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When leaked Cabinet papers revealed Telecom would lose its broadband monopoly, it wasn't just the sharemarket that took a hit.

New Zealand's biggest company had allegedly spent $30 million trying to persuade the Labour Government not to proceed with unbundling. Naturally, some took the view that Telecom's slick and expensive lobbying amounted to nought.

What they overlooked, however, was the intense lobbying by Telecom's rivals, who wanted access to Telecom's copper-wire network.

Richard Prebble last week described Telecom as "the best lobbyists in Wellington". As a former MP, with 27 years' experience in a variety of Parliamentary roles - Opposition backbencher, senior Cabinet minister, party leader - he should know. And he says that Telstra-Clear and Vodafone have lobbied "just as hard as Telecom, but not as well".

One lobbyist who has worked for a Telecom rival paid grudging tribute to that company's lobbying skills. "Telecom are truly formidable as an opponent," he said, giving the company "10 out of 10 for their success ... They've been an extraordinarily effective protector of their interests and done brilliantly, but they still should have seen [unbundling] coming."

The person generally credited with Telecom's lobbying is government relations manager John Goulter (who declined to comment for this article). Not to be confused with the John Goulter who was chief executive of Auckland International Airport and TVNZ board member, Telecom's Goulter, like most lobbyists, has a background in journalism. He was political editor for Wellington's Evening Post newspaper before becoming press secretary for Jenny Shipley when she was Prime Minister.

Lobbying has a legitimate role in a democracy, but those who practise the craft are very sensitive about being labelled as lobbyists.

The dictionary meaning of the verb is "to try to influence members of a legislative body in favour of or against a policy or course of action".

Lobbyists got their name in the United States, where they used to hang around in Washington's hotel lobbies waiting to buttonhole politicians trying to get to and from their rooms.

But despite our politicians being readily accessible, lobbying here is nowhere near as intense as in the land of the free, where lobbyists' behaviour and ethics are controlled by specific rules. The closest we have is the code of ethics drawn up by the Public Relations Institute.

Not all lobbyists seek the ear of politicians, but many in Wellington get paid a great deal of money to do little else. New members of Parliament are especially vulnerable. Upon being elected, they are bombarded with congratulatory cards and letters, glossy brochures, invitations to lunch or cocktails, and occasionally to corporate boxes at the rugby and cricket, or prime seats at the opera.

For many MPs, it's treatment they've previously only dreamed of.

Once their resistance is softened, the overtures are followed by requests for appointments to discuss anything from issues affecting retailers (Retailers Association), prostitution reform (Maxim Institute, Rape Crisis, Prostitutes' Collective), child abuse (Ecpat, Stop Demand), same-sex marriages and adoptions (Aids Foundation), the aviation industry, victims of crime (Sensible Sentencing Trust), the motor industry, and of course, telecommunications.

As an MP for three years, I, too, experienced the persistence of lobbyists. So perhaps my curtness in refusing many meetings rebounded when some lobbyists suddenly came over all shy when I contacted them for this article.

Sky TV's Tony O'Brien, known in Wellington as "Mr Everywhere Man", did not want to explain why his job was so essential, despite one National MP wondering if he "just eats his way around Wellington". To be fair, O'Brien is skilled at keeping MPs informed on technical developments in television.

Though she doesn't think of herself as a lobbyist, Glenda Hughes, former policewoman and shot put champion turned media and public relations consultant, was particularly handy for politicians in trouble. In December 2004, when lobbyists and spin doctors tried to impress clients and politicians with Christmas cocktails in flash offices on The Terrace, Hughes sent each MP a fluffy white towel with a card that read, "If you get into hot water these holidays, call us first".

Richard Griffin, TVNZ's government relations manager, was great for entertainment and long lunches. Arguably he's had to cope with the client from hell. In fact, the state broadcaster's image is so sensitive, with the intensely private John Anderson about to take over from chairman Craig Boyce - who called select committee members "bastards" - that Griffin "regretfully" didn't want to discuss his role for this article.

But in December, the New Zealand Herald's Michelle Hewitson wrote about Griffin: "Neither of us ever managed to work out exactly what [government relations] means. I don't think TVNZ's subsequent woes can in any way be attributed to the fact that we turned up at the telly station later in the evening calling for Bill Ralston's whiskey".

There are political lobbyists for hire, whose clients are usually a mixture of individuals or companies. Theoretically, for example, supermarket suppliers who feel they're being unfairly treated by a big chain could hire a firm such as Saunders Unsworth to lobby the Commerce Commission to investigate competition in the sector.

As well as their own in-house lobbyists, telecommunications companies use Tuanz (Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand) to try to influence the Government. Hence Tuanz boss Ernie Newman's delight when the Commerce Commission announced this week it would investigate why New Zealand has only two players - Telecom and Vodafone - in the mobile phone market.

