The recently announced review of the lobbying sector in New Zealand must address issues of transparency and access if it is to make a real difference in how industries influence decision-making. This includes establishing an enforceable registry of lobbyists and introducing a cooling-off period for former politicians before they can begin lobbying.
The review was announced following revelations that former Police Secretary Stuart Nash shared confidential cabinet information with political donors. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins petitioned lobbyists for card access to parliament be revoked. He also called on the lobbying industry to develop its own voluntary “code of conduct”.
Unlike many other countries, New Zealand does not require lobbyists to register, disclose their clients or sources of funding, or adhere to ethical standards.
But our research into lobbying by the alcohol, tobacco and cannabis industries emphasizes how corporations influence officials and the public to advance their interests.
The problems with political lobbying
On the one hand, private sector involvement is often valuable and can lead to better public policies. Companies have expertise that can help policymakers understand innovation and assess the feasibility of proposed policies.
Yet the political system is not always transparent and equally inclusive. Companies have considerably more money, expertise and time than ordinary citizens to deal with politicians.
Read more: Revealed: The magnitude of job switching between government officials and fossil fuel lobbyists
This influence can result in weak and ineffective government responses, including decision makers delaying responses with long consultation periods or distant targets.
Tobacco lobbyists, for example, have long had pushed back against regular packaging And tax increases on tobacco products, despite proof of their effectiveness to reduce smoke damage. Instead, lobbyists have also argued that raising tobacco taxes only contributes to a black tobacco market.
The dark art of influence
Researchers watch tobacco And alcohol Lobbies have found that corporate influence often involves long-term strategies rather than immediately “visible” attempts to influence politicians.
A study in the United Kingdom showed how alcohol interests employed a long-term strategy to influence policy. Personal contacts with key policy makers were nurtured long before they joined government.
This type of relationship building can also include gift giving, from small consumable items such as rugby tickets and dinner, to speaking roles, international travel, club membership and the promise of future employment.
Read more: Why companies want the government’s ear and are willing to pay for it
Social media are also increasingly used in lobbying. Digital platforms offer opportunities to initiate, enter into and promote contacts between companies and politicians. They can also be used to persuade the public to put pressure on policymakers, indirectly influencing government decisions.
While direct corporate donations to political parties and candidates are often easy to trace, corporate funding can also be routed through supposedly independent organizations, through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and “think tanks.”
The alcohol and tobacco industries fund non-profit organizations to run social campaigns or conduct research. They are often presented as “independent”, despite their industry connections. An Australian study found that the alcohol industry used these organizations to promote ineffective responses to policy submissions and campaign against higher alcohol taxes.
The phenomenon “revolving door”., where industry personnel enter policy-making and vice versa, is another path of influence. A recent example from the tobacco industry involves an ex-senior World Health Organization official transitioning to a leadership role in a non-profit organization funded by one of the largest tobacco companies in the world.
in New Zealand, research reporting has noted the easy transition between alcohol industry lobbying roles and later senior government policy roles.
What can be done?
Major proposals for the long-term regulation of lobbying in New Zealand focused on establishing a lobby register and introducing a cooling-off period for former ministers before they can enter the lobbying sector.
This is a good start to provide transparency.
According to a 2022 review of OECD lobbying rulesthe register must be enforceable and contain sufficient details of lobbying activities to be effective. This includes who is lobbying, their main objectives and targeted politicians.
Read more: How do we deal with companies that benefit from carbon pollution in a climate crisis?
In New Zealand, the opposition has proposed a 12-month withdrawal period for former ministers before lobbying. In Canada, the cooling off period for designated government officials is five years.
And – as we have shown with the examples above – there are political roles other than ministers that should be considered, including MPs and local government officials. Consideration should also be given to hiring former private employees in the public sector.
Determining who should be covered by transparency requirements is another challenge. In addition to professional lobbyists, other actors are also competing for the attention of policymakers.
These include think tanks, NGOs and even researchers who may receive funding from companies. The OECD evaluation found that these external actors are not always covered by the transparency requirements and that some activities, such as the use of social media as a lobbying tool, are exempt.
Companies may have legitimate requirements to protect market-sensitive information. However, modern lobbying regulations must ensure that citizens have access to important information about all forms of lobbying, including on social media.