National | Politics

Lobbying: the hidden ecosystem beneath the Beehive

Last week, it was revealed that newly departed Labour cabinet minister Kris Faafoi had launched a new lobbying firm, just three months after leaving Parliament.

The rapid move prompted many commentators to question the appropriateness of someone with such an intimate knowledge of the current government now potentially being in a position of influencing former colleagues on behalf of paying clients.

Critics of the lobbying industry say this is an example of the ‘revolving door’ between the private lobbying sector and the Beehive - and it’s not the first time it’s happened.

For example, in 2017, the lobbyist GJ Thompson took a brief leave of absence from his lobbying firm to become Jacinda Ardern’s temporary chief of staff.

There’s nothing unlawful about moves like this - but they don’t do much for the already shadowy reputation of the lobbying industry.

“If you are able to do that… one day being in the private sector, [and then] 24 hours later being in the public sector working in the prime minister's office, that is an issue,” says Holly Bennett, a young lobbyist based in Tāmaki Makaurau.

She knows the lobbying industry has historically had a bad name, and she puts this down to its association with industries like alcohol and tobacco.

Lobbying as a force for good

But Bennett reckons she’s part of a new era of lobbying: upfront and open.

She’s the lobbyist for her iwi Te Arawa, and she sees the work she does as being primarily about helping her clients navigate the complicated wheels of Government.

“For a lot of people, the government operates away from our daily lives. It's not something that they often want to get involved with, so therefore they're not going to know how to do it when they need to engage,” she says.

Holly Bennett. Source: File

Former cabinet Minister and NZ First MP Shane Jones agrees lobbyists can be a force for good.

“They can explain to you what is actually happening on the ground and, in many cases, politicians don't know what's happening on the ground,” he says.

However, he says good lobbyists also know what buttons to push to panic a politician, which can be a disaster for politicians who don’t stick to their guns.

This happened, for example, in 2003, when farmers took to the streets of Wellington over the fifth Labour government’s proposed tax on all livestock for their methane emissions.

“[The government] panicked, they dropped the ball. And quite frankly, climate change policies insofar as the agricultural sector is concerned have never, ever recovered from that point,” Jones says.

Shane Jones: Source: File

The influence of money

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager acknowledges that lobbying is a necessary part of democracy but his main issue with how the industry works is simple: money.

“All of this costs lots of money… and so what it tends to mean is that the people with the most resources just have more influence to be better off,” he says.

“In other words, it’s unfairly biased in favour of increasing the power of the powerful and leaving other people out of it.”

He points to a hypothetical example of a voluntary community group trying to reduce the number of pokie machines in their town going up against the deep pockets of the gambling industry.

“Eventually, the volunteers are starting to get worn out… [and] they’re not likely to win the war because there’s so many resources on the other side; tireless resources,” he says.

But Shane Jones says it’s not as straightforward as money buying political influence.

“All the money that the gas and oil companies had in New Zealand did not stop Jacinda Ardern from introducing the gas ban. Now you're talking about incredibly well-heeled companies… and that policy was legislated and it became a reality,” he says.

Nicky Hager. Source: File

Calls for more transparency

When it comes to bringing more transparency to the lobbying industry, Jones is doubtful that more rules and regulations will help, and he thinks things work pretty well as they are.

But lobbyist Holly Bennett reckons the industry will be better off if it starts making itself more open and upfront.

She says an industry-led register of lobbyists and a self-regulating body that operates like the New Zealand Media Council would be a good place to start.

“I've been calling for more transparency in this industry for a number of years now,” she says.

“I think that it's not good enough to say 'nothing to see here'. If there’s really nothing to see here, then be happy to have a spotlight put on it.”