How well-connected New Zealand lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients

Guyon Espiner for RNZ

Tech giants, Hollywood film studios, big pharma and multinational energy companies are using local lobbying firms to gain access to senior ministers and sensitive government information.

An RNZ investigation has unearthed thousands of emails, text messages and even encrypted Signal communications, revealing the extent of the lobbying industry in New Zealand.

The documents show lobbyists targeting ministerial advisors, inviting them to drinks, dinner and sports events, with text messages addressing them as "brother" and "comrade".

"Mate I'd be keen for a quick yarn sometime soon about racing/gambling if you're up for it," a lobbyist from Thompson Lewis texts a ministerial advisor, as he lobbies for SkyCity casino.

New Zealand has among the weakest regimes in the developed world for regulating lobbying and the industry largely operates in the shadows, with little information about the client lists of many of the major firms.

Many of the key lobbyists are former chiefs of staff and spin doctors at the highest levels of government - including half a dozen who have worked for Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins.

More than 75 percent of OECD, or developed countries, including Australia, Ireland, France, Canada, America and the UK, have laws requiring 'cool off' periods to stop the revolving door between government and lobbying.

How well-connected New Zealand lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients
Photo credit: RNZ

In New Zealand lobbying is largely unregulated, allowing a Cabinet minister such as Kris Faafoi to go straight from a ministerial position to a lobbying firm.

How well-connected New Zealand lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients
Photo credit: RNZ

Some, such as Hipkins' chief of staff Andrew Kirton have turned a full cycle in the revolving door between government and lobbying.

Kirton was a communications advisor to Prime Minister Helen Clark, then general secretary of the Labour Party and then moved to trans-Tasman lobbying firm Anacta before returning to the ninth floor of the Beehive.

Many lobbyists are also political commentators in mainstream media, including RNZ, yet their audiences have no idea which clients they work for.

'Thanks for your assistance'

The documents reveal that Andrew Little, while Health Minister, was heavily targeted by lobbyists trying to get wins for clients in the pharmaceutical and natural health industries.

Former Labour Party Cabinet Minister Clayton Cosgrove, whose firm Cosgrove & Partners promises "discreet advice" and lists none of its clients on its website, emailed an official in Little's office in August 2022.

Cosgrove wanted a section of the Therapeutic Products Bill, which stipulated the patient had to be in New Zealand or normally resident here, removed on behalf of his client.

"To allow a 21-year-old business to continue Section 61 C needs to be deleted," he wrote. "This removes the requirement to be in or a resident of New Zealand."

The official responded just eight minutes later. "On it. Will revert." About 90 minutes later he wrote back saying Cosgrove's client had been looking at an old draft of the bill and a new one would be out soon.

"Obviously we don't want to kill a successful export so I'll ask Minister Little's advisor to check on the issue your client has raised when we do get a first draft."

The documents show Cosgrove was also lobbying for A2 Milk, trying to get the dairy giant Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to supply infant milk formula to the United States.

In October 2022 Cosgrove emailed Little's office with the subject heading "US FDA Urgent Support Needed A2 Milk".

Redactions make it impossible to know exactly what influence Cosgrove had but he clearly believed ministerial assistance was a factor in the company's success.

How well-connected New Zealand lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients
Photo credit: RNZ

When A2 Milk got FDA approval in November 2022 - a decision significant enough for the company to make a market disclosure, given its impact on sales - Cosgrove messaged his old colleague: "Hi Andrew. FYI A2 milk got FDA approval - thanks for your assistance on this."

Cosgrove refused to discuss his lobbying work when contacted by RNZ.

Some lobbyists are using Signal, an app which encrypts messages to keep them confidential, when communicating with government officials.

RNZ obtained Signal messages between Neale Jones of Capital Government Relations and a ministerial advisor in Andrew Little's office.

Jones is a personal friend of Little's and was his chief of staff as Labour leader. Jones was also Ardern's chief of staff, had a senior role in Labour's 2017 election campaign and was on the negotiation team for coalition talks with New Zealand First and the Greens.

Using the encrypted app, Jones messaged an official in Little's office, trying to get regulatory changes that would increase export opportunities for his client Natural Health Practitioners New Zealand (NHPNZ).

When Jones tells the official he has to present to the company's board on the issue, the advisor seems receptive. "Hey Neale, still nothing from MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries). Am pushing to get it by 9 tomorrow."

The lobbying effort also includes emails to then-Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall in February 2022, with Jones describing the current law as a "major handbrake on the industry's ability to export and market goods overseas".

He says the industry wants to "meet with you to discuss the issue before Cabinet makes final decisions on the shape of the legislation" and barriers are "preventing the export of millions of dollars a year of products".

Jones also emailed Damien O'Connor in March 2022. "This is a direct matter for the Trade and Export Growth Minister that is costing New Zealand exporters millions of dollars per year and the industry would be deeply disappointed and dismayed if the Minister refused to engage on it."

