Sooner or later, a law to make lobbying more transparent is inevitable. As much was evident when even one of the country's longest-standing lobbyists struggled to lambast the Green Party's Lobbying Disclosure Bill when it was drawn from the members' ballot. Mark Unsworth said he was not against the proposals in the bill, but did not believe it was necessary because the lobbying industry here was small compared to overseas. That may be true, but New Zealand is certainly not immune to the trend towards greater transparency in government, of which this legislation is part. That, not the scope of the industry or, indeed, overstated complaints about the influence of lobbyists, will surely lead to the practice being subjected to public scrutiny.
The Greens' bill would force lobbyists to register and disclose their clients and meetings with government ministers. Modelled on a Canadian public disclosure regime, it would also require lobbyists to subscribe to a code of conduct to be set by the Auditor-General, with penalties if that code was breached. There is nothing particularly radical about this. The OECD has recommended public disclosure of lobbying and a code of conduct, and the United States and Australia are other countries to have gone down this road. Britain is soon to follow, with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, talking of politics coming "clean about who is buying power and influence".
A number of scandals have hit Mr Cameron's government, and his sudden interest in lobbying may owe much to a desire to divert public attention. He knows his comments are a fail-safe means of achieving that object because people will always be suspicious when lobbying is conducted in secrecy.
As the Green Party suggests, there will inevitably be the perception that some lobbyists could be exerting an unfair influence. And if lobbying can be defended as factions competing for government attention, that argument tends to unravel if one of the competitors is a global conglomerate with deep pockets and the other is a financially strapped community group intent on protecting, say, the local environment. In the Third World, the ultimate price of this has sometimes been the opening of the door to corruption and instability.
Lobbying has, of course, reached its zenith in the US, so much so that politics has often been said to be an insiders' game dominated by elites and excluding the general citizen. Rebalancing matters in the interests of integrity has involved some of the world's most extensive disclosure requirements. Americans know who is paying lobbyists to approach Washington politicians and bureaucrats, how often, and on what topics.
If the activity is much less widespread here, that is no reason why New Zealanders should not know who is being paid to lobby politicians, and what topics they are pursuing. Events that have highlighted the practice overseas, such as oil and gas exploration deals and consumer protection legislation, are every bit as relevant in this country. Indeed, they appear set to become even more controversial. A continued veil of secrecy simply invites suspicion about lobbyists wielding undue influence over government policy.
The Green Party's bill, or something similar, should, therefore, be the recipient of cross-party support. Politicians would benefit from being able to announce decisions under a new standard of openness. The law would in no way impede lobbying, which is everyone's democratic right, and which can enhance politicians' understanding of an issue. It would merely ensure those who are paid to influence government decisions do so transparently. When even lobbyists can find no strong reason to oppose such a law, its time has surely come.