Recent revelations that a lobbying firm owner and director was recruited to work over summer as Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, with the expectation he would then immediately return to lobbying, barely raised a mention in our media.
What should have been a major political scandal, was the subject of a must-read investigative report last week on The Spinoff website – see Asher Emanuel's Conflict of interest concerns over lobbyist turned chief of Jacinda Ardern's staff. Emanuel's article is important because it raises unanswered questions about ethics and procedures in the hiring of lobbyists to work for the government.
I had also raised the issue in my Political Roundup column, The Government's revolving door for lobbyists. And Newsroom published my call for greater scrutiny of lobbying – see: More light on revolving door lobbyists.
One explanation for this extraordinary situation going largely unreported, is that Wellington political insiders often operate as a "political class" who are careful not to step on each other's toes. For the media, in particular, a symbiotic relationship can make it problematic to report on powerful individuals who they depend on for stories and access. I spoke briefly about some of this to RNZ's Jessie Mulligan in a 10-minute interview: What's the deal with political lobbyists?.
Danyl Mclauchlan earlier this week pointed to a second, very important, factor in why so little public scrutiny had been applied to this lobbyist. He writes, "a jaw-dropping conflict of interest" such as this could have been massive: "If such a thing happened during the Key government there would have been a huge outcry: protests, online petitions, Twitter hashtags, Radio New Zealand flooded with academics lamenting the death of our democracy. Instead there was an indifferent silence" – see: Simon Bridges and the opposition vacuum.
Partly, Mclauchlan attributes this to partisan bias. But, crucially, he suggests that another important component of New Zealand's "political class" – Parliament's Opposition – decided not to make the issue a scandal. He says "Most government scandals need opposition leaders asking questions in the house, crafting lines so that the voters can understand what's happening, providing optics for the TV news, and having their research units breaking new angles to keep the story live. If none of these things happen then there's no scandal."
The Opposition is supposed to be a check on Executive power – it's their job to expose the government's ethical transgressions such as any misuse of power or willingness to allow conflicts of interest to occur at high levels. So why didn't National push the issue? According to Mclauchlan: "National has no interest in progressing such a story because they in many ways spent the last nine years acting as a vertically integrated lobbying and fundraising operation, and their former chief of staff is now a consulting partner with the same lobbying firm as Labour's former chief of staff."
National has chosen to push harder on another conflict of interest in the Prime Minister's Office. PR professional Tracey Bridges recently appeared as an independent political commentator on RNZ's show The Panel, despite being employed in the PM's office at the time. This was exposed last week during Parliamentary question time, by a number of questions from National's Melissa Lee to Clare Curran, the Minister of Communications. You can watch the five-minute video here.
The allegations were confirmed by RNZ – see RNZ's own report by political editor Jane Patterson: National raises questions about RNZ commentator. RNZ says they were not aware Bridges was working for the Beehive, and programme manager David Allan is quoted saying "It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest."
Bridges defence, that she also had other commercial clients, had the effect of raising questions about potential conflicts of interest in her work for the PM's Office. It begged the question who these clients are, and whether the Prime Minister had suitably dealt with these in employing Bridges. RNZ's Jane Patterson then investigated, interviewing Bridges and GJ Thompson – both of whom gave assurances that there was nothing to worry about – see: Commentator welcomes conflict of interest debate.
Thompson said that conflicts of interest were "handled well". Bridges is reported as saying "she identified and declared any of her other clients who could potentially pose a conflict of interest to the Prime Minister's office, and then managed any conflicts if and when they arose from there on". She said there was "no flow of information" between the PM's Office and her other clients.
Greens' progress for transparency
While the above examples should be alarming for anyone with an interest in democratic transparency, there is also recent cause for celebration. The Green Party should be congratulated for their announcements on Sunday, that they are taking real steps to be both more transparent, and less vulnerable to lobbying. This is best covered by Henry Cooke, who reports James Shaw saying "At times it feels like access to politicians, particularly ministers, is the grease that keeps Wellington's wheels rolling… We think it's about time New Zealanders know who's in those meetings and why" – see: Green Party to open diaries, refuse lobbyist-funded perks.
The appointment diaries of the Green Ministers in government will now be published every three-months. And "All MPs and staff will not be allowed to accept 'corporate hospitality' – freebies like corporate box tickets to rugby games or all-expenses-paid dinners."
Long-time blogging watchdog, No Right Turn, was impressed: "It's good to see a party living up to its values on eliminating corruption from politics, and it's a challenge to other parties to follow suit. But while media attention has focused on the refusing bribes aspect, the proactive release of Ministerial diaries may be more far-reaching. This is something transparency advocates have been calling for years, because it will expose who is attempting to influence Ministers. Lobbying is so effective partly because it is secret, behind closed doors. Being able to connect the dots between Ministerial meetings and policy changes will mean exposing that influence, and force Ministers to either publicly justify policies, or refuse lobbyists' demands. And that's good for the public" – see: A good move.
However, the blogger raised the question of other government ministers, saying it "puts Labour's 'Minister for Open Government' to shame. Shouldn't she be announcing measures like this? Or does their view of 'open government' not actually extend to real openness?"
And in terms of questions about the Government's openness, and following proper procedures, there are still questions about Claire Curran's breakfast meeting with an RNZ news boss, as reported by John Drinnan late last year – see: Minister And RNZ news boss breakfast at The Astoria. David Farrar has raised the issue again – see: Unwise meeting and answers.
Finally, on a related topic, my Newsroom column from yesterday calls for a debate about the murky role of PR and communications professionals and lobbyists, who also have a sideline in political commentary – see: 'The conflicting interests of commentators'.