Lobbyists and PR professionals play an increasingly central role in New Zealand’s political system, and yet the public knows very little about what these people do. But we should. More sunlight shone on the activities of communications professionals active in our democracy would offer greater protection against conflicts of interest and corruption.

The hidden persuaders

The low visibility of lobbyists and PR professionals is mostly by design. The very nature of their roles involves working behind the scenes – deliberately keeping a low profile, while surreptitiously influencing government and politics on behalf of well-resourced interests. Visibility only invites scrutiny and questioning of their role. So, these agents of influence make a concerted effort to fly beneath the radar.

The second reason for their relative anonymity is that their industry is entirely unregulated in New Zealand. Elsewhere in the world, lobbying has been forced to become somewhat more transparent – mostly through laws establishing public registration of lobbying practices.

In New Zealand some attempts were made by the Green Party to bring in tighter regulation in 2012. A private member’s bill was progressed, first by Sue Kedgley, and then by Holly Walker, which would have forced lobbying activities involving politicians to have to be declared. But when the bill came to be considered in select committee, the major flaws and overly-simplistic design of the Green legislation became apparent, and the bill was dumped.

A third reason that New Zealand society knows so little about lobbying is because the media generally don’t cover the activity much, and when they do, it normally takes the shape of profiles of industry figures, without much probing. This could be partly due to under-resourcing, or perhaps a lack of appreciation of how problematic lobbying can be for the democratic process. Or maybe it’s due to complacency about protecting integrity in politics – after all, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index out today, New Zealand is now officially the least corrupt country on earth.

A case study in media coverage

Earlier this week I wrote a column for the New Zealand Herald about one particularly concerning lobbying-and-politics relationship – see: The Government’s revolving door for lobbyists. The gist of the story is that Jacinda Ardern asked lobbyist Gordon Jon Thompson to be her Chief of Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office for a few months while she put together the new administration. He was hired with the full expectation that he would then return to his lobbying firm, Thompson Lewis, after he finished. And he did that this week – heading straight back into lobbying, taking with him all of his new networks of connections, inside information on the new administration, and the benefits of having hired many of the new staff.

Will Thompson’s experience as Ardern’s number one adviser help him in his lobbying activities? One industry insider told me that his firm could now expect a huge increase in customers wanting Thompson’s services, and that he could now start charging significantly higher rates.

Many in the media won’t write stories – and certainly not negative ones – about lobbyists and spin doctors, because that would be ‘biting the hand that feeds’

The story raises plenty of questions about the “revolving door” of elites. This concept – of professionals from government – including politicians and senior public servants – flowing easily into the private sector to be lobbyists, has become so contentious elsewhere in the world that it’s made illegal. France, Canada, Australia, the US, and the USA all have “cooling down” periods that ensure high-level political insiders can’t simply shift straight into jobs lobbying the government.

So, why did the Thompson story not receive greater media attention? After all, the details were well known.

One journalist told me this week that many in the media won’t write stories – and certainly not negative ones – about lobbyists and spin doctors, because that would be “biting the hand that feeds”. Many of these well-connected lobbyists and party spin doctors provide tip-offs and stories to the journalists.

It’s an age-old tool of PR practitioners – to cultivate close relationships with the media, providing them with useful scandals and gossip to write about. It often serves the lobbyist’s cause in their job of influencing public narratives about politics or their clients. But, importantly, it also fosters the symbiotic relationship between the journalist and the PR or lobbying professional – they both benefit from each other, as long as neither turns on the other.

Thompson is clearly well thought of by journalists, many of whom regard him as “a mate”. And of course, it is going to be hard for journalists to deal with any stringency with an ex-colleague or someone that they regard as a friend.

It’s worth also pointing out that Thompson started out as a journalist, and he has worked in politics, as well as for various corporates. In many ways, he’s become the ultimate “political insider” – and one who is undoubtedly extremely well paid. And of course, he’s not the first – nor will he be the last – journalist to switch sides.

So, the story is not only one of New Zealand’s unregulated lobbying industry, but also a reminder of the peculiarities of the very small and closely-networked nature of politics, media and business in New Zealand – and especially in Wellington. There’s something of a harmonious “political class” that underpins how democracy functions – or doesn’t function properly – in this country.

As lobbying grows in importance in New Zealand – as it is in the rest of the world – there is likely to be more public demand for investigative work on who the lobbyists are, and how they operate. The public is increasingly suspicious of the influence of “vested interests” on the political system. Journalists – and others – will therefore have to rise to the challenge of digging into this largely unknown sphere.

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