Thursday, March 23, 2023

Bryce Edwards: The Beehive’s revolving door and corporate mateship

New Zealanders are uncomfortable with the high level of influence corporate lobbyists have in New Zealand politics, and demands are growing for greater regulation.

A recent poll shows 62 per cent of the public support having a two-year cooling off period between ministers leaving public office and becoming lobbyists and 14 per cent oppose such a law. This is exactly what Kris Faafoi did recently, but because New Zealand lacks a cooling off period he was able to move straight from being a government minister and go to work lobbying his former colleagues while they are still in government.

The survey carried out by Curia Research for the Taxpayers Union, shows National and Green voters are particularly keen on a cooling off period, with about 71 per cent in support. Wellingtonians are the biggest supporters of this – with 73 per cent in favour of the two-year stand down period.

The influence of the revolving door is illustrated again today with RNZ releasing the third part of Guyon Espiner’s series on lobbying, focusing on how former MPs and senior Beehive officials have extraordinary access and influence with those currently in power.

The latest episode focuses on former Labour staff and MPs like Neale Jones and Clayton Cosgrove and the easy access they have to ministers while lobbying on behalf of tech giants, big pharma, and multinational energy and entertainment companies – see: How lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients.

The Extraordinary lobbying access to power

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has been going out to the media in recent days to answer questions about why lobbyists have such close access to his administration and why he doesn’t believe the lobbying industry needs cleaning up. His argument has essentially been that there is a level playing field with access to politicians in New Zealand, and every New Zealander has access to him and his ministers.

Jacinda Ardern also made this argument when PM, and today Espiner cites her saying that she wasn’t just meeting with corporate lobbyists but also with NGOs and foodbanks. She previously stated: “You have as much access as someone for instance who chooses to engage with a company for government relations advice.”

Of course the text messages, emails, and encrypted messages from lobbyists uncovered by Espiner illustrate just how untrue these claims are. Lobbyists have an ease and speed of communication with officials and ministers on a day to day basis that the public cannot hope to compete with.
Consider, for example, a text from a SkyCity Casino lobbyist to a ministerial advisor says: “Mate I’d be keen for a quick yarn sometime soon about racing/gambling if you’re up for it”.

Lobbyists ply officials with invitations to drinks, dinner and sports events which can help create a very cohesive and close relationship, ensuring there is a better chance of lobbyist correspondence being answered quickly, and meetings promptly arranged with ministers so that corporates can get their arguments across to decision-makers.

Lobbying by big tech and big pharma

Much of the focus of Espiner’s latest lobbying story is on Neale Jones. He was the Chief of Staff in the Beehive for Jacinda Ardern before moving into a more lucrative career in lobbying, where he works for one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Merck Sharp & Dohme. His known clients include Google, Countdown supermarkets, Natural Health Practitioners NZ, and a bank.

Jones runs the corporate lobbying firm, Capital Government Relations, which he co-owns with another high-profile political commentator Ben Thomas, who has worked in the Beehive as a spin doctor for the National Party. Other lobbyists in the firm include former Ardern staffers Mike Munro – who also worked as her Chief of Staff – and Mike Jaspers and Clint Smith.

Smith, according to Espiner, took “just 33 minutes to get a Finland-based diesel producer a meeting with top officials at short notice.” Similarly, other Labour and Green-friendly lobbyists, such as David Cormack, have been revealed to have worked for big oil companies.

Another example given today by Espiner is that of Clayton Cosgrove, who was formerly a Labour MP, and left Parliament in 2017 to set up his firm Cosgrove & Partners which advertises that he “talks directly to the decision-makers” and promises “discreet advice”.

Espiner reveals today that Cosgrove lobbies his former colleagues on behalf of Meta, the tech company that owns Facebook. In one example, Cosgrove sets up meetings between Andrew Little and a senior Facebook official, Simon Milner, visiting New Zealand. To do so, Cosgrove simply texts Andrew Little to say that Milner “would love to meet with you” about issues around “algorithms, encryption, disinformation and cyber security”, and Little replied: “Thanks Clayton… Yes, I would be very keen”.

Lobbyists with instant door access to the Beehive

Some lobbyists and political insiders are given free access to Parliament. These “swiperati” have access cards so that they can visit politicians without having to deal with security.

The people who currently have access are available to view on the Parliament website: Approved Visitor List to Parliament. These access cards may not be a central part of the problem, and clamping down on how they are handed out won’t change much, but when vested interests get through the Beehive doors in ways that the public can’t it is highly symbolic of the overall lobbying problem.

The big question is still about whether New Zealand should introduce a cooling off period to help close the revolving door, or at least make it swing a lot more slowly. Today, Espiner points out that more than 75 per cent of OECD countries have such rules. New Zealand is now an outlier in this key part of democracy. The “mateship” between politicians, officials, and lobbyists, proves New Zealand needs to clean up its act.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Don’t forget the oil companies, expert lobbyists even if periodically scolded to appease public expectations.

Anonymous said...

even if you put that restriction, you'll need to make an exception for the 'treaty partners' :(

Robert Arthur said...

As one who has frittered many precious unpaid hours making serious submissions to Select Committees, all ignored if read at all, the easy and influential access of these lobbyists is especially galling. And they are paid handsomely for their efforts.