Action point 1: Regulate lobbying

Unlike most OECD countries, New Zealand doesn’t have any lobbying regulations. As a result, vested and commercial interests currently have excessive influence on public policy-making.

When it comes to the decisions that affect all of us, a wide range of voices should be heard and considered equitably.

The practice of engaging in advocacy activities to influence government policies and decisions is known as lobbying. If these activities are conducted in an ethical way, it can give decision-makers access to important information and a range of perspectives. 

Lobbying becomes harmful if it’s carried out unethically – if, for instance, lobbyists provide misleading or partial information, or use personal relationships with decision-makers to get favours. Lobbying is also particularly concerning if it’s carried out without transparency, so that the public can’t see who is influencing whom. The “revolving door” between working in government and working in lobbying creates opportunities to misuse confidential state information for private benefit. And if some people have special access to decision-makers, they have greater power to shape policies towards their own interests and away from the common good. These are all ways in which the playing field is currently tilted towards private and commercial vested interests.

An imbalance of influence and power undermines public trust in government and can lead to decisions that have negative effects on the health and wellbeing of people and the environment. This undermines public trust in government and democracy. The word ‘democracy’ means ‘the power of the people, not ‘the power of corporations and vested interests’.

Regulating lobbying activities would not get in the way of legitimate advocacy or improperly limit the right to freedom of expression, impinge on citizens’ right to meet with their MP or participate in the usual open processes of democracy (for example, making submissions, writing letters). But regulation would rebalance the excessive access and influence that those with the means to use lobbyists can have compared to those with less social, political, and economic power.

What we are asking for

A Regulation of Lobbying Act, including:

image of new zealand parliament

What these measures will achieve

New Zealand lags behind other OECD countries when it comes to regulating lobbying. This is beginning to undermine our standing as a democracy with high standards of integrity.

Introducing regulation that will ensure greater transparency around public policy-making will stop things from getting worse and support citizens’ opportunities for fair and balanced participation in policy-making. Any new measures need to be compulsory: there’s no evidence that the kind of voluntary initiatives the industry prefers will do anything to help clean up lobbying.

By making sure everyone has a fair chance to influence policy decisions, reform can help create a better balance of interests in the policy-making process. This in turn could create greater stability, as laws are less likely to be overturned as the political cycle changes and new groups rise in favour. Citizens could also have greater confidence that government policy-making processes are open and transparent, leading to higher trust and a more functional society. Everyone benefits if there is an equal opportunity for all to have their voice heard and valued.

Why action is needed

The evidence for change is stacking up…

The series revealed:

  • Close relationships between lobbyists and cabinet ministers.
  • Commercial conflicts of interest due to lobbyists advising government at the same time as working with commercial clients with competing interests.
  • Numerous examples of the revolving door between government and the lobbying industry.
  • Lobbying is so embedded in government agencies that they even hire their own lobbyists to influence policy decisions. Universities, government agencies and State-Owned Enterprises are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money on lobbying firms.

More recently, significant pieces of legislation passed by the new coalition government have raised concerns about the influence of lobbying from powerful multinational industries such as tobacco, mining, oil exploration and alcohol. Legislation has been rushed through under urgency that overrides safeguards for public health or environmental protections. 

  • The amendment of the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act contradicts public health advice and has come under intense scrutiny due to suspected interference by the tobacco industry.
  • In addition to widespread public and media concern about the Fast-track Approvals Bill, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has warned that among the many risks that the Bill poses, “Ministers subject to political lobbying are empowered to allocate public resources with potentially harmful environmental and health consequences.”

Even among professional lobbyists there is growing support for regulation. Several prominent lobbyists have criticised New Zealand’s lack of lobbying regulations and called for the industry to adopt more ethical lobbying principles.