The number of paid lobbyists with their own parliamentary
swipe card has increased dramatically in the past year. So
too has the whiff of cronyism and corporate influence in the
affairs of state. Is our democracy under threat? Do we have
the tools to really know? Bruce Munro investigates.
It was a moment of rare and glistening insight.
The prime minister rose in Parliament last week, expected to
rebuff suggestions people could buy potentially beneficial
access to government ministers.
Instead, in eight sentences, each captured for perpetuity by
Hansard scribes, John Key appeared to say, in essence, ''We
all do it. Do you want everyone to know?''
''Political parties right across Parliament attend events
that are fundraising events,'' John Key said as he stood
across the debating chamber from his accuser, Labour MP Chris
''People always have interests - of course they do; that is
the real world,'' Mr Key continued, a smile spreading across
''In the same way, the Labour Party accepted $60,000 from
Phillip Mills - Labour and the Greens accepted $60,000 and
$65,000 respectively - and very soon afterwards the Labour
Party started promoting green growth.
''We know that Shane Jones, for instance, had his leadership
bid funded in part by the oil and gas sector and, again, very
soon came out and started talking about that.
''I have quite a long list. If Labour members really want to
invite me to table all of those, they are welcome to do
that,'' he added, smile hardening.
''But I just make one little warning to them: do not go
''But if you want me to, I am more than happy to.''
It seems to have had the desired effect. Except for Winston
Peters' insubstantial claim he had information that would
force embattled MP Judith Collins from office, politicians
have fallen strangely silent this week after more than a
month of allegations, revelations and counterclaims about
cronyism, lobbying and back-room deals.
Perhaps they are just drawing breath. Or, they may well have
been cowed by the threat of their collective dodgy laundry
being aired. But from the wider electorate, the resounding
response to the prime minister's threat is likely to be:
''Yes, tell us. Tell all.''
Because, although New Zealand has a comparatively robust and
accountable system of government, there is a growing disquiet
that where there is the smell of smoke, it would be prudent
to suspect fire.
Questionable cases abound.
• Last year, the Government announced details of its deal to
soften gambling laws in exchange for SkyCity building and
operating a $350 million conference centre in Auckland.
• Last month, it became apparent Michael Hill's international
celebrity golf tournaments near Queenstown had received $2
million of taxpayers' money with the support of Minister of
Business, Innovation and Employment Steven Joyce. It was also
reported the tournament's backers had presented their case
directly to senior ministers after the Major Events
Investment Panel could not decide about the funding.
• A fortnight ago, National MP Maurice Williamson resigned
over a telephone call made to a top-ranking police officer
about domestic violence charges brought against wealthy
businessman and National Party donor Donghua Liu. Mr
Williamson said he had no intention of influencing the case,
but John Key accepted his resignation and said the phone call
had been a ''significant error of judgement''.
• Last week, embattled Justice Minister Judith Collins took a
few days' leave from Parliament after facing weeks of
political and media scrutiny over a trip to China last year
during which she visited the office of Oravida and dined with
the dairy company's bosses. Oravida employs her husband and
has given tens of thousands of dollars to the National Party.
Ms Collins disputes claims her visit was a conflict of
• Also last week, claims that National's Cabinet Club
fundraisers were in effect ''cash for access'' events turned
into a two-way mudslinging match over potentially dodgy deals
by the Government, Labour and the Green Party.
Adding to the haze of questions, the number of lobbyists with
free access to Parliament has skyrocketed in the past year.
Updated this month, the ''Approved visitor list to
Parliament'' has mushroomed from 25 people last year to 63
The list of those given their own swipe card to enter
Parliament without the usual security checks is heavily, but
not exclusively, populated by professional paid lobbyists
seeking to influence politicians to the point of view of
their organisation or client.
Among those on the list are Business NZ chief executive Phil
O'Reilly; Sky Television's Tony O'Brien and Chris Major; Air
New Zealand's Phil de Joux, who used to be John Key's deputy
chief of staff; Anadarko's Anita Ferguson, who was Steven
Joyce's press secretary; and Fonterra's Nicola Willis, who
was an adviser and speech-writer for Mr Key. There is also
New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly and
secretary Peter Conway, and Food and Service Workers Union's
Making up almost a third of the list are a group going by
various job titles, including third-party lobbyists, public
lawyers and government relations consultants. They include
Saunders Unsworth's Barry Saunders, Charles Finny and Mark
Unsworth; SenateSHJ's Scott Campbell; Silvereye's Jo
Coughlan, who was a press secretary to the National
government's minister of foreign affairs in the mid-1990s;
Franks and Ogilvie's Jordan Williams, who was spokesman for
anti-MMP lobby group Vote for Change; and Webling Media's
Brent Webling, who was press director for former minister of
justice Simon Power and whose clients include food industry
lobby group the Food and Grocery Council.
The approved list is by no means an exhaustive chronicle of
government lobbyists in New Zealand. For example, former MPs
regularly swell the ranks of influence-peddlers and, because
of their previous role, have unfettered access to Parliament.
Others operate without the swipe card.
The questions this fuzzy picture poses are important. Are our
politicians behaving ethically? Do all citizens have an equal
voice? Is money or relationship giving some people an
increasing ability to influence political decisions or even
obtain favourable laws?It is hard to tell, say those in the
Dr Bryce Edwards, who is a politics lecturer at the
University of Otago, says lobbying, in its broadest sense, is
positive because it helps politicians get feedback and
information from citizens. But how well, or badly, it is
operating in New Zealand is difficult to know. New Zealand
has no regulations specific to lobbying, he says.
