Red Alert

Lobbyists and Transparency

Posted by on June 4th, 2011

Tracy Watkins has an interesting column in this morning’s Dominion Post about the rise of lobbyists and the lack of rules and transparency around them in the New Zealand political sphere. I agree with a lot of what she writes. Now unlike my friends and colleagues in the Greens, I don’t think a Minister’s decision-making is going to be swayed by a ticket to the rugby and a few sausage rolls, but I am concerned about the increasing number of lobbyists who seem to have unrestricted access to Parliament buildings and the lack of transparency around that.

I’ll be upfront right here and now and say that I’ve been to several sporting events at the invitation of corporate box owners, often joining MPs from other political parties. But I think MPs, and particularly ministers, need to be careful about which invitations they accept. For example, it would be a very bad look for Steven Joyce to be seen in a Telecom corporate box around the time he is making significant decisions on broadband. On the other hand, I can’t see there being any issue with National backbenchers accepting corporate hospitality from government banker Westpac. They’re not going to have any influence over whether the government banking contract is renewed anyway.

I think New Zealand has come a long way in recent years on issues around transparency. Our elected representatives are now subject to a quite stringent declaration of interests process, and some of the loopholes (for example the ‘annonymising’ trusts that Tracy refers to in her column) have actually been closed so that MPs can’t hide where they have their money stashed, unless they truly don’t know where it is themselves (in other words it’s in a blind trust, although I myself remain skeptical about just how ‘blind’ those trusts actually are).

However, I’d also point out that those who report on our activities aren’t subject to any such transparency, and I think that’s an area that we should also look at. I’ve met just as many press gallery journalists in corporate boxes at the Westpac Stadium as I have other MPs. Given they have huge influence over what the public get to know about the decision-making of elected leaders, why shouldn’t the journalists also have to be transparent about that? When journalists receive free travel, which they often do from the airlines, why shouldn’t they have to declare that? (I do acknowledge that many will put a small statement at the end of an article of someone else has paid for their airfares, but they are not obliged to do so by anything other than their own ethical standards).

With the government increasingly using military aircraft to get around the country and around the world, why shouldn’t the journalists who travel with them on those same flights have to be transparent about that? If we as the Opposition were to critiscise a Minister for using an airforce plane rather than a commercial plane, and the journalist covering that critiscism had also been a passenger on said military aircraft, surely their readers are entitled to know that?

I’ve had quite a bit to do with a number of press gallery journalists in my time working in politics and, for the most part, I think they’ve got incredibly high ethical standards. But I think most politicians do as well. If the fourth estate want to argue, as they do, that we can’t rely on a politician’s word and sense of ethics and we do, in fact, need more rigid and transparent rules around personal interests, why shouldn’t the same argument apply to those who report on our activities?

I think this is a really interesting area of discussion, and I congratulate Tracy for bringing it up. I’m looking forward to the phone ringing off the hook over the next 24 hours as her colleagues stampede to report my call of greater transparency on their part. Oh wait…


18 Responses to “Lobbyists and Transparency”

  1. Rog Chapman says:

    Perks for MP’s. Sorry but the NZ population is sick of the snouts in the trough hospitality that MP’s get. The cup of tea is fine, but when it comes to expensive corporate hospitality to top events then it is time you bowed out.

    If you want to go to the event, then pay for it like the rest of us.

    Corporate hospitality comes out of corporate profits which come from higher prices for the consumer.

    Labour should not get sucked in to this.

  2. Fran O'Sullivan says:

    Chris – NZ journalists do have high ethical standards and do disclose where a company picks up the tab for travel. Interesting point that you make about corporate entertainment. In my experience this is quite often reciprocated via the journalists’ employers who invite major players to their own hosted events. Certainly this is the case with APN, Fairfax, NBR, TVNZ.

  3. Dan says:

    Lobbying is not limited to corporates.

    I’ve seen many journalists disclose when flights or trips have been paid for, and I welcome that level of openness from all involved in both politics and journalism.

  4. Fran – I agree NZ journalists have high ethical standards and most seem to declare if their travel is paid for, that’s why I said that in the post above. You’ll also find an element of reciprocity between MPs and the people who host them at events. I’ve been out for dinner with people who have invited me to something earlier on and I’ve picked up the tab. I’ve also picked up the tab when out dining or drinking with journos from time to time too.

  5. Another related thought. I’ve just seem Russell Normal question why lobbyists should get more access to MPs than ordinary members of the public who can’t afford to pay do. In my experience, they don’t!

    I hold weekly clinics in my electorate where anyone can make an appointment to see me, and I also hold drop-in clinics where anyone can show up without appointment. I actually go to some lengths to do them in accessible places (local halls, libraries, cafes etc) so there are no barriers to local people meeting with me. Most other MPs I know do the same.

  6. Spud says:

    Your clinics sound great! :-D
    Good post too :-D :-D :-D

  7. Nick Taylor says:

    Here’s a list of laws governing corporations from 1800s America:

    http://www.genomicon.com/2011/04/a-few-modest-suggestions-revisited/

    Among them

    – Corporations were prohibited from making any political contributions, direct or indirect

    – The act of incorporation did not relieve corporate management or stockholders/owners of responsibility or liability for corporate acts

    Or in a nutshell, CEOs of corporations caught trying to bribe politicians go to prison.

    That’s all.

  8. Tigger says:

    Fran and Chris – travel yes, but declaration of other perks?

  9. Draco T Bastard says:

    On the other hand, I can’t see there being any issue with National backbenchers accepting corporate hospitality from government banker Westpac. They’re not going to have any influence over whether the government banking contract is renewed anyway.

    So, you’re admitting that a number of our elected representatives are being actively prevented from representing us?

