Opinion: Lobbying is a long-established and important part of our political system. It takes many forms – from a constituent approaching an MP on a personal matter or an issue they feel strongly about to the business or professional organisation seeking to influence a minister’s decision on a matter that will affect them.

For the most part, such lobbying is unobjectionable and is accepted as a normal and proper part of the political process.

However, over the past few decades the face of business and professional lobbying has changed. Whereas previously, corporate and professional lobbyists came in the main from within the industry or professional sector they represented, they have been joined and steadily supplanted in recent years by a new breed – the professional lobbying businesses that take on external clients and use their alleged inside knowledge to push issues more effectively with the government of the day.

Typically, this new breed of lobbyist includes former politicians, political staff, and media personnel trading on their links to the politicians of the day.

It is this latter point and the swiftness and ease with which people move from the political and media worlds to the world of lobbying politicians that causes concern. Traditional lines of separation are quickly blurred, and the process takes on an unsavoury air of “mates helping mates” as the recent examples of a minister walking straight out of Parliament and into a lobbying role, and a lobbyist overnight becoming chief of staff to the Prime Minister, exemplify.

Consequently, there has been a call to tighten the rules governing lobbyists in New Zealand. Unlike most other countries, we have no formal register of lobbyists and their clients, nor do we have a stand-down period before former politicians can become lobbyists. Both would be welcome additions to the governance of the conduct of public affairs in this country and are matters the next Parliament should address with priority.

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While such reforms would at least make the current situation more transparent and stop the developing “revolving door” syndrome between Parliament and the lobbying businesses, they address only part of the problem.

When I first became an MP, businesses and professional groups did their own lobbying, either directly, or through people within their organisations tasked with developing what was then called government relations.

Because they were directly linked to the business, profession, or sector groups such as education or health, they knew what they were talking about and could respond to changing circumstances intuitively, without having to go back to a client for further instructions. The process was therefore much more straightforward, and more trustworthy.

Though I did see lobbyists occasionally, I seldom took any real notice of what they had to say – the horse’s mouth was always a more reliable guide to me than the pre-programmed recording.

The advent of the professional lobbyists in the late 1980s changed that. No longer did the lobbyist understand innately the industry or profession they were advocating for because they were part of it. Instead, they were no more than a “hired gun”, simply putting forward a client’s case, and collecting a fee for doing so.

Intimate knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand quickly became secondary to having the “right contacts in Wellington” to talk to, which is where recruiting former politicians and media personnel with such contacts became useful. And where all the suspicions of “mates helping mates” arose. No longer was it a case of what one knew, but rather who one knew.

However, many of these new lobbyists were neither competent nor sufficiently respected to add much value to their client’s interests. Nevertheless, the clients, especially those not based in Wellington, quickly came to believe that the services and “insights” the lobbyists were touting were too valuable to ignore.

Their emergence confirmed what many business leaders had long suspected, that Wellington was a strange and unusual place that only those close to it really understood. And the lobbyists, filling Wellington’s cafes and loudly pretending to anyone in hearing range that their imagined intimate knowledge of the way government works was vital to its ongoing operation, were happy to play on that suspicion.

When I was a minister I quickly concluded that such lobbyists were largely a waste of time, and so had as little to do with them as possible. Most of their concerns could be ascertained by talking directly to the sector concerned, without any need to involve these new lobbyists. Indeed, I formed the view, which I often conveyed to business meetings and seminars, that relying on lobbyists to present a case on their behalf, rather than front it themselves, signalled they did not really feel all that the strongly about the issue in question, so why should I?

Though I did see lobbyists occasionally, I seldom took any real notice of what they had to say – the horse’s mouth was always a more reliable guide to me than the pre-programmed recording.

I also discovered on many occasions that lobbyists, even the old-style ones, were little more than professional whingers, who ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds. They were very good at telling you what they did not like but woefully weak when asked to provide an alternative solution. More than once I was told providing solutions was the government’s role not theirs, or that they did not consider it appropriate to put forward alternative options.

Regulating the way lobbyists currently work will not change any of this. What we need is for businesses and sector groups to become better informed about the process of government and how they can contribute to government policy development, so they can do it for themselves.

Up-skilling them to make a direct, proper, and effective contribution to government policy development, without the need for someone else to represent them, would be far more productive, although much less lucrative for today’s lobbyists.

Without change along these lines, today’s lobbying will continue to be seen by many as no more than “mates helping mates”.

Peter Dunne was the leader of United Future and served as a minister in former National and Labour governments.

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