New Zealand lobbying oversight lacking in comparison to similar countries

By Ellie McKenzie
TINZ Member with Delegated Authority

New Zealand is a proudly democratic country where, at least in theory, this pillar of society is built on trust in institutions, experts and government. 

We’re in fact so democratic that the last attempt to regulate political lobbying (by former Green Party MP, Holly Walker) was opposed by the Government Administration Committee partly due to it being seen as a threat to the “openness of democracy”. People’s freedom to express opinions and share information was cited as needing to take precedence over shedding light on who exactly is sharing information and expressing their opinions to Members of Parliament.

Comparing jurisdictions

In a comparison with 10 other jurisdictions, the absence of independent oversight of, and personal gains from lobbying in New Zealand is glaring. 

Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) produced a comparison for the New Zealand chapter of the Global Organisation for Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC). We did this to assist them in weighing up the pros and cons of regulating lobbying. We compared New Zealand with 10 other countries with similar systems - these were:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Germany
  • the Netherlands
  • United Kingdom
  • United States.

Across the seven areas of lobbying regulation that were looked at, New Zealand has just two transparency mechanisms: the publishing of Government Ministers’ diaries and MPs’ personal, financial, and business interests. 

Hon Chris Hipkins has described this as a “very open system”. However, unlike seven other countries (including Australia), lobbyists aren’t subject to a code of conduct, nor are there any laws governing lobbying as there are in six other countries. Even Finland - where lobbying is also unregulated - will soon enact a statutory register to make lobbying more open and easy to understand.

New Zealand appears to be at the lenient end of regulatory regimes among the countries studied. 

Canada and the United States have the strictest rules for ensuring transparency of lobbying activities, with registers and independent watchdogs that can sanction wrongdoing. In the U.S. where lobbying is incredibly illuminated, people can face a prison sentence of up to five years for corruptly failing to comply with any provisions of the Lobbying Disclosures Act 1995.

An open liberal democracy is also pivotal to countries that have transparent lobbying regimes - suggesting that societies can have both visibility of who is professionally influencing Ministers’ decisions and freedom of expression. Canada, for example, has both a Lobbying Act and time restrictions on when former politicians can start working as lobbyists. 

In Australia, lobbying firms must be registered, along with their clients.  This seems to work as a legitimate aspect of democracy.

No guarantee of a transparent relationship

Of course, the existence of regulations doesn’t guarantee a transparent relationship between professional lobbyists and the state. 

For example, Cabinet Ministers in the United Kingdom are required to annually publish their official diaries of meetings, yet the Cabinet Office has refused to release the diaries of 18 Ministers due to the effort required. 

Germany’s planned lobbyist register has been criticised for its failing to capture lobbying of government advisers who aren’t in leadership positions nor disclosing the topics discussed. 

The idea of transparency being greater than the reality of transparency in practice won’t surprise anyone, but without rules there’s little ability to hold the government accountable for their engagement with lobbying.

Tracking lobbyists important to New Zealand transparency

While New Zealand prides itself on having the least corrupt public sector, our report card on transparency is likely to be much less glowing without more information on the extent of lobbyists’ influence on the most powerful decision-makers. 

This research was conducted for the New Zealand chapter of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) under the direction of Transparency International New Zealand in its role as the Secretariat . 

About the author: Ellie McKenzie is a Member with Delegated Authority for TINZ. She is a Policy and Regulation Consultant in Pōneke/Wellington. She has a Master of Science in Criminology and Criminal Justice, and over seven years’ experience working in government

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