Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world

By Guyon Espiner for RNZ

ANALYSIS: The popular view of lobbying is based on perceptions of shadowy figures stalking the halls of power in Washington DC. But the industry here, in New Zealand, is far less transparent than in the US.

The senior executives at New Zealand Carbon Farming (NZCF), one of the country's largest land owners, were worried.

Word was filtering back about a government plan that could deliver a big blow to its business.

Forestry Minister Stuart Nash was considering excluding exotic trees, such as pine, from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

NZCF, which buys land and grows pine (and other species) for the carbon credits, was deeply opposed to the policy.

NZCF owns or leases around 90,000 hectares of land with more than 60 million trees and is the largest provider of carbon credits in Australasia.

Carbon farming is now big business. According to a 2022 Cabinet paper "economic returns under the ETS for permanent exotic forests are now significantly higher than sheep and beef farming".

The exotics return about $35,000 per hectare compared with about $1500 per hectare for indigenous forests.

NZCF needed help and called on a sector that operates in the shadows in New Zealand: the lobbying industry.

It's not what they do that is mysterious - if you can afford it, you can pay lobbyists to influence government policy to your advantage - it's that there are no rules to stick to and no obligation to disclose their clients.

The comparison with Australia is stark. NZCF is big enough to have lobbyists working for it there too. We know that because in Australia the lobbying industry is regulated and transparent.

A quick search of Australia's public lobbying register shows that Adam Kilgour and Josh Williams from the company Diplomacy are the registered lobbyists for NZCF.

In New Zealand, you wouldn't have a clue. RNZ filed more than 70 OIA requests for documents on the dealings between nine lobbying firms and ministers and government agencies.

We obtained thousands of emails and text messages but even that offers just a tiny glimpse into the world of lobbying.

The documents reveal NZCF uses Wellington lobbying firm Capital GR, which has four staff who entered lobbying after senior roles with prime ministers.

Capital's Neale Jones, the former chief of staff for Labour leaders Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern, led the lobby effort for NZCF.

Jones is a close friend to Little - the documents released to RNZ include a birthday invite he sent to the minister - who worked on Labour's 2017 election campaign and served on the negotiation team for coalition talks.

Jones is also a high profile media commentator. But with no transparency in the lobbying industry the hundreds of thousands who listen to his political views on RNZ's Nine to Noon show have no idea who his clients are.

For someone like Jones, ministers are addressed on a first name basis and are only a text message away.

"Hi Stuart, Neale Jones here," he texted Nash at 6.34pm on 2 June, 2021.

"NZCF have had a report of some comments you are said to have made in a forestry meeting today and are in quite (a) state of concern about it. I suspect there may be a misunderstanding and just wondered if I could clear it up."

The text exchange shows Nash is on familiar terms with Jones but also prepared to push back. "Hi mate, possible (sic) no misunderstanding. I said that I am very concerned about the amount of radiata pine that is being planted as a permanent forest sink. Never to be harvested."

But Jones won't be brushed off. He says NZCF has a "science-led regeneration programme which transitions from exotic to native" over time.

"I think probably useful if they could come and brief you on this at some point as I realise it's a tricky issue politically. I've flicked a request to your office and Matt Walsh from NZCF will be at the KEA dinner tomorrow night that I believe you're attending."

Jones pushes the case for NZCF in other emails including to a senior ministerial advisor to the Minister for Economic Development in November 2022.

NZCF is New Zealand's largest permanent forester and has paid for "full predator eradication across 100,000-plus hectares," he tells them.

The documents are heavily redacted and, of course, most of the influence peddling will be done in face-to-face conversations rather than via a platform that leaves a document trail.

In the end, NZCF, which didn't respond to a request for an interview, got what they wanted. The government did a U-turn on its initial proposal and exotics, such as pine, will remain in the ETS.

The government now says a "redesigned" category for exotics could come into effect in January 2025.

Nash wouldn't be interviewed for the story but his spokesman said all submissions to public consultation were considered. "But no specific representations from Capital GR on behalf of Carbon Farming had an impact on the outcome of decisions made."

How much influence did the lobbyists have? It's impossible to know. In fact this is a rare example of the media even being able to find out who the lobbyists were and some of the tactics they used.

There are no rules to follow, no laws to break and no watchdog to bark.

New Zealand is the wild west of lobbying.

The Wild West of lobbying

If you mention the word lobbying in New Zealand the conversation quickly shifts to America, which many view as having a corrupt political system where lobbyists run riot.

