Behind New Zealand's uncontrolled million-dollar lobbying industry

Sharon Brettkelly for RNZ

Unlike other countries around the world, New Zealand has no regulations about lobbying. Is change needed to ensure greater transparency about who's influencing our decision-makers?

If you want to know who lobbies the Australian government on behalf of Air New Zealand, you simply go to an online register, type in the company's name and you'll find out in seconds. 

Try to find out the same thing in Aotearoa and you get nothing.

That's because Australia has a lobbying code of conduct - and a mandatory register.

New Zealand has no rules about lobbyists.

"It's utterly unregulated," says RNZ investigative journalist Guyon Espiner, whose series 'Mates, Comrades, Brothers' looks at who's in the industry, where they've come from and who they represent.

High-profile lobbyists include former politicans, such as ex-Labour Cabinet ministers Clayton Cosgrove and Kris Faafoi, and former Labour leader chief of staff-turned media commentator Neale Jones.

Espiner says the lack of regulation of the industry makes New Zealand an outlier.

"Given their proximity to power and their influence on power and the amount of money changing hands - much of which is taxpayer's money - isn't it extraordinary that we don't regulate it?"

Espiner, a former TVNZ political editor, gives The Detail the backstory to the series and talks about how he uncovered details of lobbyists' dealings with ministers and their advisors: not just their formal meetings, but drinks and dinners; the casual language of their messages; and also the secrecy.

Like the United States and Canada, Australia has a lobbying code of conduct, run by the Attorney-General's Department. 

It stipulates that anyone who acts on behalf of third-parties to lobby the Australian government, they must be registered and comply with the code.

It also has a foreign influence transparency scheme, which is to "provide the public with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia's government and politics".

Under the rules in Australia, it is illegal for a government official to engage with a lobbyist if they are not on the register. That means that the public can easily see who has been lobbying for large Kiwi companies, like Air New Zealand, across the Tasman, but not here.

Espiner says there is a sense of naivety here, because New Zealand is high on the corruption-free rankings. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, like his predecessor Jacinda Ardern, also says our government is transparent, with the public accessibility of the ministerial diaries.

Espiner explains how he has been able to build a picture of the industry through the Official Information Act, but it is "just a sliver", because much of the information is redacted and many OIA requests have been rejected.

Millions of dollars changes hands between lobbyists and their clients but again, the amount is not known because the industry is not transparent, he says.

Hear Guyon Espiner's conversation with Sharon Brettkelly in the full podcast episode.

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