Public hearings on my Lobbying Disclosure Bill will start tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to hearing directly from stakeholders and the public, and to working through the details of the bill with the committee.
No doubt the public hearings will also reignite debate about whether lobbying transparency is needed in New Zealand.
Mai Chen, public lawyer and “powerful lobbyist”, has already started stirring things up last week. While some of her concerns about the bill are valid (and are areas that I’ve flagged as requiring amendment at Select Committee to ensure the bill is workable), I disagree with her assertions that there is no need for a lobbying disclosure regime. Indeed the testimonial page from her law firm’s website shows some great examples of the influence successful lobbying can have, including statements like:
“Chen Palmer were prepared to turn on the resources at all levels, including legal support for arguments, political analysis and lobbying. We were working in an area of public policy full of pitfalls that are often difficult to see and predict. They certainly seemed to capture the attention of the right people.”
Mai and others have argued that New Zealand doesn’t need a disclosure regime because we haven’t experienced the high profile scandals involving lobbying that have been common in places like the US and UK.
While this may be true, the reality remains that some people do have a better chance of being heard than others and a lot of the time we don’t know who these people are or the extent of this access. A lot of the time, lobbying takes place behind closed doors, and there are no rules regulating lobbying activity.This bill is a chance for us to create best practice here while we still can.
There is certainly a long list of policy and legislative change over the last few years that are directly attributable to lobbying from a range of groups or individuals. These examples include:
- The Scrap Metal Recycling Association of New Zealand, who in their testimonial on Chen Palmer’s website, describe the success they had by using Chen Palmer when faced with an issue from a piece of legislation – “Their contacts within the parliamentary system and their expertise in understanding how Government works and of the legal issues opened the necessary doors on our behalf, and managed to achieve rapid progress in a short time frame”.
- The Sensible Sentencing Trust, labelled “New Zealand’s most successful lobby group”, who in 2008 had an election wish list of 15 policy requests, 13 of which were implemented by the Government. This includes the three-strikes legislation.
- In 2008, the ban on thermal power was repealed, with the Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee stating that “major lobby groups like the Major Electricity Users’ Group and the Business Council for Sustainable Development said the thermal ban should be dropped”
- In 2010, John Key committed Government spending on the water irrigation scheme in Canterbury following “Canterbury’s pro-development business leaders lobbying for Government assistance for about six months”
- The 2008 Walking Access Act was said to represent “a culmination of more than six years of action and lobbying by Federated Farmers”. Federated Farmers also provides a list of their other ‘wins’ on their website.
- In 2010, the Government announced changes to the rules around the weight and length of trucks “after extensive lobbying by the Forest Owners’ Association”
There are also a number of high profile issues in the media right now, including alcohol law reform, plain-packaging for tobacco, mining, and the SkyCity convention centre, which raise legitimate concerns about the influence of political lobbying.
While the upcoming discussions at the select committee will no doubt be robust and at times difficult as we work towards a lobbying disclosure regime that balances workability and practicality with openness and transparency, I’m in no doubt that bringing transparency to lobbying in New Zealand is necessary and worth it.