Bryce Edwards: Lobbyists use the revolving door into mayoral offices

Bryce Edwards: Lobbyists use the revolving door into mayoral offices

Lobbyists are currently facing increased scrutiny, especially in terms of their propensity to shift back and forwards through Parliament’s “revolving door” – most starkly illustrated by former Cabinet Minister Kris Faafoi setting up a lobbying company only months after leaving the Beehive, where his former Government colleagues still hold power.

But there are also revolving doors for lobbyists and political insiders in and out of New Zealand’s mayoral offices. The recent local government elections involved a number of lobbyists and PR insiders either standing for office or helping candidates win their campaigns. In the last week have seen questionable conflicts of interest created by new appointments and elected roles.

A Lobbyist Mayor of Wellington

Perhaps the most obvious example is the election of corporate lobbyist Tory Whanau as the Mayor of Wellington. Whanau was previously the Chief of Staff for the Greens in the Beehive, but left that role last year to join Neale Jones’ corporate lobbying firm, Capital Government Relations to work alongside other prominent lobbyists like Ben Thomas, Clint Smith, and Hayden Munro.

Whanau’s lobbying role and networks were never given much scrutiny during her campaign. But now that she has won office, pressure needs to be put on Whanau to disclose Capital Government Relations’ clients. If this doesn’t happen, there will always be suspicion about Whanau’s role as mayor and any continued loyalties and association with corporate vested interests.

Whanau might protest that she has now stepped down from her Capital Government Relations lobbying position, but the whole point of the “revolving door” critique is that conflict of interests don’t magically dissolve the minute someone moves from lobbyist to politician or vice versa.

The most important Capital Government Relations clients Whanau needs to disclose are property developers. She is now embarking on a programme of housing reform in Wellington which has the potential to greatly enrich numerous property developers by policy changes she says she will push through. And given that Capital Government Relations actively lobby politicians on behalf of property developers, this disclosure of her previous employer’s property links is vital.

Whanau’s three-way trip through the revolving door (to the Beehive, to lobbying and now to being a politician) provides an important case study in the “revolving door”, as it’s all happened without any stand-down periods or scrutiny about conflicts of interest. She has gone from sitting on different sides of the vested interests table three times within the space of about a year. And of course, there will be nothing to stop her going straight back into a lucrative lobbying career in three years’ time.

Auckland Council lobbyists and political operatives

The election of Wayne Brown as Auckland’s mayor also represents a useful case study of the shift through the revolving door of lobbyists and political insiders. Brown’s election campaign made heavy use of professional political operatives, some of whom have just been employed to work in the Mayor’s Office in Auckland.

Whanau’s firm Capital Government Relations was involved in the campaign, too – making the lobbying firm central to the election of politicians who run both cities. In particular lobbyist Ben Thomas, who also provides political commentary for Stuff, the Spinoff, and RNZ, was Brown’s media manager. It’s not clear if he will continue to work for Brown.

Thomas’ former boss at the lobbying firm Exceltium, Matthew Hooton, was also involved in Brown’s campaign as an advisor, and has since been employed as the Mayor’s Interim Head of Policy and Communications. Hooton writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald.

The Mayor’s new acting Chief of Staff is Tim Hurdle, who is a professional political public relations consultant – with a long background of electioneering for the National Party. He has also working for international rightwing political consultants Crosby Textor. He and his wife, Jacinda Lean, run a consultancy that was utilised to do all the market research that gave Brown the edge in the mayoral campaign. Lean has also been employed by Brown, as his acting Deputy Chief of Staff. In recent months Hurdle has appeared on RNZ’s weekly political commentary slot, alongside fellow lobbyist Neale Jones.

Another key figure appointed by Brown is Max Hardy, a partner at top law firm Meredith Connell. Hardy is regarded by lobbying insiders as one of the most successful lobbyists in the field. He is married to rising Labour Party MP and close ally of the Prime Minister, Arena Williams.

Yesterday it was also announced that former New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft had also joined Brown’s staff as a political adviser.

Shining a light on the corporate connections in mayoral offices.

Local government has long been seen as a place where elected and appointed officials have been able to push the agendas of the wealthy, including property owners and developers. Rules and policies that are developed at the local level can have a huge impact on the value of property and business in particular. Too often the powerful political and corporate connections in mayoral and council chambers stay in the dark. Hence, we need much greater scrutiny of the vested interests operating at the local government level, as well as central government.

In particular, citizens should be asking how confident they can be that the new powerful people in mayoral offices in places like Wellington and Auckland are not pushing the interests of the wealthy vested interests they have been working for or connected with prior to moving into their new positions.

The answer is transparency. A light needs to be shone on the clients of the political insiders going through the various revolving doors. The best way to do this at the moment is to have any lobbyist going into public office – elected as in the case of Whanau, or appointed in the case of Hooton, etc – make a declaration of recent clients of their respective firms.

We need much better regulation of the lobbying industry, and it’s positive that there is now a growing conversation about this. Of course some lobbyists can see which way the wind is blowing on this and will suggest minimal regulation such as a register of lobbyists or a code of conduct. Those are all useful mechanisms, but ultimately what we need is full transparency – lobbyists disclosing their clients. And the good news about this mechanism is that it could occur immediately without any law change. Lobbyists involved in local government like Tory Whanau or Ben Thomas could simply choose to disclose their clients today if they want to. But to do so they will need to be pressured by the public. Hopefully that pressure will start building now.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


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