in lawyer Mai Chen's messy and crowded Wellington offices, there's a framed cartoon from the mid-1990s. It shows her as a fresh-faced young lobbyist, strolling alongside her then-colleague Geoffrey Palmer as he rhapsodises about the arrival of the MMP voting system: "Change, upheaval, confusion, uncertainty – life is good."

Fifteen years later, the world is still a changing, confusing and uncertain place, which is why business is booming for the hyper-confident Chen and her lobbying firm (she bought former Prime Minister Palmer out long ago). Businesses are still happy to pay grand sums for someone to be translator in their baffling encounters with officials. Chen can do that and, if things go really well, a client might even see government policy bend their way.

The reason such gun-for-hire lobbyists exist, says Chen, is that "business thinks that government is completely useless – brown cardigans, a handbrake on business, 'just say no"'. Meanwhile, public servants think business is all about "suits" who want to make money at all costs, and sod the public interest.

Mai Chen prefers "public lawyer'' to lobbyist.

In the face of this mutual incomprehension, says Chen, "both sides need to learn to work with each other". That's where she comes in.

It sounds like a social service when she puts it like that. But somewhere along the way, the word lobbyist has picked up a bit of a nasty smell (indeed Chen, though routinely referred to as one of the country's "most influential lobbyists", insists she's not one – she's actually a "public lawyer").

Green MP Sue Kedgley hopes to remove at least some of the stench with a Member's Bill calling for a Lobbyist Code of Conduct and a register of their interactions with government.


Barrie Saunders.

The bill is unlikely to be considered before the November election, but nonetheless, as pre-election deal-making and jockeying for position heats up, the influence of lobbyists is set to come under closer scrutiny.

But what, precisely, is a lobbyist?

The term is said to have been coined by 19th-century United States president Ulysses S Grant, to describe the wheelers and dealers who would lurk in the lobby of Washington DC's Willard Hotel in the hope of pressing their case with him, and the word has never shaken off that suggestion of mild harassment.

Katherine Rich

In its broadest sense, lobbying could mean simply writing a letter to your MP asking for a new bus stop, but it's generally thought of as something more focused than that. Barrie Saunders, another big beast on Wellington's lobbying savannah, reckons NGOs like Greenpeace and Forest and Bird, as well as labour unions and social organisations, should be considered lobbyists, which seems reasonable enough.

But the lobbyists that inspire the most concern, even loathing, are the ones who look after the interests of business.

There are the consultant lobbyists like Chen or Saunders. There are single-company in-house lobbyists like Sky's Tony O'Brien. There are the fulltime representatives of corporate umbrella-groups, such as Business NZ's Phil O'Reilly. There are federations of every imaginable size representing farmers and manufacturers, winegrowers and supermarkets, telecoms and apple exporters, universities and synthetic-cannabis importers.

Wellington activist and writer Jeremy Pope, a co-founder of the global corruption-monitoring organisation Transparency International, says while you can argue that lobbying is just a normal part of democracy, the lack of transparency in New Zealand is "an accident waiting to happen. No one knows how many there are and who they're lobbying for and who they're lobbying to".

A register like the one Kedgley proposes would make it easier to keep track of who corporate lobbyists are talking to, says Pope.

New Zealand tends to come out well in Transparency International's corruption rankings, but Pope says there have been dark times in the past.

"We still don't really know what happened when the [1980s] privatisation binge took place. All we know is it was disastrous and a relatively small number of people ended up with money that had previously been public goods. Obviously there was lobbying going on there."

In the absence of New Zealand figures, Kedgley says overseas figures are still instructive. In Australia there are an estimated 1000 professional lobbyists – four per MP. In Europe, says Kedgley, the food lobby spent a billion euros fighting a "traffic-light" food labelling system aimed at tackling obesity. In the UK, David Cameron campaigned on cleaning out the muck from parliamentary lobbying, and similarly in the US, Barack Obama has indulged in some fighting talk about getting lobbyists out of the White House. The US is considered the home of lobbying excess, despite a strict system of registration, with tens of thousands of lobbyists openly squirting hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign contributions and slush funds in exchange for policy.

Those with an innate suspicion of lobbyists don't have to look far to see their works.

When the government revealed last month that it would soften gambling laws in exchange for SkyCity building a $350 million conference centre in Auckland, lobbyists were presumed to have brokered deals behind closed doors – it turns out dialogue between SkyCity and John Key on the issue was under way as early as November, 2009.

When the government ignored Law Commission suggestions on liquor law reform, or when it reversed Labour's obesity-busting school-pie ban, obviously the booze and junk-food lobbyists had won the day. Pick any law that's changed, or failed to change, and there's a lobbyist somewhere you might want to blame.

But is that really true? And if so, does it even matter?

A FEW HUNDRED metres south of the Beehive, along The Terrace, are the comfortable, but un-flashy offices, of Saunders and Unsworth, the firm Saunders founded in 1994 with Mark Unsworth, another major-league lobbyist who long ago was private secretary to Labour's David Caygill.

Saunders, 66, is a regulation-hating "freedom guy", whose eyes still open wide in arousal as he recalls Roger Douglas's free-market "Revolution" of 1984.

Quite simply, lobbying is good for democracy, says Saunders. It speeds things up and saves MPs and officials a lot of work.

A good lobbyist knows how the political system works, knows who's who and, crucially, can help a client demonstrate their desired policy is good not just for them, but also for the country. And if there simply isn't a "public interest" to be found, you might as well give up at the outset.

