Bryce Edwards: NZ’s latest political lobbying problems

Bryce Edwards: NZ’s latest political lobbying problems

A very concerning element of the current NZ First donations scandal is the role of lobbying and lobbyists close to the Government. The most recent story from RNZ’s Guyon Espiner and Kate Newton, revealed that lobbyist Doug Woolerton, who is also a trustee of the NZ First Foundation, had been advocating for law changes on behalf of a property developer client who was a donor to the Foundation – see: NZ First Foundation trustee was lobbying for donor.

According to Espiner and Newton, Woolerton “took on apartment developer Conrad Properties as a client for his firm, The Lobbyist”, and then lobbied politicians on their behalf. In addition, the same company was making donations to Woolerton’s NZ First Foundation: “Between July 2018 and January 2019 Conrad Properties, and entities which share the same two directors, donated $55,000 to the foundation in four amounts, which all fell below the public disclosure threshold.”

Is this a problem? As National Party blogger and pollster David Farrar tweeted yesterday, “There is nothing wrong with being a lobbyist. There is nothing wrong with being a party fundraiser. There is a lot wrong with being both. The two roles should be ethically incompatible.”

Guyon Espiner had already reported on Woolerton’s role as a lobbyist in his original story about the secret donations – see: Mysterious foundation loaning New Zealand First money. He cited the sales pitch on The Lobbyist website, which offers: “all ancillary services such as media strategies, speeches, drafting changes for legislation, submissions to select committees and personal introductions when appropriate”.

Espiner approached Woolerton for comment, but he “wouldn’t say what the foundation was, what his role as a trustee involved or whether he believed he had conflicts of interest given he also ran a lobbying firm.”

At the time, Danyl Mclauchlan also examined these arrangements: “When you have companies and individuals making secret donations to a party that holds the portfolios in those industries, there is every reason for the public to ask questions about whether their government is corrupt” – see: The NZ First donations scandal is very serious, and won’t let Jacinda Ardern hide.

Mclauchlan pointed to NZ First’s apparent vetoing of the Labour-Green capital gains tax proposal, which many in the property sector were so opposed to, and says in light of this, “The public has a right to know that they were being funded by property developers.” He noted that while in government, NZ First has “taken very strong policy stands on behalf of specific industries and companies”.

Woolerton has played a role in the NZ First party according to Richard Harman who profiled him in a 2018 article that pointed out he had been “the party president for 14 of its 25 years and an NZ First MP for 12” – see: How NZ First could go with National. According to this, “Woolerton has retired from Parliament and the Presidency, but he is still a force behind the scenes. He says he writes two pages memos from time to time to NZ First MPs just reminding them of that constituency that the party represents.”

For more on NZ First-related allegations of policy being vulnerable to lobbying and vested interests in this Government, see my column from last week, Political Roundup: Is Government policy for sale in New Zealand?.

There have been other NZ First-related lobbying controversies involving Shane Jones. Last month Guyon Espiner broke another story about the Provincial Growth Fund, with allegations that the NZ Future Forest Products company, which has close links to NZ First, had lobbied the minister about a bid for funding over dinner at the Beehive, but Jones didn’t disclose this – see: NZ First-linked company in government loan bid says it met with Shane Jones.

According to this article, the company’s “directors include Brian Henry, lawyer to New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters, judicial officer of the party and one of two trustees of the New Zealand First Foundation, and NZ First leader Winston Peters’ partner Jan Trotman, who joined the company in August 2019.”

Other lobbying scandals in the Government

Lobbying controversies continue to plague the Labour-led Government. Last year, I covered the major one, where a lobbyist was employed as Jacinda Ardern’s acting Chief of Staff while remaining a director and owner of a large lobbying firm – see: Political Roundup: Have corporate lobbyists been running this government?.

There have since been other problems of potential conflicts of interests involving lobbyists employed to work in the Beehive. In January, it was revealed that the Government had been employing lobbyist Barry Ebert to work in the Labour Leader’s Office and as a Specialist Ministerial Adviser to Cabinet Minister Phil Twyford – see Jason Walls’ A senior staffer to Minister Phil Twyford owned lobbying firm while working for Minister.

According to this report, “While he was working for Twyford, he remained the director and owner of Three Point Two Communications, according to Companies’ Office records. In fact, the Three Point Two website still lists him as the director of the PR firm.” And “The firm advertises ‘advocacy and lobbying’ services helping clients ‘stay several steps ahead of your competitors and the regulators’.”

The lobbyist claimed that no conflicts of interest arose during his time working in the Beehive. But according to Thomas Coughlan, he carried on with outside work without full disclosure of this – see: The lobbyist working in Phil Twyford’s office didn’t disclose contracts to employer.

Coughlan has also written about the case in an opinion piece, complaining “while there’s no suggestion of any wrongdoing, the lack of proper disclosure is concerning. He won’t disclose the names of his clients – and short of the Prime Minister forcing his hand, we’re forced to take him at his word” – see: There’s nothing wrong with lobbying – so why won’t the Government prove it?.

Coughlan also outlines some of the anti-democratic risks of having such loose rules around lobbyists working in and out of government. He comments: “All this makes it staggering that New Zealand is so laissez-faire when it comes to lobbying, which is almost entirely unregulated. The US, for example, forces lobbyists to disclose who they’re acting for, how much they were paid for the contract, and their lobbying expenses.”

Lobbyist Matthew Hooton has become an outspoken critic of this situation, telling Mike Hosking that “that you simply can’t be working at the Beehive while advertising your services as a lobbyist” and it’s a sign of how lax this country is on lobbying – see Newstalk ZB’s Matthew Hooton criticises Government’s lax attitude to lobbyists. He says “Even in Trump’s Washington, these people would be in custody if something like this happened.”

Hooton also wrote about the Government’s lobbying controversies late last year, relating this to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s apparently relaxed nature towards NZ First’s fundraising practices: “she has adopted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy towards the political and personal activities of ministers from NZ First and the Greens. Perhaps Ardern’s reticence to carry out her constitutional responsibilities as Prime Minister relates to her not being squeaky clean herself. One of her closest political advisers is one of my fellow lobbyists, Gordonjon Thompson, who she uses as a sounding board” – see: Winston Peters must tell — but Jacinda Ardern must ask (paywalled).

Hooton elaborates on Ardern’s employment of Thompson as her acting Chief of Staff: “According to the Prime Minister, Thompson had input into all staffing matters across every Beehive office, including the appointment of 111 staff. Moreover, he had access to all Cabinet papers and other secret Government material, perhaps even to SIS security clearance reports on potential Beehive staff. The Prime Minister will not say what his security classification was or if he had access to intelligence information and attended meetings and briefings with her as Minister for National Security and Intelligence.”

Was this a conflict of interest? Hooton comments: “Through all this time, Thompson remained a shareholder and director of his lobbying firm, obliged to act in the best interests of the company, and even conducted some company business. His services as a lobbyist continued to be advertised on the company website, along with the number of the cellphone sitting right next to him on the 9th floor of the Beehive.”

Finally, one of the key sectors of lobbying is health, and the ODT’s Bruce Munro has delved into this to see what effect the lobbyists are having on our health system and laws – see: Up to no good: What impact is lobbying having on public health?.