Neale Jones: A clearer picture of inside a lobbyist’s world

OPINION

Bryce Edwards of Victoria University of Wellington has painted a picture of a vast, murky world of lobbyists undermining the democratic will.

Large parts of his piece focused on me and my company.

READ MORE: Bryce Edwards: The Government-Lobbying revolving door just keeps on turning

In one particularly conspiratorial passage, the fact I wrote an article for The Spinoff calling for greater housing density in Wellington was portrayed as evidence I had somehow caused the bipartisan housing accord between Labour and National, at the behest of property developers. Edwards’ source for this claim was a fringe left-wing blog.

As with any conspiracy theory, the reality is far less exciting.

I run a public affairs firm called Capital. I’m really proud of it and the team we’ve built. We help a range of clients, from some of the world’s largest companies to local charities, with a range of government relations, communications, policy, polling and data work.

The reasons clients come to us vary: It could be the global green energy company that wants to operate in New Zealand but needs help on the ground to give them some local context and make sure they’re talking to the right people.

It could be the Māori health provider urgently seeking funding to get its community vaccinated but coming up against the brick wall of bureaucracy.

It could be the Kiwi business facing unintended consequences from poorly drafted legislation. Or the trade union that wants some help sharpening its messaging and telling its members’ stories.

In short, any organisation that deals with government or the media needs some sort of public affairs function, whether that’s provided entirely in-house or by working with a firm like mine. Whether you describe it as lobbying, public relations, advocacy or campaigning, it is a vital part of our democracy.

To anyone with a realistic understanding of policy making in New Zealand, this process is very familiar.

When we achieve results, it’s not because someone has done their old mate Neale a favour.

It is because we have engaged constructively, presented effective arguments and understood how a client’s ask aligns with the Government’s priorities. There may be other ways of doing this work, but they’re not ones I or my firm have any interest in, nor do I believe they are effective.

The world that Bryce describes, of quiet winks and nods and corrupt backroom deals to undermine the democratic will, simply doesn’t reflect the New Zealand reality.

We have a strong, independent public service, which takes most operational decisions including the awarding of contracts out of the hands of politicians.

We have regular proactive release of all Ministerial diaries and an Official Information Act which, while not perfect, allows for open disclosure of policy advice, briefings, records of meetings and communications for Ministers, their political advisers and the entire public service.

And we are lucky enough to have a Press Gallery based in Parliament who are not shy of using these tools to expose improper behaviour.

That doesn’t mean our system is perfect. There have been cases where ethical standards have fallen short. There are a few simple measures Parliament could take which I think might address this gap.

The first is a lobbyist register. These are common around the world and provide greater transparency about who is advocating to politicians and when. Nearly a decade ago, then Green MP Holly Walker put forward a Bill that would do exactly that, but it was abandoned when MPs feared it could create a “chilling effect” on public debate by capturing cases such as a food bank making a complaint to an MP about a constituent who needed a benefit.

Instead, Parliament could simply adopt the Australian model, which only captures lobbying by third party organisations such as public affairs firms and lawyers.

Similarly, Edwards raises concerns about a “revolving door” of staff leaving government and taking up jobs as consultants. His singular focus on Labour perhaps reflects his antipathy to that party more than anything else. The reality is the vast majority of lobbyists in this country hail from the right of politics.

But it should of course come as no surprise that with Labour in government there has been more demand for consultants with a background in that party. That has little to do with the world Edwards imagines, but simple effectiveness:

When seeking advice on how to advocate on a policy issue, organisations are more likely to want to engage someone who understands the values and priorities of the Government, which arguments are more likely to be effective and who is trusted to deal with them straight. That skill set is not exclusive to consultants with a background in the party of government, but it certainly helps.

What I do know for certain is the model of relying on your old connections to do you favours is unlikely to be very successful, to last very long or to avoid scandal for anyone who tries it.

In Australia these concerns have been dealt with by enforcing a stand down period between leaving a Ministerial role and taking up a job that involves lobbying government. This is not something I would be opposed to and, contrary to Edwards’ allegations, it would have no impact on my business.

Finally, a tightening of donation laws accompanied by state funding of political parties would make political parties less reliant on private money and help ease fears of cash for policy.

New Zealand could benefit from greater scrutiny and transparency when it comes to lobbying and public affairs. But if we’re going to do this, we need to understand the situation as it really is.

• Neale Jones is a director at Capital Government Relations.

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