But do the professionals go too far when smoothing the way for politicians? For instance, there's long been a rumour that the Business Roundtable more or less wrote the draft of National's union-bashing Employment Contracts Act of 1991, which eviscerated the Roundtable's traditional foe. Saunders worked for the Roundtable from 1990 to 1998. Is the rumour true?

Saunders grins, and says, in his best Sir Humphrey paraphrase, "I couldn't possibly comment on that ... You'd have to talk to Roger Kerr."

Somehow, that doesn't seem necessary.

Hypothetically, though, if a lobbyist was delivering a pre-concocted piece of legislation to a government and it got used, would Saunders consider that to be unethical?

Unsworth helps out: "Trade unions do it for Labour."

Saunders adds: "This is just part of the democratic process. It reduces transaction costs to the government. Imagine if the government had to deal with every single worker, every single meat company, every single car dealership."

He can give an example of brilliant lobbying. In the early 2000s he lobbied, on behalf of the Association of New Zealand Advertisers, in favour of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals. DTCA is banned everywhere except New Zealand and the US, in part because of fears that it leads people to demand prescriptions they don't need.

As Saunders says – with a grin now so broad it threatens to split his face – this was an issue on which "the journalists were negative; the medical profession was negative in the main, and medical academics were negative".

He lobbied on undaunted.

"The argument I used for politicians was not that DTCA was good – I could see pluses and I could see minuses... I said even if it does have negative consequences, those negative consequences are not so great that they justify infringing freedom of speech."

Is any cause too dodgy? Tobacco, say?

Eight years ago Philip Morris rang Saunders, and he agreed to take them on, but "only if they didn't argue on the health issues. I'm a fanatically anti-smoking person, but I said yes. I'm a freedom guy. This product is legal".

The Philip Morris relationship ended three years ago, when a partner left and took the client with him.

Did the ethics of helping the tobacco industry bother Saunders?

"Quality of argument is the ethical issue," he says, mystifyingly.

He has an analogy. "The New Zealand taxpayer is paying, every week, lawyers to defend criminals. They're entitled to a defence. People are entitled to a fair hearing."

Unsworth has something to add on the subject of ethical stances: "I tipped a glass of orange juice over a cigarette on a plane once."

SAUNDERS HAS done this job for decades, and his firm's client list is extensive, from pharmaceutical companies to universities to banks, and even a few governmental bodies such as ACC and MFat. The casual charge-out rate is $400 an hour.

Yet he says this: "The day that money can buy public policy in New Zealand is the day I quit this business."

Eh? Isn't that precisely what professional lobbying is: clients spending lots of money in the hope of influencing the outcome of a political process?

"I want to win on facts and logic," says Saunders. "When I come up against money, I don't want to be in that business."

This is getting confusing, but Unsworth steps in.

"The classic earlier this year was mining on DoC land. There probably wasn't a vast amount of money on the Greenpeace side, but they were victorious. That side was passionate and provided voluntary labour – they'll often win."

In fact, says Saunders, business needs a helping hand from lobbyists because the promotion of business interests isn't necessarily a vote-winner for a politician.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager finds such concern for the poor old business sector risible. Hager, whose 1999 book Secrets and Lies anatomised the dubious lobbying and PR tactics used by the logging industry, says while public opinion is indeed powerful, many issues that are lobbied on never reach public attention.

"If Greenpeace is trying to make progress on a mining issue they go out in public, and if they get the public on their side, they're going to win.

"But with an industry lobby group – [often] the first thing to consider is how to keep the whole thing quiet, so they don't have the obstacles of the media and public being involved."

No one is seriously suggesting that, in New Zealand, money changes hands in a corrupt way. But Hager says few NGOs can match the financial ability of a business to hire lobbyists.

"Money buys influence. Having experienced, well-connected, on-the-spot, vigorous, five-days-a-week, all-year specialists pushing your point of view ... means any lobby that can afford to pay is in a completely different position from a community group."

Someone who spent a lifetime being lobbied is Michael Cullen, who, before retiring from politics in 2008, was finance minister and deputy PM, and had been an MP for 28 years.

He sees paid lobbyists as a useful, but inessential, part of the "rich tapestry" of democracy, who can be helpful in presenting the science, or in familiarising an MP with the different perspectives around an issue.

He has sometimes wondered about their fees though.

"You see them bring their clients to see us and charging an arm and a leg for the opportunity, where in fact the client could have just phoned the office and said `I want to see Michael'. For anybody vaguely serious, the answer would have been yes."

He tends to agree with Saunders, though, on the ability of NGOs to counter business-backed lobbying.

"Some of the environmental lobby groups are very well organised and tend to have, how shall we say, deeply implanted listening devices within the machinery of government itself. They usually have a hell of a good idea about what's going on."

While lobby groups might apply pressure in the hope of changing policy, Cullen said he didn't feel pushed around by them.

Like everyone interviewed for this article, Cullen said overt financial corruption is rare in New Zealand.

The only time in his career something "made my eyebrows go up in that sense" was when he was a novice Labour candidate in Dunedin, campaigning against the building of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana.

"There was a sort of hint that if I changed my position, maybe my campaign funding might be a little bit assisted. But I didn't change my position."

Asking a politician to do something dodgy just doesn't make sense, says Chen. Apart from anything else, nothing stays secret for long. "Presume that everything done under the cover of darkness will be yelled from the mountain tops. If it's going to embarrass the politicians, just don't ask them to do it."

Sunday Star Times