Draft Voluntary Lobbying Code of Conduct lacks substance

Debbie Gee
Deputy Chair
Transparency International New Zealand

The Voluntary Lobbying Code of Conduct is now out for a short consultation period (8 April 2024). 

Even though it is a completely voluntary and non-binding code, it has no substance.

Initially the Ministry of Justice developed a draft lobbying code of conduct based on those of similar democracies. (See links at the end of this article). The original draft looked reasonable in the sense that it genuinely addressed ‘conduct’ - the moderation of behaviour and practice. 

In late 2023 the Ministry of Justice engaged with government relations consultants for their feedback on this first draft code of conduct for lobbyists.

We’ve compared the initial draft code before it was sent to government relations experts in December with the version now out for consultation. The difference between the initial draft based on international best practices and the current version is striking. In moving from ‘conduct’ to high level intent statements, actual behavioural change based on ethical principles has been struck out or watered down. You can drive an Influence Bus through the code, it will have no effect on practice. It is purposeless jargon.

It’s not surprising. Reluctance to engage in discussions around ethical practice or limits on activity is well documented. This lack of will to genuinely address ethical standards was evident in the notes of the Ministry’s earlier meeting with lobbying firms, where the ethical challenges regularly faced were not raised, and with the priority for lobbyists being ‘not us’ and ‘not needed’.

The value proposition of lobbyists is that they can facilitate enhanced influence and access to decision makers compared to the general public. This is their ‘power’: skills, access, information, networks and trusted relationships. The problem for the public is that unfettered, this power can lead to unfair influence on decisions that affect us all. 

What we want to see from those who influence on behalf of others is a display of measurable accountability, willingly setting ethical ‘no go’ areas and being more transparent.

This exercise is a display of how effective lobbyists can be at influence/spin, this time in their own interests. 

Ministry of Justice officials did their best, with a limited brief, to work with industry players to develop a voluntary code, and those players have sought the lowest bar.

It’s a narrow view though. If lobbyists had the foresight to put ethical principles into practice in their occupation, as the original draft envisioned, this would in turn raise their own mana and that of their clients in the eyes of the public. Instead, their aversion to ethical behaviours just makes a stronger case for mandatory lobbying regulation.

Do not’s in the first draft, that have been watered down or removed from the draft code currently out for consultation

  • Do not seek special treatment from personal relationships or use personal relationships for personal or commercial gain.
  • Do not make false claims about connections with public officials.
  • Do not misrepresent impact on public services or public good
  • Do not manipulate or present information in a misleading or dishonest way. This includes omitting, hiding, or minimising important information.
  • Do not misuse access to information for personal or commercial gain
  • When moving between public official and lobbying roles avoid lobbying in the subject area previously connected to the public role or with former associates for a period of time appropriate to the situation and influence of the roles
  • Avoid working in a way that harms the reputation of lobbyists and the public officials they interact with.
  • Do not offer gifts or hospitality to public officials that create a sense of obligation.
  • Do not demand commitments from, or special access to, public officials.
  • Avoid tying payment for services to lobbying success (contingent fees).
  • Do not engage in bribery, corruption, or any dishonest or illegal actions. 

Do’s from the first draft, left out or watered down 

  • Publicly disclose your lobbying activities including submissions to government processes, or public officials interacted with.
  • Publicly disclose any political donations or gifts given.
  • Publicly disclose any government contracts held.
  • Publicly disclose membership of special interest, advocacy or industry groups.
  • Publicly disclose any previously held public official roles.
  • Publicly disclose campaigns funded to influence political decisions, including “grassroots” appeals designed to persuade the public to contact public officials and opinion pieces in the media.
  • Ensure all information provided to public officials is accurate.
  • Correct errors or inaccuracies promptly and make robust efforts to verify facts.
  • Avoid the use of information obtained unfairly, and reject information obtained dishonestly or fraudulently.
  • Disclose and manage conflicts of interest such as personal or close family interest or financial stake in an issue being discussed, or any personal or close family involvement in political parties.
  • Explain the expectations of this code to clients and public officials
  • Be aware of legal obligations including political donation, anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws
  • Monitor performance under the code and adjust behaviour if not meeting expectations as indicated in this code.
  • Set up a process to monitor lobbying practices or behaviour that breach, dishonour, or do not align with this code and ensure these are investigated and acted on.

Lobbying Codes of Conduct (Regulated or Industry Led)

Canada - https://lobbycanada.gc.ca/en/rules/the-lobbyists-code-of-conduct/lobbyists-code-of-conduct-2023

Ireland https://www.lobbying.ie/media/6119/code-of-conduct-english-final-version-for-web.pdf

Australia (Federal) https://www.ag.gov.au/integrity/publications/lobbying-code-conduct

Chartered Institute of Public Relations (UK) https://www.cipr.co.uk/CIPR/About_Us/Governance_/CIPR_Code_of_Conduct.aspx

Transparency requirements in lobbying activities by actor type and country

Transparency requirements in lobbying activities by actor type and country

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