Lobbying is big business in the US but it's highly regulated and relatively transparent. In the US, lobbyists can be jailed for five years for corruptly failing to comply with the Lobbying Disclosures Act 1995.

In Canada, the Lobbying Act is overseen by a Commissioner of Lobbying, who manages a searchable register and a code of conduct to ensure "transparent and ethical lobbying". Lobbyists who break the rules face a ban, a fine or jail.

Australia's regime is overseen by the Attorney General and includes a code of conduct prohibiting government representatives even engaging with a lobbyist who is not on the register.

The code requires lobbyists to provide accurate information and not be corrupt or dishonest or "make misleading, exaggerated or extravagant claims" about their access to government.

When making initial contact with a government representative the lobbyist has to tell them who they work for, what they do and "the name of each of their clients". They also have to disclose "the nature of the matters that each such client wishes them to raise" with the government.

Looking at Australia's lobbying register you can also judge the size of the industry: there are 662 lobbyists representing 2364 clients.

You can also see how the lobbying industry is growing: 44 new lobbying firms were added to the register in 2020, 58 in 2021 and 63 in 2022.

In New Zealand, no one even knows how big the lobbying industry is.

Transparency International (TI) compared New Zealand's lobbying environment with Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the United States and found us wanting.

"The absence of independent oversight of, and personal gains from, lobbying in New Zealand is glaring," TI's New Zealand chapter said in a November 2022 report.

In 2010, the OECD, the club of rich nations, produced a set of principles for lobbying, in what it called the "first international instrument to address undue influence and inequities in the power of influence".

In 2020, it surveyed 41 countries to see how they were conforming with the principles.

The report doesn't set out to demonise lobbying. In fact it says lobbying to strengthen environmental standards, improve road safety or increase childcare services, for example, can benefit society.

But it says the abuse of lobbying, such as "undue influence through covert or deceptive evidence or the manipulation of public opinion," can cause harm.

The OECD report shows New Zealand is one of 18 countries where "lobbying activities are not subject to transparency regulations".

At its most basic, the OECD says countries should define what lobbying is. New Zealand doesn't even make it to step one.

The OECD lobbying principles include a cool off period for public officials leaving government and entering the lobbying industry "to inhibit the misuse of confidential information".

Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world
Photo credit: RNZ

"One of the main risks and concerns related to conflicts of interest is the revolving-door phenomenon," the OECD report said.

Out of 41 countries analysed, New Zealand was one of nine to have no law restricting movement between top government jobs and the lobbying industry.

In Australia departing ministers cannot "engage in lobbying activities relating to any matter that they had official dealings with in their last 18 months in office".

Heads of government agencies, senior public servants, ministerial staff and even defence force staff (at colonel level or above) face a 12 month cool off period before they can join lobbying firms.

Canada has a five year stand down period; Spain two years and Germany 18 months.

In New Zealand, cabinet ministers can go straight into lobbying jobs, taking knowledge, information and contacts to be leveraged in the commercial sector.

Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world
Photo credit: RNZ

Kris Faafoi joined lobbying firm Dialogue 22 just three months after leaving Parliament, where he had been justice and broadcasting minister.

Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world
Photo credit: RNZ

Gordon-Jon Thompson, the brother of RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson, has gone a full cycle in the revolving door.

He took a leave of absence from his lobbying firm Thompson Lewis to work as chief of staff to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for four months before returning to his lobbying firm.

Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world
Photo credit: RNZ

Andrew Kirton resigned from his lobbying company Anacta on 31 January this year and the next day was announced as chief of staff for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

Tory Whanau was chief of staff for the Green Party and moved from there to a role with lobbying firm Capital GR.

Documents obtained by RNZ show she was working for Capital GR right up until becoming Wellington's Mayor on 8 October, 2022. On 29 September, 2022 she emailed the office of Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti, setting up for a client and signing off as a senior consultant at Capital.

Whanau declined to be interviewed but a spokesman said she "formally resigned from CGR effective from the day she won the election".

The Mayor's spokesman said Whanau "wasn't a lobbyist" but "a consultant focusing on communications strategy and, from time to time, setting up meetings with ministers".

Have pass, will lobby

New Zealand gives lobbyists a free pass to wander the corridors of power - metaphorically but in a literal sense too.

There are about 80 people, mainly lobbyists, on the "approved visitor list" which gives them swipe card access to come and go from Parliament as they please.

The Speaker of the House, currently Adrian Rurawhe, is effectively Parliament's landlord. He controls access to the building and upholds standards of behaviour and ethics. For lobbying, that's easy. There are none.

