Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Karl du Fresne: Union lobbyists good, business lobbyists bad

In Orwell’s Animal Farm, it was “four legs good, two legs bad”. In the New Zealand Labour Party, some of whose MPs seem capable of Orwellian reasoning, it’s union lobbyists good, corporate lobbyists bad.

Only a week after Green MP Holly Walker’s Lobbying Disclosure Bill passed its first reading in Parliament, Labour has had an attack of the collywobbles.

Walker’s bill would require parliamentary lobbyists to go on a register, disclose which politicians they meet and sign up to a code of conduct to be written by the Auditor-General. It appears to have broad cross-party support and even the lobbyists themselves, or at least those who have given their views on the bill, seem relaxed about it.  There’s a lot of work still to be done on the legislation – even Walker accepts that – but there’s broad agreement in principle on the need for greater transparency.

But what’s this? The New Zealand Herald reports today that senior Labour MP Charles Chauvel, in a bravura display of special pleading, has proposed an amendment seeking an exemption for trade unions. Chauvel argues that the bill is too broad and should apply only to people who lobby for a commercial purpose rather than not-for-profit groups. His amendment would exempt unions, charities, churches, NGOs and sports bodies.

In other words, transparency’s all very well when it’s professional lobbyists and corporates who are under scrutiny, but Chauvel thinks people like Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly and secretary Peter Conway – two of the lobbyists outed last week as having swipe cards giving them special access to Parliament – should be allowed to continue flying under the radar. They are, he says, “less sinister” than the other sort of lobbyist. Well, he would say that, given Labour’s need to protect its friends and benefactors in the unions.

But hang on. Either we have transparency or we don’t. Chauvel wants us to believe that union lobbyists are all honourable people with unimpeachable motives, so can be relied on to go about their business without scrutiny, while anyone representing business is by definition “sinister” and cannot be trusted. Good luck with that, as they say. He also expects us to assume that all charities, churches and NGOs are by definition beyond suspicion when many of them are highly politicised and should be subjected to exactly the same rules of transparency as everyone else. 

The trouble with Chauvel’s panicky back-pedalling is that it immediately creates the suspicion that Labour and the unions have something to hide. The public are not stupid: they will think it very telling that Labour and the unions are the only people baulking at the Walker bill.

It also hints at the tensions that would inevitably arise in a Labour-Greens coalition, where the well-intentioned idealism of Green MPs like Walker would sit very uncomfortably alongside the murky realpolitik practised by Labour. 

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