13 June 2012

The Attorney General has reported to Parliament that lobbying controls are an unjustified limitation on freedom of expression. ( The same Law Officer whose Government is promoting the Community Services and Orders Bill that will detain former offenders at the conclusion of court ordered sentences because of their potential to reoffend. )  Proposals in the Bill before the House to impose controls on lobbyists are a watered down emulation of measures which have long been established not only in the United States Congress but in almost every other American State legislature and in many city jurisdictions. Lobbying controls have a long history in Canada, are in vogue at Westminster and Canberra, and also in a growing number of democratic countries.

The Attorney General’s assessment that lobbying controls, prima facie, unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression, suggests he marches to a different beat from the rest of the Western world. The importance of transparency and trustworthiness is acknowledged as a justifiable trade-off for constraining freedoms in jurisdictions with which New Zealand likes to compare itself. Lobbying controls were recently introduced in the European Parliament, although the Transparency International report on corruption risks in Europe published earlier this month identified a weakness of lobbying controls as a major risk in much of Europe.  The OECD expects member states to give effect to the Principles of Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying adopted in February 2010. It will be surveying compliance with those principles in 2013.

The notion of openness regarding the lobbying of decision-makers has never been a matter of public concern in New Zealand.  An absence of media interest is probably the reason why there is little public comprehension of the issues or concern about the implications. We seem oblivious of movements which have given rise to dozens of organisations like the Sunlight Foundation and OpenSecrets.org.  Wikipedia suggests that in the United States $30 billion was spent lobbying between 1998 and 2010, invested in influencing decision makers, presumably because the “cause” is not self evidently worth supporting.

There may be a rationalization.  The parliamentary whipping regime in New Zealand means that individual MPs have little influence on law making. Power rests with Cabinet to decide the legislative programme and with Ministers to exercise statutory discretions. Unlike political practices in the United States, there is little advantage for interest groups to compete for the support of individual legislators.  All that is needed here is to capture the support of one or two of the most senior Ministers.

Ironically in almost every country where lobbying research has been undertaken, the corrupting influence of lobbying is uncovered.  New Zealanders must either be genuinely different not only from the Danes and Finns with whom we compete for recognition as having a corruption free public sector, but the British, Canadians and Australians with whom we have much, culturally and often genetically, in common.