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…