Deal would be transparent under register

KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 25/04/2012
SkyCity convention centre concept
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SKY'S THE LIMIT: Prime Minister John Key has given the nod to SkyCity to build a convention centre. But what lobbying led to that decision?

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Exact details about how the controversial SkyCity deal came about may never be made public, but future wheelings and dealings could be more open. Plans for the convention centre are still being hashed out, but Labour leader David Shearer said the pact was signed in secret "behind taxpayers' backs".

Green Party MP Holly Walker's member's bill, recently drawn from the ballot, would require lobbyists to be registered and disclose their meetings with MPs.

Similar legislation exists in Australia, Canada and the United States.

The bill looks likely to make it to select committee with the support of National and Labour.

Most lobbyists seem unconcerned about having to step into the public spotlight. For some, it may even be good for business as it will highlight the level of access they have.

For others, such as Greenpeace's Nathan Argent, people already know what they're selling when meeting MPs.

"We campaign on behalf of protecting New Zealand's environment ... I think everybody's well aware of what our motivations are and what are the key issues that concern us, and those are the issues that we take to Parliament and try and get action on."

He welcomed greater transparency and said the growth in well-funded corporate lobbying in New Zealand was a concern – particularly considering the weakening of the Emissions Trading Scheme under the National Government.

But prominent lobbyist Mark Unsworth, of Wellington firm Saunders Unsworth, doesn't think the registry is necessary.

"In America you buy votes for policy: it's as simple as that. It's straight forward, open; it's corrupt as hell, but that's the way they operate in America.

"It's night and day from what we have here in New Zealand."

Mr Unsworth has no problem with the proposed changes, provided they apply to everyone who lobbies.

"If you think about it, every single person who goes to Parliament, they're not there to discuss how their marigolds are growing or their golf score, they're there for an issue."

The proposed legislation will cover anyone paid to lobby, whether they are consultants or in-house staff members whose job description includes lobbying.

Ms Walker said her bill, which is modelled on the Canadian version, contained a wide-ranging definition of lobbying.

"We happen to know in this case that the prime minister was meeting with lobbyists from SkyCity ... This [bill] would add to that transparency; we could see how many times did the prime minister sit down with them? Did they take him out for dinner? What were they discussing?"

Former NZ First MP Doug Woolerton, now a consultant lobbyist, wasn't worried about the implications for him, but said the bill could lead to restricted access.

"We are very careful not to yell about our clients and race around telling people about it and just deal quietly with politicians and go about our business, and they could see a problem there."

MPs would get used to the changes, as they had to over the disclosure of travel allowances and credit card expenses, he said.

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However, it was unlikely to create the transparency the Greens were hoping for. "People will use code. I'm not talking spies; [they'll say] `Visited such-and-such for this purpose' and the purpose will be very general."

Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway said some tightening up by MPs was likely and lobbying wasn't confined to the Beehive.

"I don't think you're going to stop people being able to talk, and nor should you. But the principle is that there's transparency."

Just how transparent things will become will be clear when the bill is introduced to Parliament.

If it goes as far as the American version, a quick search would show that dairy giant Fonterra paid Washington lobbyist Blank Rome US$10,000 (NZ$12,300) in the first three months of the year to lobby the US House of Representatives over food safety.

What meetings it had with the New Zealand Government is anyone's guess.

- The Dominion Post

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