News that Mike Williams has been paid as a lobbyist by Lime scooters should "alarm anyone with an interest in defending democracy and good political processes in New Zealand," political commentator Bryce Edwards says.
"This is because it shows that key political figures in New Zealand politics have conflicts of interest, and these simply aren't known to the public," the Victoria University political scientist says.
"Until the Lime scandal has occurred, I don't think anyone would have been aware that Williams was being paid to represent that company."
Williams is a former Labour Party president, NZTA director and a founding board member of Auckland Transport, where he remained a director for five years until 2014.
The backroom power-player arranged meetings for Lime with Transport Minister Phil Twyford, and key staff at Auckland Council agency AT both before and after Lime's mid-October launch.
A Herald profile during Williams' time as Labour president called him the most power but lowest-profile person to fill the role as he fundraised, organised and kept things in line behind-the-scenes for a governing party that included enduring political figures like Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and now Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.
AT chairman Lester Levy was forced to admit last Wednesday that he did not know which of his staff Williams had met, and when.
Levy said he was "uncomfortable" with Williams role and seeking more information on a meetings with AT chief executive Shane Ellison and staffer Wally Thomas.
"It seems that Williams has many different roles in New Zealand politics, and we now know that one of these roles involves working for corporate interests – and that company has clearly benefitted from Williams' insider knowledge and contacts, which it now appears he is using to make money out of," Edwards says.
"Yes, it's true that he is no longer the President of the Labour Party or a board member of the government's Transport Agency, but it does mean that he's built up resources and contacts through those public roles that he appears to be exploiting in his corporate lobbying role."
Lime Asia Pacific's director of government relations Mitchell Price said Williams' role was ongoing.
"Mike Williams was and continues to be engaged as a government adviser in NZ. He shares our commitment to expanding safe, affordable and abundant transportation options for all residents, and has been a trusted partner as we improve service across the country," Price said.
Edwards said, "In many democracies, they call this the 'revolving door' of influence – whereby political insiders shift easily between government jobs or positions and lobbying work in the private sector.
"It's seen to cause serious inequalities of power – because lobbyists and their clients are able to get more influence and power due to their connections and backgrounds. They can easily get 'behind the scenes' in ways that ordinary people can't.
"This 'revolving door' of influence in politics has become so pernicious in other countries that it is common to have laws against officials like Williams being able to shift so easily between public and private roles - or to at least to make it more transparent so at least the public knows who is lobbying who."
Edwards said Williams' role as a political commentator might now be "further questioned now that his lobbying role is out in the open."
Williams told the Herald, "I've always been absolutely public about it," saying he mentioned his role with Lime during an appearance on The Panel on January 21.
He said there was no conflict of interest. "I haven't been the president of the Labour Party for ten years, and I haven't been on AT's board for years," he said.
Williams said he took on Lime as a client after being approached by a friend in Australia. He refused to say how much money was involved in the contract.
For his part, Twyford said, "As Transport Minister I meet with bus companies, trucking companies, shipping companies, taxi companies, airlines and even scooter companies. No one needs to pay a lobbyist to meet with me."
Edwards counters: "It's quite common for politicians to claim that there are no problems with lobbyists in New Zealand giving access to decision-makers because those decision-makers are already accessible to the public. And, of course, there's some truth to that.
"But the availability of politicians to the public is much more complicated than this.
"There are a lot of gatekeepers that filter people out, meaning that access is very uneven, and some citizens and companies are able to get preferential access, or even able to queue-jump if they 'know the right people'.
"Clearly, Mike Williams, as a very well-connected insider in the Labour Party, is the 'right person', hence at least one corporate appears willing to pay him money to organise meetings with the powerful.
"Basically, it's the same as personal dating – you don't need to pay a dating service in order to meet someone to have a relationship, but it certainly can help speed things along. Lobbyists like Mike Williams essentially act as "dating agencies" for corporates and politicians."
Lime ban extended
Meanwhile, it now looks like Limes might not be on the streets until Tuesday or Wednesday at the earliest.
Auckland Council COO Dean Kimpton told the Herald this morning, "We have asked Lime for further information in relation to the recent safety issues with their e-scooters and have suspended their licence until such time as we are comfortable with their response.
"We have had some communication from Lime today [Monday] but are yet to receive the information which was requested on Friday. Once we have this information, we will need at least 24 hours to assess it before making any further decisions."
Kimpton says the council has fielded more than 500 emails about Lime so far.
"The feedback is very supportive of the e-scooters but we have also had a lot of support for our decision to suspend the licence while we seek reassurances that this particular type of scooter is safe. We will provide a further update as soon as we are able."
On Wednesday last week, Levy said Lime scooters would be pulled from Auckland streets by the end of the week if the scooter sharing company failed to provide adequate information and assurances about a mechanical failure.
Late Friday, Kimpton said Lime had been 24 hours to disable its scooters. Kimpton said Lime had reported 155 incidents of mechanical failure.
Lime said in a statement that a firmware upgrade had addressed a bug causing wheel lockups. But for now, all of its scooters are still off the streets, stored at a Lime warehouse in Kingsland.
Trial verdict looming
Levy said, in hindsight, that the decision to give Lime a trial mobile trading licence should have been made by elected officials and run past Lime's board.
Lime's trial licence expires on March 31, after which the council and AT will decide whether to give the company a permanent licence - and what if any conditions to put on that licence such as speed limits in some or all areas.
Any more to make helmets compulsory or move e-scooters from the pavement to cycleways (where they are currently banned) will require Twyford to initiate a law change.