Lobbyists are back at Parliament - with a new privacy measure hiding their identities

By Guyon Espiner for RNZ

Gerry Brownlee says the privacy of people with 'lobbying roles' should be protected, while officials have drawn up a new code of conduct. 

The identities of people allowed to freely come and go from Parliament have been made secret by the new Speaker.

Gerry Brownlee told RNZ he did not agree with the blanket ban on lobbyists having swipe card access and some discretion was needed. 

He had approved swipe card access for about four new people, who he said could be described as having lobbying roles. But they were not employed by professional lobbying firms and largely had jobs assisting parties in Parliament.

He would not be "facilitating commercial activities" for lobbying firms. But in a departure from previous Speakers, Brownlee said he wouldn't publish the 'approved visitor list' of people with swipe card access to Parliament, in order to protect their privacy. 

After RNZ's investigation into the lobbying industry last year then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins asked Brownlee's predecessor, Adrian Rurawhe, to remove the swipe cards that gave about 80 lobbyists easy access to Parliament.

At the time, National's deputy leader Nicola Willis backed the swipe card ban and said there should be a "transparent, publicly accountable register of who's doing the lobbying and who they're lobbying for". She also called for a 12 month stand-down period for ministers going into lobbying after leaving Parliament.

Proposed 'code of conduct'

Among the work carried out after Hipkins raised concerns over lobbyists was the creation of a code of conduct for the industry.

As Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins made a series of changes to the rules around lobbying.
As Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins made a series of changes to the rules around lobbying. Photo credit: RNZ

RNZ has obtained a Ministry of Justice document outlining a new code of conduct for lobbyists, aimed at creating greater transparency and higher ethical standards.

The draft code would be voluntary and critics - including from within the lobbying industry itself - say there are no means to enforce it. 

The code says lobbyists should "not offer gifts or hospitality to public officials that create a sense of obligation". If enacted, this could raise questions over the widespread practice of wining and dining government officials who lobbyists seek to influence for their clients.

The code was drawn up by justice officials who studied more than 40 codes from other countries. It would apply to "anyone trying to influence government policy, process or law". 

The code says lobbyists should "not seek special treatment from personal relationships or use personal relationships for personal or commercial gain".

It warns lobbyists should "actively avoid improper influence" on officials because this could have "a highly corrosive effect" on democracy. 

"Personal relationships are inevitable in a small country, but public trust can be undermined if people think that a lobbyist has an unfair advantage through a personal relationship," the draft code says.

"Do not offer gifts or hospitality to public officials that create a sense of obligation." 

It says lobbyists should "avoid tying payment for services to lobbying success" and "not engage in bribery, corruption, or any dishonest or illegal actions".

Stand-down periods for ex-ministers

One of the key concerns about lobbying in recent years has been the revolving door between the Beehive and the lobbying industry. Unlike many developed countries New Zealand has no stand down periods for people moving between lobbying and politics.

The draft code recommends cool off periods but leaves it to the industry to decide how to implement them. 

"People moving between government and lobbyist roles are susceptible to accusations of using government connections and insider knowledge for personal or corporate gain," the code says.

"When moving between public official and lobbying roles, avoid lobbying in the subject area previously connected to the public role or with former associates for a period of time appropriate to the situation and influence of the roles." 

Holly Bennett
Holly Bennett Photo credit: RNZ

Holly Bennett founded the lobbying firm Awhi and has been pushing for greater transparency and higher ethical standards in the industry. She said stand down periods for people moving between politics and lobbying should be set by the government, not the lobbying industry.

"Essentially, what you're trying to do is protect privileged information. That privileged information is held by the state," Bennett said. 

"It's entirely inappropriate for the industry to try to self-regulate stand down periods. The government just needs to stand up, say, 'this is what we're going to do.'"

In opposition, National called for a 12-month stand-down period but Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith wouldn't be interviewed on the topic last week. Instead, he issued a brief statement saying the government would "explore how it can continue work around lobbying reform." 

'Privileged proximity' to power

New Zealand's lobbying industry is unregulated, making it an outlier in the developed world, and the new code of conduct is an attempt to introduce self-regulation of the industry.

The code also calls for more transparency and says lobbyists should "always disclose the identity of organisations, people or foreign states being represented". 

The code says "it is good practice to publicly disclose your lobbying activities" but it stops well short of the transparency seen in Australia, where lobbyists have to disclose their clients on a publicly searchable register.

In its submission to the Ministry of Justice on the code of conduct, Bennett's firm Awhi said not enough had been done to ensure lobbyists were transparent and accountable despite their "privileged proximity" to power. 

"This is of particular concern given the continued growth of the industry, which has enjoyed undisclosed financial success that would easily measure in the tens of millions, within an unregulated environment and limited impetus for continuous improvement," the submission says.

"The industry - in efforts to maintain its legitimacy and value - should be doing more than saying 'trust us'." 

In an interview with RNZ, Bennett said Awhi would not sign up to the draft code as it appeared to have been captured by lobbyists opposed to change.

"We know that there's sort of this vicious undercurrent that exists where parts of the industry say 'there's nothing to see here, don't look at us, we don't need sunlight' and I feel that has started to capture some of the direction that this draft code is going." 

Max Rashbrooke.
Max Rashbrooke. Photo credit: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Max Rashbrooke, an academic and author who has written extensively on lobbying and democracy, said he supported the general direction of the code but it lacked teeth. 

"If all lobbying was conducted in the manner set out, then that would be a wonderful world," he said. "The real problem is the spectacular absence of any sense of how this might be enforced," Rashbrooke said.

"It's all very well, writing down the ways in which lobbying should be conducted. But if there's no one monitoring that, and there's nobody to enforce the standards, or create a sanction for not complying with them, then it's hard to see how it has any teeth." 

Rashbrooke said a lobbying code of conduct had to be compulsory and needed to be monitored and enforced by an Integrity Commission or a Lobbying Commission.

Rashbrooke said National appeared to have softened its position. 

"The question for Nicola Willis and for National is, if they thought in opposition that something tougher than a voluntary code was needed, why do they not continue to think that now that they're in power?"