Regulation of lobbyists must put public health before commercial interests

With RNZ revelations today of harmful industries lobbying policymakers and Ministers via commercial firms, health groups are launching a series of urgent recommendations to regulate lobbying in Aotearoa. Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) Board Co-Chair Professor Boyd Swinburn said this was needed to reduce harmful industries’ excessive and shady lobbying access and protect the health of everyday New Zealanders.

“For too long now the influence of the alcohol and unhealthy food lobby has been treated as business as normal via access to decision makers and officials. Guyon Espiner’s work adds to the evidence of their overly cosy relationships” Professor Swinburn said.

“Health Coalition Aotearoa and other advocates began work to limit revolving doors last year when Cabinet Minister Kris Fa’afoi sat on strong alcohol reform recommendations for many years then dropped straight into being a hired gun for commercial clients.”

“The recommendations we are launching today pull together the expertise of leaders in health, transparency, and constitutional law to bring Aotearoa up to the standards of democracy expected in other countries like Ireland, Canada, UK and Australia. This policy package is much broader than just reducing the impact of health-harming products and industries, although this is Health Coalition Aotearoa’s main area of focus.”

“Our recommendations will protect the health of citizens from the harmful influence of the alcohol and ultra-processed food industries, which along with tobacco are responsible for one third of preventable death and disease in New Zealand. Unlike tobacco policy, which is blocked from lobbying influence by international agreements there is zero local regulation of the lobbying interests of other big industries.”

The expert group identified three main areas for action. Firstly, a law to regulate lobbying, with lobbyists register, consideration of a stand-down period, codes of conduct and an Integrity Commissioner. Secondly, stronger conflict processes and appointment procedures for public positions, external government appointments and consultants. And finally, amendments to the OIA including having it overseen by an Information Commissioner.

Board Co-Chair Associate Professor Lisa Te Morenga says that uneven access to decision-makers has equity implications for Māori who bear the brunt of inaction in public health policy.

“There is a sense that without a legal and regulatory system for lobbying, those with less economic power or social privilege are left with inequitable and unequal access to shaping policy or influencing decision-making” she said.

“We’d like to see greater transparency around whose interests are being represented to the Crown- this is a Pākehā- built system and clearly the Crown’s responsibility to fix.”

HCA Roopuu Apaarangi Waipiro (Alcohol) Expert Panel Chair Steve Randerson agrees and says it paints an ugly picture of inappropriate alcohol industry access to Ministers and their officials.

“We’ve previously seen big alcohol, especially supermarkets, steamroll community wishes with court action to stop local alcohol policies. Now we see just how wide open the gates are to alcohol industry lobbyists at the national policy level. That raises concerning questions for me about their level of influence when the alcohol reforms recommended three times in the last 13 years have just been shelved again despite the strong evidence of health harm.”

“The current lack of regulation leaves communities on an unequal footing with industry, even when these communities which suffer the most health and social harm have faithfully engaged in every government review with little change. It’s time for equity to be clearly put ahead of commercial interests in the policy processes that are so important to our health.”



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