Lobbying for transparency

Holly Walker.
Holly Walker.
While much remains unclear and unresolved in the John Banks-Kim Dotcom donation saga, it has again focused attention on questions of political influence at both national and local levels. Who or what sways the efforts supposedly made on the taxpayer's behalf by our politicians?

How do they decide what issues ought to be given priority beyond the broad policy directions set out on the campaign trail?

What people or organisations have access to the inner circle of those in power?

Is that access accompanied by "donations" of any kind and, if so, to what extent?

Do those donations come with strings - even invisible ones - attached?

Is it possible to be certain in this country that big money, small money, indeed money of any kind cannot purchase influence?

And if it is not possible to be certain of this, how can we know that our politics are not riven with what many people might regard as the seeds of corruption?

So many questions, so few answers.

It is drawing a long bow to equate political lobbying with proto-corruption. The lobbyist's art is a time-honoured one. It is perfectly appropriate for lobby groups - be they community, environment or business-oriented - to draw matters that concern them to the attention of politicians.

This is democracy at work. But a private member's Bill being put forward by the Green Party's Holly Walker draws attention to the fact that little is known about lobbyists' activities in New Zealand politics, and this does nothing to enhance transparent democracy nor confidence in its processes.

Ms Walker's proposed Lobbying Disclosure Bill is modelled on Canadian legislation, which supports a lobbying commissioner, an online registry of lobbyists, a lobbyists' code of conduct and a requirement for the regular collation and review of lobbying statistics. Australia and the United States have similar systems and Britain is thinking of introducing a public disclosure regime.

Well it might. Recently it was revealed access to private dinner parties with the British Prime Minister had effectively been "bought" by donations to his Conservative Party. Here in New Zealand there are questions that need to be asked about, for example, the extent to which SkyCity executives have been meeting the Government over the proposed building of a new convention centre in Auckland. Most such meetings are likely to have been normal business procedures, but who would know for sure?

Unusually, and this augurs well for Ms Walker's cause, support for the Bill in one form or another comes from across the political spectrum. Prime Minister John Key has indicated National thought it was "worth looking at" because New Zealand was one of the few like-minded countries that did not have such a regime.

Labour would also likely support the Bill in principle, though, like National, might want to see changes in the select committee process.

Ms Walker's Bill would require paid lobbyists to register and subscribe to a code of ethics set by the Auditor-general. They would also have to reveal which public figures they had met, the topics discussed and some of the methods used. It is expected there would be punitive measures included in the Bill for those found not complying with its requirements.

One of the difficulties will be in arriving at a definition of who or what constitutes a lobbyist. In Canada, the regime pertains to paid lobbyists, which may or may not be applicable in this country.

One genuine area of concern is whether or not small groups of citizens, seeking to make community representations to their MPs on essentially local issues, might be caught up in the Bill's net. And aren't some essentially voluntary, but high-profile campaigning organisations - Greenpeace springs to mind - lobbyists?

These are matters that need to be thrashed out at select committee stage and during the Bill's readings, assuming it so progresses. There are various overseas models to study where such hurdles will have been encountered and overcome. So while there will be fine-tuning to be done, this is a Bill that should proceed - as a useful guarantee of transparency in our democratic processes.


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