Then there are dedicated lobbyists who represent sector membership (such as the Council of Trade Unions) and lobby the Government, or have zero sway with today's Government (Business Roundtable) and stick to the caucus rooms of National and Labour.

Some lobby organisations get on with both sides reasonably well. Business New Zealand's Phil O'Reilly is one of the best-connected and constructive lobbyists. He occasionally clashes with the Government but does his best not to be too negative.

Similarly, the New Zealand Institute, headed by the uber-intelligent Dr David Skilling has earned respect from both National and Labour for its research promoting "prosperous New Zealand".

But there are strict rules for Cabinet ministers dealing with lobbyists, outlined in the Cabinet Manual. Collective responsibility means any issues put before one minister also affect other ministers. Lobbyists will rarely see a Cabinet minister on his or her own - officials and advisers will always be present, taking notes and remaining behind after lobbyist and client have left to discuss what, if anything, will be done.

The manual also warns ministers that association with a non-government or community group may lead to a conflict of interest, particularly where "the organisation is a lobby group" or "receives or applies for government funding".

Thus the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which lobbies for stiffer sentences and victims' rights, could be compromised because this year its chairman, Garth McVicar, received taxpayers' money to travel with Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor and three others on a $58,000 study trip to London, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Frankfurt and Tokyo.

But lobbyist Barrie Saunders, whose career in public relations began 30 years ago as press secretary to the Leader of the Labour Party, says it's a myth that people such as him spend their time gin-slurping with Cabinet ministers. "In 2005 I did not seek, nor have, one ministerial appointment."

Saunders says his modus operandi is to "sort out the problem at the lowest level in the system", meaning he'll start with officials then move up the food chain to regulatory authorities such as the Commerce Commission, though "they are not easy to lobby because they are very formal".

When a lobbyist such as Saunders has finished with the bureaucrats, he'll make appointments to see regular politicians, and finally Cabinet ministers. "An act might be 10 years in gestation so it's better to get in before the concrete's set, when it's in the minister's hands."

Increasingly since MMP arrived in 1996, lobbyists have seen opposition and small party MPs as almost as important as Cabinet ministers. Prebble says a lobbyist's success depends on how smart they are, and telecommunications lobbyists, unlike others, began to get their act together before MMP arrived.

"They never made the mistake of assuming the Opposition was so hopeless they wouldn't win an election," he says. "They took the long term view that in 10 years an Opposition backbencher would be a minister and remember who spoke to them."

Prebble recalls his early days in Parliament for the Labour Party, when a "famous lobbyist" called Stan Mann found out that the young MP for Auckland Central was going to the US. "He knew I was interested in transport and told me I should visit the Boeing aircraft factory, they'd show me around and look after me. He said I'd never think about planes the same way again."

Prebble was persuaded and enjoyed seeing how a jumbo jet was put together. "I also received the best run-down ever on issues facing airlines, and what was happening in the industry."

Did it influence him? A decade later, when he was Minister of Transport, the British manufacturer of Airbus sent a representative to see him. "But it was too late," he says. "Air New Zealand wanted to buy planes from Boeing and I could see nothing irrational in that. I decided to let Air New Zealand make the decision themselves but that was an example of a lobbyist thinking well ahead."

He believes the intensity of lobbying has declined, however, from the days when the economy was regulated and the Government decided things such as who got import licences or export incentives. "Why did companies like Fletcher Challenge or the Dairy Board have their headquarters in Wellington when it wasn't the economic powerhouse of New Zealand? It was close to government, that's why."

So are the average Joe and Jane Citizen shut out from influencing government decisions if they can't afford to hire a Wellington gun from the lobbying industry?

Not in New Zealand. Anyone can ask for an appointment with a politician. They can also make a submission to a select committee, or organise a petition to be "sponsored" by an MP and be tabled in the House before being sent to a select committee. New Zealand is also one of the few democracies where anyone can appear in person before a select committee and speak in support of a submission they have made.

And even a seasoned politician such as Prebble still thinks the most effective lobbyists are not the professionals, but ordinary constituents. When he was a Cabinet minister, he was approached in the Air New Zealand Koru lounge by a stranger who wanted to talk to him. The man had never managed to get past the minister's minders to make an appointment to see Prebble, "so he'd sat in the Koru Club for a week waiting for me, he said, because he knew sooner or later I'd appear".

Impressed by the man's spirit, Prebble took his name and followed up with a meeting, a feat that countless professionals had found impossible. "I can't remember what his idea was but I still remember his method being very effective. So perhaps in New Zealand instead of being known as lobbyists they should be called korus."