Jones isn't only lobbying for natural health products companies but for big pharma too.

Again he targets the advisor in Little's office, this time using the encrypted Signal app to message her in March 2022.

"Hey Lisa, just wondering if you had any updates on when the final Pharmac review might be released? Asking on behalf of MSD - the pharma company not the government agency."

MSD refers to Merck Sharp & Dohme, a subsidiary of the American company Merck & Co - one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, with revenues close to $100 billion.

The responses from the ministerial advisers are heavily redacted so it's not known how much assistance government officials give the lobbyists.

Jones refused to discuss his lobbying work when contacted by RNZ.

He owns 80% of Capital Government Relations, with the other 20% owned by Ben Thomas, former press secretary to National Party Cabinet Minister Christopher Finlayson. Both Jones and Thomas are high profile political commentators in the media.

Capital's team also includes Mike Jaspers, a former chief press secretary for Jacinda Ardern and Mike Munro, who was both chief of staff for Ardern and chief press secretary for Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The documents show Capital has several big tech firms as clients and seeks to inform them on what is going before Cabinet and when.

Neale Jones texted an advisor in then-Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti's office in September 2022. "Hey, just wondering on behalf of Google if there's any indication when Minister Tinetti's paper on the review of online content regulation (is going to Cabinet)?"

"Going to Cabinet this month," the advisor tells him. "Cool thanks," he responds.

How well-connected New Zealand lobbyists throw their weight around for corporate clients
Photo credit: RNZ

Capital also lobbies for Mega, the cloud storage firm launched by Kim Dotcom in 2013.

In a September 2022 email to officials in the office of the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Prime Minister's office, Jones is eager that Mega be seen in a good light.

"My client MEGA has joined the Christchurch Call," he says, in reference to the international initiative involving 120 governments and tech companies trying to eliminate extremist online content.

Jones reminds them he has already told them about "some of the unfair media criticism MEGA has faced in the past" and says the company will be a valuable addition to the initiative.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, uses Cosgrove as its lobbyist in New Zealand.

Cosgrove, given his experience and contacts, is able to text his former colleague Andrew Little in June 2022, to set up a meeting.

He tells Little that Simon Milner, Meta's Singapore-based VP of public policy, "would love to meet with you" on issues including algorithms, encryption, disinformation and cyber security.

"Thanks Clayton," the minister responds. "Yes, I would be very keen," Little says, adding his office will organise the logistics.

The documents, gathered over months by RNZ, show the government's claim that the average New Zealander has as much access to decision makers as those who pay for lobbying firms is untrue.

"My argument has always been whether you are an NGO, whether or not you are a food bank, whether or not you are a small business, we are accessible as politicians," former Prime Minister Ardern said when asked about lobbying on Morning Report in 2022.

"You have as much access as someone for instance who chooses to engage with a company for government relations advice. In New Zealand it is not necessary and so I would always argue the same thing to those companies: come and talk directly to MPs. That is the system that we have."

But the documents show just how much access the lobbyists, leveraging their former political connections, have on behalf of their clients.

It took Capital's Clint Smith, formerly a senior communications strategist in Ardern's office, just 33 minutes to get a Finland-based diesel producer a meeting with top officials at short notice.

Smith messaged officials at the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) that executives from Neste were in New Zealand "meeting with Ministers and others with the hope of supplying their product to the NZ market".

"We're hoping it might be possible for EECA to meet with them tomorrow morning," Smith wrote in a February 2020 email. "I appreciate this is short notice, but if we could make this meeting happen we would greatly appreciate it."

Thirty minutes later, EECA's government engagement manager has pencilled in a meeting, promising "several staff from a number of areas of activity" will attend.

The documents also show that supermarket giant Countdown turned to lobbyists to help it gain intel about the thoughts of key MPs and advisors.

Capital's Mike Jaspers messaged a ministerial advisor to Andrew Little, saying he was "doing an anonymous opinion survey of MPs and advisors for our new client at Capital - Countdown."

He says it is a "general chat about how they operate" to help with "future engagement" with government and the community.

Big Hollywood film studios are also using local lobbying firms to push their case for taxpayers to continue subsidising international production companies to make films here.

The Australia and New Zealand Screen Association (ANZSA), whose members include Walt Disney, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Village Roadshow and Warner Bros, uses lobbying firm Saunders Unsworth.

In April 2021, Jo Murray of Saunders Unsworth wrote to Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash, seeking a meeting for Paul Muller, chief executive of ANZSA.

The meeting was granted and the documents show ANZSA wanted to talk about the Screen Production Grant (SPG) and "reiterate why it is important to continue to support this programme".

Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money has been spent on the SPG, a subsidy offering a rebate of between 20 and 25 percent on every dollar spent on production in New Zealand.

Emails from the lobbying firm indicate the movie industry wants the scheme expanded, saying ANZSA wants "a sense of the government's current thinking about any future development" of the grant.