Lobbyist Holly Bennett's letter to colleagues calling for change

By Guyon Espiner for RNZ

A new player in the lobbying industry is calling on her colleagues to clean-up the sector and make it more transparent.

Holly Bennett, who started the lobbying firm Awhi, says she is proud of her work and believes she can help people navigate the bureaucracy.

"They're big, they're unwieldy and sometimes you don't have the knowledge and the understanding of how they work. But there's people out there to help people with that and that's what I do."

But she's concerned about the lack of regulation and has written to other lobbying firms calling for change.

The letter, which she shared with RNZ, calls on them to support a public lobbying register, a code of conduct and an oversight body, based on the New Zealand Media Council.

"If we believe in our role in democracy, why are we hiding it," Bennett asked. "There's no accountability to the public. These are the most important people in this conversation. It's not the lobbyists. It's not the politicians and it's not the journalists - it's our community."

Lobbyist Holly Bennett's letter to colleagues calling for change
Photo credit: RNZ

Unlike most other developed countries, New Zealand's lobbying industry is unregulated. There is no lobbying register, lobbyists don't have to reveal their clients, there is no code of conduct and no restrictions on how fast they move between top government jobs and the private sector.

The absence of 'cool off' periods to prevent the revolving door between the Beehive and lobbying allowed Kris Faafoi to move from his Cabinet Minister role to a lobbying firm within months of leaving Parliament.

Lobbyist Holly Bennett's letter to colleagues calling for change
Photo credit: RNZ

The Prime Minister's chief of staff Andrew Kirton went the other way.

He lobbied for Anacta - whose clients included big alcohol companies - and took the powerful government job just a day after resigning from his lobbying firm.

Bennett says she also made a swift transition between a government job and lobbying - Ministerial Advisor and In-House Legal Counsel to Minister Paul Goldsmith - and believes the revolving door should stop.

"What I did is exactly the same," she says. "I've been asked whether or not I think that's appropriate what I was able to do - which was be a staffer and then become a lobbyist - and I don't think that's appropriate."

Information is power, she says. "If you hold information that others don't, therefore you have an upper hand, you have leverage. You have the ability to pick and choose your moves before anyone else."

Bennett says cool off periods are essential and she is open to how long they should be. "That is something that we absolutely need to discuss and I think they should be introduced."

Lobbyist Holly Bennett's letter to colleagues calling for change
Photo credit: RNZ

Bennett is also a lawyer and says standards are much higher in the legal profession. "When I compare it to what parameters exist around us as lawyers, we fall well short. Yet we (lobbyists) are just as close, if not closer, than lawyers to the legislature."

She has had a mixed response from her industry colleagues to her call to introduce transparency and accountability.

"As a smaller player in the sector it's very hard to keep pushing on, but I will, because I believe in it."

The leaders of both Labour and National now say they are open to regulating the industry.

And some of the established industry players are also now willing to accept regulation - a move they pushed back on in 2012, when Green MP Holly Walker unsuccessfully introduced a member's bill to establish a public lobbying register.

Mark Unsworth, a veteran lobbyist with the Wellington firm Saunders Unsworth, says he has changed his mind and now supports cool off periods.

The definition of lobbying was one of the challenges that killed off Walker's bill, he says.

"A lot of people were saying, you know, 'I'm not a lobbyist, I work for Greenpeace' or something like that," he says. "You can't really pick and choose. If you're going to regulate lobbyists, are you going to cover the industry associations, are you going to cover law firms and accountancy firms?"

Lobbyist Holly Bennett's letter to colleagues calling for change
Photo credit: RNZ

Lobbyist Neale Jones, of Capital Government Relations, says he has "long supported a public register of lobbyists in the interests of transparency".

A register should extend to in-house lobbyists, he argues.

"It makes no sense that a corporate affairs manager for a major company should not be captured by such a register, particularly if it is intended to capture interactions with government."

Jones, who is also a political commentator in the media including with RNZ, says transparency is crucial.

"When I do media, I make a point of disclosing any potential conflicts of interest to the producer in advance of going on a show, or with a journalist before undertaking an interview, and agree how I will manage that conflict. That usually involves a disclosure on air that I represent a client with an interest in that policy issue."