Industry Code of Conduct for Lobbying

By Ellie McKenzie
TINZ Member with Delegated Authority

Lobbying has a solid purpose

Lobbyists are usually experts in their field who provide useful information to politicians for making evidence-based decisions. Some organisations even have a mandated lobbying role that reflects their skills and representation. For example the Law Society being required to “assist and promote” law reform under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. 

Ellie McKenzie
Article author Ellie McKenzie

Statutory or not, lobbyists play notable roles in the development of legislation - offering subject matter expertise and useful perspectives on the operational aspects of policy. The Cabinet Manual actually encourages Ministers to consult experts when developing policy, which can include experts who have a stake in minimal regulation and compliance.

Lobbyists serve a useful purpose as advocates who provide a particular point of view to lawmakers on policy issues, just as lawyers do in the judicial arena. Lobbyists facilitate contact with Ministers, other Members of Parliament, and senior public servants that are difficult to reach. This service offers great value for individuals, organisations, and companies who may otherwise have to squeeze their arguments into short Select Committee hearing slots or hope their correspondence is read by Ministers.

Lobbying opacity undermines its purpose

However, lobbying in Aotearoa New Zealand is unrestrained and opaque, with neither professional standards nor a public register of lobbyists and the clients they represent. This gap in transparency and accountability of how the private sector engages with one part of the Executive wing of Government risks undermining the impartial and transparent advice provided by the public service. 

All advice provided to, and correspondence with Ministers through the public service are subject to the Official Information Act. Scheduled meetings are publicly disclosed in Ministers’ diaries. 

In contrast, lobbyists can directly contact Ministers through private channels and - in some cases - visit them in their offices without obligation to publicly disclose the information provided to ministers to the public, thereby providing no guarantees of its accuracy.

Direct contact with Ministers and senior officials - whether disclosed or not - from lobbyists can also create real or apparent conflicts of interest. While the Cabinet Manual prohibits the sharing of Cabinet discussions to outside parties, the public doesn’t necessarily know whether lobbyists seek that information from Cabinet Ministers. Such contact could of course convey a view on policy, theoretically influencing a Minister’s own view of it. 

Stuart Nash’s recent openness with two of his donors about confidential Cabinet discussions during consideration of a proposal for commercial rent subsidies exemplifies the close involvement that people in the private sector can have in the development of policy. 

Although harmful to the integrity of Government, we’re pleased this conduct has served as a catalyst for political action on lobbying. In April, the Prime Minister announced that the government has commissioned advice on the best options for regulating lobbying activities, and that in the interim he is calling on third party lobbyists to develop a voluntary code of conduct. 

Codes of conduct are a light,  common mechanism for promoting transparency, ethical conduct, accountability, and fairness in the lobbying sector.  However  they have limited value if there isn’t a stick as well as a carrot.  

What should a voluntary lobbyists’ code include?

  • A definition of lobbying (which could be in line with the OECD definition)
  • Some general principles around lobbying: its valid status; the primary principle of openness; the principle of equitable access to government; 
  • The aim to strengthen ethical culture of  lobbying and improve public trust
  • Respect for democratic institutions
  • Expectations of integrity, honesty, openness and professionalism
  • Transparent disclosure of clients, purpose and relationship
  • Acting in good faith: avoiding misleading statements, providing accurate, factual, verifiable information 
  • Ethical use of information provided by public office holders
  • Not placing a public office holder in a situation of conflict of interest
  • Not using past political relationships to lobby public office holders or their staff
  • Not offering gifts, hospitality or favours that would create a sense of obligation
  • Publicly listing clients on lobbyists’ websites

Regulated Lobbying

We hope a code is just the beginning of a more transparent, professional, and accountable framework for lobbying.

As we have set out in our research on lobbying, there needs to be a regulation element that includes:

  • more attention on transparency and accountability
  • cooling off periods
  • public registers
  • a mechanism for accountability complaints and censure
  • more public transparency.  

Our recent research on this topic:

Regulating lobbying would ensure greater guidance, and possibly regulation, for those being lobbied. 

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