Bryce Edwards: The rise of the hyper-partisan lobbyists in Wellington

Bryce Edwards: The rise of the hyper-partisan lobbyists in Wellington

Last month, Labour’s Neale Jones was part of the team carrying out coalition negotiations with NZ First and the Greens.

On Friday, he finished work as Jacinda Ardern’s Chief of Staff. Today, he is a lobbyist – beginning work as the New Zealand director of Hawker Britton, an Australian political lobbying firm that’s just reopened its doors in Wellington. For the latest story on this, see Laura Walters’ Labour chief of staff Neale Jones takes up job with lobby firm Hawker Britton. While this swift transition from Labour insider to lobbyist may raise ethical questions, right now there is absolutely nothing illegal about it.

Laws exist in many countries to restrict this behavior. An example is a rule against the “revolving door”, whereby officials and politicians go from being part of the government one day to a new lobbying job the next. Many countries require a mandatory “cooling off” period, which makes this behaviour slightly less compromising.

Political lobbying is a growth industry in New Zealand. And lobbyists are going to be particularly busy over the next year. I’ve written about this today – see: Unfettered lobbyists under suspicion – saying “It’s a great time to be a lobbyist. Not only are lobbyists in more demand at the moment, they have more opportunities to find influence. They can thank Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters for this. Because, whenever there’s a change of government, it’s a time of rapid reform.” And that means all sorts of vested interests are keen to employ lobbyists to try and achieve some influence over changes being made.

But at the same time, I caution lobbyists that their days of unfettered operations might be limited, due to increased interest in their activities and influence. People see the professional lobby firms in particular as being ethically dubious. And when former politicians and political staffers switch from democratic politics one day to lobbying careers the next, this shows the profession in a very poor light.

The new hyper-partisan lobbyists

Hawker Britton is an especially interesting lobbying company because of its unique business model, in which it is overtly partisan. Normally professional lobbying firms attempt to work with whatever political party is in power, and hence try to be non-partisan. But Hawker Britton – which is primary based in Australia – has pioneered a new type of “hyper-partisan” influence-seeking that only concentrates on one side of the political divide.

In Australia the firm typically employs staff and politicians from that country’s Labor Party, and its staff often go on to become Labor MPs. There is no great divide between between the lobbyists and the politicians, with the firm also providing strategic advice and donations to the party. And so it will be interesting to see to what extent that same model is used in New Zealand – see Laura Walters’ Australian left-wing lobby firm Hawker Britton hiring in New Zealand.

The firm has operated in Wellington before, under the Helen Clark Labour Government, but departed when National gained power. Hawker Britton’s rightwing “sister company”, Barton Deakin, now run by former National ministerial staffer Jenna Raeburn, was tasked with lobbying the then National government.

In Australia these “sister companies” refer clients to each other and operate in harmony.

Raeburn set up the New Zealand division of Barton Deakin last year, which was covered by Sam Sachdeva at the time: “Raeburn spent more than five years working for the National Party, most recently as a ministerial staffer for Gerry Brownlee. Her turnaround from government to lobbying was swift – she was in Brownlee’s office one week, and at Barton Deakin the next” – see: Arrival of Australian political lobbying firm in NZ raises questions about oversight.

For the best and most critical account of the history of the “hyper partisan” Barton Deakin and Hawker Britton, see Mike Seccombe’s Barton Deakin, the Coalition’s ‘evil twin’ lobby firm.

Revolving doors and conflicts of interest

Raeburn is not only an ex-ministerial staffer, but is also a National Party activist. For example, she managed her partner, Chris Bishop’s, election campaign in Hutt South. And she plays a strong role in party electioneering. When questioned about the potential conflicts of interest for the lobbyist and the politician, Sachdeva’s reported that Raeburn said she was aware of this, but didn’t believe it would be a problem: “We did talk about it: I don’t think it will reflect unfavourably on him, as long as we are sensible about it… We’ve both always worked in and around politics, and Wellington’s a very small place … you both understand there are things you can and can’t talk about at home.”

Of course, Bishop is also a former lobbyist – for tobacco giant Phillip Morris – and also a former senior ministerial staffer, so the couple have plenty of experience with juggling these transitions to different roles.

In addition, Raeburn has a role as a political commentator, appearing frequently in the media, and there have been questions about the appropriateness of this – see Colin Peacock’s Pundits with skin in the campaign game. The article explains the problem with so many lobbyists being used as political commentators: “viewers, listeners and readers are usually in the dark about the vested interests the lobbyists and PR consultants may have.”

Lobbyists and Labour under scrutiny

In terms of the possible conflicts of interest of former party staffers shifting over to lobbying, blogger No Right Turn once summed it up like this: “these people are leveraging relationships built in government service for private gain. That is not only ethically dubious; it degrades the reputation of Parliament, and raises the question of whether the advice they gave in their previous position was affected by their desire to gain outside employment (a question which also arises about members of the Parliamentary press gallery when they move to better-paid positions as political spindoctors). Granting them the special favour of free access to Parliament degrades it even further, and raises questions about what other favours they are getting from Ministers” – see: The revolving door.

Similar questions about ethics, power, and conflicts of interests should of course now be raised about Jacinda Ardern’s former Chief of Staff now lobbying and assisting the Labour-led government. Jones’ counterparts in Australia, have come to be seen as running the “the privatised wing of the Labour Party”. It’s easy to see how someone with insider knowledge about which coalition policies were contentious during negotiations only a few weeks ago could be of great benefit to a company wanting to stymie or promote a particular policy.

And Labour will no doubt come under scrutiny as to whether it is succumbing to other lobbyists. In the recent past, Andrew Little got into trouble for dinning with pharmaceutical lobbyists – see Vernon Small’s column from last year: Labour may not like it, but private dinners with drug lobbyists is a valid news story.

In the weekend, a story broke about the involvement of Medicines NZ in the recent election campaign – see Stacey Kirk and Laura Walters’ More than $150,0000 spent on mysterious ‘Election 2017 project’ by drug lobby group. Although little is known about the election activities of this lobby group, the article notes, “Prior to the election, Medicines NZ strongly supported a Labour Party policy to adopt an interim drugs fund.”

Of course, with plenty of new government programmes and law changes, there will be a lot of work for lobbyists. And that means there will need to be increased media and public scrutiny of what is going on – especially when it comes to some of the bigger projects being developed like housing and regional development. In this regard, see Hamish Rutherford’s Regions begin to lobby minister for cash from new $1 billion a year provincial fund.

Another lobbying group to watch out for is the US Chamber of Commerce, which surprisingly operates in New Zealand, and has a very close relationship with the government and, in particular, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For more on this, see the recent investigative article by Branko Marcetic, The influence machine: how an American neoliberal lobby group operates in NZ.

Finally, Stuff’s Laura Walters is doing some very good work on the power of lobbyists and other vested interests. This month she published a very good overview of the state of the industry, including its lack of regulation – see: Lobby groups have power but not on the same scale as US.