Arrival of Australian political lobbying firm in NZ raises questions about oversight
ANALYSIS: An Australian company known for a "completely partisan" approach to politics has become the latest lobbying firm to set up shop in New Zealand. Do we need to know more about which MPs Kiwi lobbyists are meeting, and why?
While MPs routinely find themselves near the bottom of New Zealand's "most trusted profession" rankings, it seems fair to assume that the people who lobby them for favours would occupy a similar spot, were they included.
The 2014 Dirty Politics scandal revealed links between paid lobbyists and National Party-friendly bloggers, while Labour came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed leader Andrew Little dined with drug company lobbyists just months before the party changed its medicine-purchasing policy.
In that light, it's unsurprising that the arrival of a new, Australian lobbying firm in Wellington is not being greeted with open arms by everybody.
Jenna Raeburn, the founding director of Barton Deakin's New Zealand division, denies the firm is unwanted or unneeded, saying it operates under a unique model.
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As Raeburn describes it, the company will be "completely partisan", focussing solely on the National Party rather than working across both sides of the political divide.
Mark Unsworth, partner of Saunders Unsworth – perhaps New Zealand's most well-known lobbying firm – says he's "very relaxed" about Barton Deakin's entry into the country.
'DONKEY DEEP' IN PARTY POLITICS
Unsworth says the Australian firm's partisan approach is "miles apart" from how things work here, largely due to the size of the respective countries.
"Because New Zealand is smaller, [lobbyists] have to work right across the political spectrum – they have to have contacts with Winston [Peters] and the Greens and all of that."
In fact, Unsworth says some Australian firms go as far as fundraising for "their" political parties and involving themselves in leadership challenges.
"They get donkey deep into the politics and the internal management of the political parties, and ... that generally doesn't happen here."
He's sceptical about how the model will translate to New Zealand, saying firms could face "a lot of time in the wilderness" if they deal with only one group.
'PRIVILEGED ACCESS' TO MPS
While Barton Deakin's method may be new, its launch raises some familiar questions about how close lobbyists are to our politicians – and why we don't know more about who they meet.
During her time in Parliament, former Green Party MP Sue Kedgley pushed for a law change to establish a public register and disclosure regime for lobbyists.
Kedgley says knowing more about how lobbyists work, and who they meet, is essential to understanding what she describes as "privileged access" to politicians.
"Corporations and people with money end up having undue influence over policy in New Zealand ... it just means that they're going to be the ones that politicians end up listening to, rather than the voices of ordinary New Zealanders."
She says New Zealand lags behind many other countries, such as Australia and Canada, which require lobbyists to register themselves and file returns.
NO 'COOLING OFF' PERIOD
In addition to their skills, lobbyists often bring a thick contact book and strong connections to politicians.
Raeburn spent more than five years working for the National Party, most recently as a ministerial staffer for Gerry Brownlee.
Her turnaround from government to lobbying was swift – she was in Brownlee's office one week, and at Barton Deakin the next.
New Zealand has no "cooling-off" period for political staffers moving to lobbying roles, as in other countries, but Raeburn says confidentiality requirements in the contracts of ministerial staff stop them from telling all.
"It's not like you can just turn around and pick up a client straight away and tell them everything that you knew when you were in the minister's office the month before."
Raeburn is also the partner of National backbench MP Chris Bishop, and says the couple discussed her move and how to handle any conflicts of interest.
"We did talk about it: I don't think it will reflect unfavourably on him, as long as we are sensible about it.
"We've both always worked in and around politics, and Wellington's a very small place ... you both understand there are things you can and can't talk about at home."
LOBBYING REGISTER 'RED TAPE'
Lobbyists supporting regulation seems as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas, but both Raeburn and Unsworth claim they're not opposed to the concept.
Raeburn says Barton Deakin is used to operating under more stringent regulations in Australia, and the company would back greater transparency and regulation to deal with the "shady operations out there".
"Actually having a code of conduct or register of lobbyists wouldn't bother us too much at all ... we'd be perfectly equipped to do that here as well."
Unsworth is more ambivalent: his firm's website lists its current and former clients, but he wonders whether the "red tape" of logging phone calls and meetings would outweigh any benefits.
"If you have to say, every time you pick up the phone and ring a minister's office and talk to 'Tim Smith' about something, that you had to register that, that's a bit of red tape which I don't think adds any value to democracy by knowing that."
'WE DON'T PUT OUT MPS ON PEDESTALS'
Unsworth says New Zealand's "small and close-knit community" means everybody knows lobbyists' backgrounds and who they talk to.
"Everybody knows everybody, and you can bump into an MP in the Koru Lounge, or Lambton Quay or the A&P show or the opening of a bowling club or something like that.
"We don't put our MPs on pedestals and treat them like gods as some other countries do."
However, Kedgley says that explanation doesn't cut it.
"It's true that in Parliament you consistently see some of those most active lobbyists wandering around the corridors, but you didn't know who they were seeing, what sort of influence they were having on policy."
She says a register and disclosure regime would introduce openness and transparency into the shady world of lobbying.
"Ideally when there was legislation, a minister would be able to say, 'Well, I've met with', if it was alcohol reform or something, 'Well, I've met with the liquor industry five times, and I've met with Alcohol Watch once', and that sort of thing."
LOBBYING RECOMMENDATIONS IGNORED
While Kedgley and others are keen on greater oversight, previous attempts to rein lobbyists in have stumbled.
In 2013, Green MP Holly Walker's Lobbying Disclosure Bill, an amended version of Kedgley's original draft, was rejected by a parliamentary committee due to fears of "unintended consequences", including whether it would discourage ordinary Kiwis from speaking to MPs.
The committee made recommendations for "non-legislative alternatives", including developing guidelines for MPs on how to handle communications related to parliamentary business, and being more transparent about the role of lobbyists in the policy-making process.
However, it appears little, if anything, has been done to make those a reality.
The Clerk's Office says it has not been approached by any MPs regarding the development of guidelines, while a spokeswoman for Regulatory Reform Minister Steven Joyce says the recommendations regarding transparency would be considered "in due course" – although he has been encouraging a more "open book" approach to regulatory changes.
THE RULES OVERSEAS
• Third-party lobbyists who wish to lobby government representatives must register and observe a code of conduct. Former ministers and senior public servants must observe a cooling off period before they can become lobbyists.
• Lobbyists must file returns and observe a code of conduct, and breaches of the law may incur fines or imprisonment. Some public office holders must observe a cooling off period before they can become lobbyists.
• The European Commission and the European Parliament expect lobbyists to register in a joint transparency register. Those who register can get long-term access to Parliament, but breaches of a code of conduct may result in deregistration and withdrawal of access. Lobbying activities by former European commissioners are restricted during a cooling off period.
• Lobbyists who lobby the executive or legislative branches have to register and file returns, with fines and imprisonment for breaches. Cooling off periods apply to lobbying by former officers, employees and elected officials.