"There are no rules or handbooks for lobbyists," a spokeswoman for the Speaker's Office told RNZ. "Members of Parliament are free to meet with anyone they wish to. MPs have control over who enters their offices."

The only thing you need to do to get one of these free passes is be sponsored by an MP. A party chief of staff can also do this, which means that Andrew Kirton, fresh from his lobbying firm, can now grant access to other lobbyists if he wishes.

The cards are easy to get and hard to lose. "The only access that has been withdrawn is of those visitors that have been sponsored by an MP that has left Parliament, or sponsored by a chief of staff that has left," the Speaker's office told RNZ. "In some cases access is granted again after getting a new sponsor."

Because lobbying client lists are secret in most of the big firms - Saunders Unsworth and Sherson Willis are two exceptions - MPs themselves may have no idea who is paying the lobbyist and why.

"Frequent visitors are not required to divulge their client lists or be vetted."

What about lobbyists working for foreign governments? Again, that's no problem, according to the Speaker's office. "Frequent visitors only need to be sponsored."

The OECD doesn't see it that way. Its report says foreign interference in politics is a major concern in the lobbying industry.

"Instead of relying on traditional and formal diplomatic channels and processes, foreign governments increasingly rely on lobbyists to promote their policy objectives."

The OECD report says this is done to influence policy on issues such as climate change, tax, trade, and data protection.

It says lobbying by Huawei and TikTok has "raised concerns about the close ties between these companies and the Chinese government, and the national security implications that they may entail."

"The risks involved in lobbying and influence activities of foreign interests are therefore high for all countries," it says. "It should follow that transparency and public scrutiny are also high."

In the US, the EU, Canada and Australia lobbying by foreign governments must be disclosed, but not in New Zealand.

It's clear from the OIA material obtained by RNZ that some New Zealand lobbying firms do work for foreign governments.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade turned down RNZ's OIA request - not because there were no documents to hand over but because there were too many.

RNZ asked for correspondence with nine key lobbying firms between 2020 and 2022. "Our initial searches have located over 4700 documents," MFAT told RNZ. They asked us to refine the request. We did but they still claimed it was too much work to process it.

The OIA material shows lobbying firms emailing officials trying to get their clients on trade delegations overseas. Lobbyist David Cormack emails New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in February 2022 telling them he's been talking to the Prime Minister's office about a trade delegation to the US and has a client "that I think would be appropriate to go on it".

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta did provide documents to RNZ, including a text from lobbyist Neale Jones to her senior ministerial advisor, seeking information on an international meeting for an unknown client.

"Comrade. I hear you're back with Nanaia. Just wondering if you know who is attending the 2022 G20 Summit from 13-15 November," Jones asks the advisor.

"I know that (Damien) O'Connor is attending a trade component of the meeting but beyond that I am not sure," the advisor replies. Jones persists: "Thanks, any idea who might know?"

Jones refused an interview with RNZ.

Whether he got the information and who needed it remains a mystery.

Jones contacted RNZ after the initial publication of this article to say he was seeking the information for a commercial client and does not work for any foreign government.

Analysis: Lobbyists in New Zealand enjoy freedoms unlike most other nations in the developed world
Photo credit: RNZ

Active, thriving and very opaque

Along with the idea that lobbying is something that happens in Washington not Wellington, you often hear that there is very little corruption in New Zealand and that MPs are accessible to anyone.

Chief executive of Transparency International Julie Haggie says most New Zealanders have no idea what lobbyists do.

"I think there's a huge level of complacency and it's time to put that aside. We have got a thriving lobbying industry - very active - and some of them are very opaque."

Just how thriving is hard to say. "Unless we have transparency on it, we won't know and that just leaves a big gap of trust and faith."

Haggie says that is bad for democracy.

"If people think that their vote or their influence is undermined completely by powerful people with powerful connections, money, or some other form of influence, then it's going to undermine your faith in the whole democratic process."

She says giving swipe cards to lobbyists to access Parliament is an obvious area that needs to be addressed.

"Are we saying there's a special group of people who get to have a special ear or special access? I find that a little bit disturbing when there's no criteria around that. That's certainly an area that needs to be sorted out."

But that, she says, is just the start.

"I think a lobbying register would be great. Some sort of self regulation would be excellent. A code of conduct for lobbyists would be very helpful," she says.

"We need transparency, transparency, transparency, and then people can look at it and make their own decisions and call parliamentarians and lobbyists to account."