    Actually, the whole thing read like a defense of MP privilege.

    Although, I agree, if the journos are getting gifts then they should be declared as well.

  10. Ard Righ says:

    I have to agree with Rog Chapman above, the issue isn’t whether a backbencher has influence over a decision, it’s the fact they’re accepting the perks at all in the first place.

    Chris, if you were a public servant, you would have no hope in hell of accepting any of the “perks” reciprocal or not, that MPs are currently given.

    Public servants have to declare and decline offers of any form of perk ranging from a $2 pen upwards. Get an invite to drinks? Sorry, not allowed to attend that, that’s against the rules.

    So if you’re going to be true to be ethical as politician, you’d decline the perks in whatever form they appear, and put yourself under the same rules as the rest of the Public Service, and then you’d have a better appreciation of what the average man sees with others having their ‘snout in the trough’.

  11. Nick Taylor – I personally support state funding of political parties and that could/should result in the influence of big money being significantly reduced, if not eliminated. It would also ensure that the democratic playing field is level.

    Tigger – it comes down to a question of scale. I tend to think that the $500 threshold might be too high, but suggesting that every glass of wine or cup of coffee I drink that I don’t pay for has to be declared would be over the top.

    Draco – No, just pointing out that the Executive are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day running of the govt, not backbenchers.

    Ard Righ – Public servants are regularly seen at social functions around town that they don’t pay to attend. As I said above, it’s a question of scale.

  12. Dobbie says:

    Does your Mum let you stay out late enough to go to the evening rugby with Westpac? Did she take you to Bon Jovi?

  13. tracey says:

    IF giving away stuff is not meant to influence the recipients, why would Westpac or anyone waste time and money on it? I mean that’s like saying “advertising doesn’t work”

  14. Ian says:

    “I don’t think a Minister’s decision-making is going to be swayed by a ticket to the rugby and a few sausage rolls”

    This is not the point. The point is not a conspiratorial one, and it does not reduce to concerns over bribes. The point is that these lobbyists gain a level of access to politicians and a forum to voice themselves that normal people do not have. And normal people do not have this access because they lack the resources that such lobbyists have at their disposal.

    “Given they have huge influence over what the public get to know about the decision-making of elected leaders, why shouldn’t the journalists also have to be transparent about that?”

    a) They should but this doesn’t deflect from that fact that politicians don’t disclose these things but should have to.

    b) I didn’t vote for them, but I did vote for you.

  15. Ian – I don’t agree that the general public don’t have the same level of access as lobbyists. In New Zealand most MPs, including Ministers, hold regular constituency clinics where anyone can come in and have a chat to us about whatever they want. I regularly accept invitations to events in my electorate where a meal is provided, should we turn these down too? That would actually result in the public having LESS access to their elected representatives.

    With regard to your last point, I’m not arguing there should be any lesser disclosure than there is now for politicians, in fact I’ve consistently supported greater transparency. I’m arguing there should also be greater transparency around the media and who may be influencing what people get to see/hear/read of the activities of their elected representatives.

  16. Marty says:

    On the parallel subject of public servants accepting “hospitality” – this is an area where extreme caution is necessary or else we move towards a situation where a public servant won’t do anything unless he/she receives a substantial gratuity – aka a bribe. When I was in the NZ Immigration office in Beijing in 2005 I saw a notice (in English) advising people not to offer any gifts or money to the officials as it was not acceptable and may be deemed offensive. The fact they need to even put up such a notice makes you think, doesn’t it.

  17. Barrie Saunders says:

    Chris

    A thoughtful piece but please note:

    (1) ID cards normally permit entry to the building, but not to secured areas, such as the Beehive and I believe Opposition Offices on the third floor of the main building. I only use mine when I have an appointment with an MP or staffer, unless I am attending a Select Committee.

    (2) The public and, other lobbyists without an ID card, can also can gain entry to Parliament to attend the Gallery and Select Committees, and, where they have an appointment, with MPs and staffers as well. There is in practice not a great deal of difference, but a card is a convenience for those people who are regular visitors, just as it is for regular visitors to restricted areas such as ports and government departments. I remember the era decades ago when anyone could wander through Parliament without being asked a question, but we all have to live with life post 9/11, irritating as that can be.

    There was much more reason to concerned about business lobbyists pre 1984 when so much business had subsidies or protection from competition, and Ministers could make decisions that materially impacted on their profits. There is much less of that today with our more open economy, to say nothing of the Official Information Act.

    The reference to the US was interesting but not very relevant because money in the US does play a very big role in the policy making process. I learned a lot about that in the late 1980s when I was the NZ Meat Board’s North American Director based ion New York, and spent a lot of time in DC with the Board’s lobbyist ed Farrell referred to in Tracy Watkins article. I have yet to see evidence of cash grants to parties or individuals materially affecting public policy in NZ.

    It should be noted the term lobbyist in the Sue Kedgely Bill is defined very broadly, and would affect hundreds or organisations including trade unionists and environmental groups such as Forest and Bird.

    If The Greens are seriously concerned about the issue, they could lead the way by putting on their website, all meetings and contacts with lobbyists and the issues etc as covered by their draft Bill.

    Regards

    Barrie Saunders

  18. Jason Brown says:

    “(I do acknowledge that many will put a small statement at the end of an article if someone else has paid for their airfares, but they are not obliged to do so by anything other than their own ethical standards).”

    Pretty much the same for political parties innit? Don’t political parties accept donations anonymously up to $10,000?

    Calling on journalists to declare relatively minor gifts is a bit rich when Labour and National have spent decades systematically stripping state broadcasting of assets and resources.

    If Labour is serious about scrutiny, then declare ALL donations – and STOP sacking journalists!