Money versus passion: parliamentary lobbying

Warren Lindberg
Chief Executive
Public Health Association of New ZealandWarren L 200x300

“It’s a great time to be a lobbyist,” according to Victoria University politics teacher and independent blogger, Bryce Edwards. Dr Edwards advises that lobbyists are in big demand whenever there’s a change of government.  It’s a prime opportunity for influence at a time when the new government has to move quickly on at least some of its promises and can’t rely entirely on the advice of government departments that have been driven by a different political philosophy from their predecessor.

Of course, it’s not that simple. There will be lobbyists the new ministers already know, and those that sound knowledgeable but whose political philosophy might not be immediately apparent.  Then there are the professional lobbyists, well versed in the machinery of government and able to argue whatever case they’re paid to espouse, and also the loyal amateurs whose enthusiasm to help the new administration might outweigh their understanding of the range of other pressures on “government for all New Zealanders”.

Government caution about the lobbying ‘industry’ has been signalled by the new Speaker’s announcement of a review of which lobbyists get parliamentary accreditation. That is, automatic swipe-card access to the Parliamentary premises without passing through security.

New Zealanders were scarcely aware of this practice before 2012 when then Green MP, Holly Walker, introduced a Lobbying Disclosures Bill, which sought to establish a register of lobbyists and their interactions with MPs, similar to Australia and Canada.  Although the Bill’s primary target was to constrain the predominance of lobbying in the interests of commercial sectors, it might equally have applied to community organisations, who might not enjoy unrestricted access to Parliament but who regularly engage with their MP in local situations. Charles Chauvel, then a Labour MP, attempted an amendment to distinguish between commercial interests and civil society, NGOs and the community and voluntary sectors.  As examples, he compared the financial power of the tobacco, alcohol, food, and pharmaceutical industries with community-based organisations largely dependent on volunteers and community fund-raising but whose interests in the impact of those commodities on public health was of considerable importance in developing good public policy.

The Bill failed, mainly when MPs realised that it had the same potential to constrain interactions with their constituents in their communities as it would constrain interactions with professional lobbyists in the halls of power.

In 2012 when the list of accredited lobbyists was first released there were 12 – the updated list released this July identified 93 – most still working for lobbying firms in the interests of big business.

So what about community voices? Will Speaker Mallards’s review improve our access to Parliament? Or continue to shut us out except on the invitation of an interested Minister or friendly MP?

Will we continue to risk the consequences of offending the political neutrality clause in our contracts – as the previous Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, the Hon Alfred Ngaro, threatened?

The New Zealand Bill of Rights affirms our right to freedom of expression and prohibition of discrimination on the ground of political opinion.

As a sector we need to be vigilant in the promotion and protection of these rights.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/