''Those with wealth and connections to politicians will
obviously have more ability to influence their [politicians']
decisions. But it's very hard to measure this or to estimate
what the extent of the problem is.''
It is a view shared by Associate Prof Michael Macaulay, who
is deputy director of the Institute for Governance and Policy
Studies, Victoria University.
There is nothing wrong with people being able to access
political decision-makers. But how that translates to
influence is an extremely foggy area, Prof Macaulay says.
That question was under the spotlight during this week's
Lobbying Roundtable, organised by Victoria University.
Yesterday, a handful of academics, politicians and lobbyists
discussed possible risks to the democratic process posed by
lobbying, and whether regulation might be needed.
Some say they can see no problem.
Todd Barclay is the recently resigned lobbyist for tobacco
giant Philip Morris and now National's Clutha-Southland
candidate, replacing Bill English, for whom he worked as an
intern in 2009.
The tobacco firm asked Mr Barclay whether he had political
aspirations when he started the government relations role. He
told them he did. Lobbyists play an important role helping
business and government understand each other, Mr Barclay
''It's a wise investment for those businesses operating in a
But he disagrees with the suggestion those who can afford to
pay for lobbying have a disproportionate influence.
''At the end of the day, it is one voice,'' he says.
''The voice of the lobbyist certainly doesn't have any more
influence than a general member of the public.''
The same view is expressed by former Dunedin-based National
MP Katherine Rich, who is head of the large lobby group, the
Food and Grocery Council. In 2012, Ms Rich's council role
elicited allegations of a conflict of interest when she was
given a seat on the new Health Promotion Agency board. Mr Key
defended her appointment.
''New Zealand has one of the most accessible, stable and
engaging political decision-making systems in the world,'' Ms
''Anyone who has a view can share it with decision-makers.''
Equally unequivocal is National's Waitaki MP, Jacqui Dean.
''I have no concerns,'' Mrs Dean said.
''I listen without fear or favour, and reserve the right to
make my own decision.''
Others say they do see cause for concern.
Last week, Minister of Internal Affairs Peter Dunne told
international leaders gathered for the Open Government
Partnership meeting in Bali that New Zealand had a ''proud
tradition of openness and transparency''.
We were first-equal out of 177 countries in Transparency
International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Mr Dunne
What he failed to declare was that coins always have two
sides. While perceptions put us on top, the same
organisation's report on New Zealand's National Integrity
System urged ''serious and urgent action ... to protect and
extend integrity in New Zealand''.
The report, released in December, identifies the power of
Cabinet and unregulated lobbying as two of several areas of
''Strengthening of Parliament's role as a check on the
dominance of the executive is necessary,'' the report states.
''Parliament seems reluctant to support changes in the law to
address new integrity risks ... Parliamentarians have not
adopted a formal code of conduct, and Parliament has recently
declined proposals for legislation to regulate lobbying or
for independent oversight of MP's travel expenses.''
Dr Edwards says New Zealanders should be, and are, concerned
about professional lobbying.
Prof Macaulay worries that concern, even if it is only
partially justified, will deepen people's cynicism about our
Labour's Dunedin North MP Dr David Clark was alerted to
another threat during a visit to the United States.
''We don't have a terrible situation yet in New Zealand. But
my fear is that as parliamentary staff funding slowly
diminishes relative to the cost of staffing offices, we could
eventually end up in a situation like the United States,
where drafting of legislation is done by lobby groups,'' Dr
''That would be a terrible situation to be in ... The
corporation has more say than the individual.''
In the US, where congressional staff are stretched, lobbyists
offer to help lawmakers, including offering to draft
legislation. In October, the US House of Representatives
passed a Bill that rolled back some restrictions on banking
introduced after the global financial crisis. It has since
emerged that wording in the final legislation was nearly
identical to language suggested by lobbyists from Citigroup -
one of the banks that benefits from the roll-back.
In New Zealand, Parliamentary Services full-time equivalent
staff numbers have dropped 3% since 2008. Funding of
Parliamentary Services has decreased 1.4% in nominal terms
during the same period, a marked decrease in real terms.
Are government and business in this country too closely
aligned or even entwined? Perhaps not, if the corporate
sector is regarded as the cornerstone and torch-bearer for
Early on in the Oravida saga, Ms Collins defended her actions
as responsible, even laudable.
She had simply been assisting New Zealand Inc, as ministers
were expected to do whenever they were overseas, she said.
What though of checks and balances? In the US politics is so
dominated by powerful business organisations and a small
number of affluent Americans that a recent Princeton
University study says the country is on shaky ground even
calling itself a democracy.
What mechanisms here might provide the good, strong,
corner-penetrating sunlight required to avoid our democracy
going the same way? For Dr Edwards a good start would be an
overhaul of the Official Information Act (OIA) to include
Parliament in its provisions.
''Bringing Parliament back under the OIA would mean the
public and the media would be able to request more
information about the interactions between MPs and interest
groups,'' he says.
''That would go a long way to improving the public's
understanding of power in New Zealand.''
The Green Party wants all ministers to be required to say who
they have been talking to and from whom they have been
receiving gifts. The information would be published online
every three months.
Dr Macaulay has suggested New Zealand develop its own version
of the United Kingdom's Committee for Standards in Public
Life (CSPL). The committee would monitor and make
recommendations on the standards of conduct of all public
The seven principles the CSPL uses as its measure are
selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability,
openness, honesty and leadership. Do we want them to go