New Zealand’s corporate lobbyists are currently carrying out major manoeuvres in order to ensure they are in the best possible position to influence the new Christopher Luxon-led government. Despite some of these moves being blatantly outrageous, there are no serious rules to regulate any of this.
NZ’s “most influential unelected official” is now a lobbyist helping Luxon
One of New Zealand’s top lobbyists is reported today to be helping select the National Government’s Beehive staff. Wayne Eagleson is a partner at lobbying firm Thompson Lewis, and has been called into the Beehive to help with the recruitment of top staff who will be running the new government. As reported by Andrea Vance today in The Post, Eagleson “is sitting on a panel interviewing candidates who hope to be aides to National’s new ministers” and he “has interviewed about 15 hopefuls for prized Beehive jobs in the last few weeks.”
Vance explains that the lobbyist’s involvement is being framed as benevolence: “he is working for free, because he believed he had skills and experience to contribute.” Eagleson is quoted on being approached by the new Government: “They asked if I would lend a hand… Over the years, I’ve hired a lot, and I know the sort of the skills and experience they’re looking for and I understand how ministerial offices operate.” Furthermore, he says: “It was something that I could do to help and I think the country is served by actually getting really good ministerial advisers in there.”
As to whether there are conflicts of interest, the newspaper reports a spokesperson for Luxon saying “Any conflicts will be managed appropriately.” And because Eagleson is carrying out his role voluntarily without remuneration, it’s unlikely that any public service rules about transparency and the management of conflicts of interest will apply. This therefore appears to be a loophole that makes New Zealand’s executive system of government vulnerable to corruption or manipulation.
Of course, although Eagleson wants the public to believe his volunteering in the Beehive is for the good of the nation, he and his lobbying firm and its clients will be major benefactors from his involvement. The lobbying firm will now have highly valuable information about the key staff in the new administration, and Thompson may well have a greater ability to liaise with them on behalf of his clients.
The Herald’s Claire Trevett has reported that Eagleson is “helping in a voluntary capacity, mainly by being at the other end of the phone to offer advice as and when needed.” She suggests Eagleson’s involvement could be lucrative for his business: “Eagleson’s name gives Thompson Lewis a strong headstart in the lobbyists’ race to adjust to a National Government”.
Eagleson is also said to be carrying out other roles in the new administration. RNZ’s Guyon Espiner reported last week that “Eagleson has been called in to train new MPs and ministers”. Luxon says other key figures are also involved – he recently told Mike Hosking that Steven Joyce and Bill English had also been coaching his caucus on how to be MPs and ministers, and how to lead the public service. Those two former National ministers now run their own PR consultancies involved in lobbying – Bill English and Co Ltd and Joyce Advisory Limited.
A repeat of Labour’s use of lobbyists in the Beehive
The last Labour government also welcomed corporate lobbyists into roles on the 9th floor of the Beehive. In fact, the numerous Chiefs of Staff employed by Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins were lobbyists who went backwards and forwards through the Beehive’s revolving door: Neale Jones, GJ Thompson, Mike Munro, and Andrew Kirton.
It was GJ Thompson’s role that was most instructive. He had previously worked in the Beehive for Helen Clark, then left to work in lobbying, eventually setting up a lobbying firm with another former Beehive staffer, David Lewis. The lobbying firm brought Wayne Eagleson on board after he finished working as Chief of Staff for John Key and Bill English. Part of Eagleson’s sales pitch is that Key once described him as New Zealand’s “most influential unelected official”.
Then when Ardern urgently needed a new Chief of Staff after the 2017 election, she brought in GJ Thompson to help set up the Beehive and hire staff. It was in this role that he also helped select top staff, and then went back to his lobbying firm, where he was entirely free to lobby the new government. Back then, Jacinda Ardern also gave assurances that conflicts of interest would be managed, but these seemed inadequate. For example, it was reported that her management of this involved a rule that Thompson would never discuss who his lobbying clients were while he was running the Beehive.
Lobbyist firms recruiting National and Labour insiders
The most well-known lobbying firm in New Zealand is probably Capital Government Relations, which was set up by Neale Jones, who had briefly been Ardern’s Chief of Staff. Jones then hired other key former Labour senior staffers like Mike Munro, Hayden Munro, Mike Jaspers, and Clint Smith. The firm gained publicity earlier this year when it was the subject of a lot of Guyon Espiner’s investigations into lobbying and conflicts of interest.
Jones’ Capital firm was seen to be particularly attractive to corporate clients because the lobbyists involved had good access to Labour Cabinet Ministers. But with the change of Government, this influence has eroded.
Capital has therefore brought on a number of new staff with close connections and histories with the parties of National and NZ First. The most influential of these is Ben Thomas, who used to be the political editor of the National Business Review, before working in the Beehive for the last National government, and then becoming a prominent rightwing political commentator, as well as an advisor to Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown. Thomas was brought into Capital last year in anticipation of the need to lobby the National Party.
Then last week Capital announced that they had also employed two further new lobbyists – Aimie Hines and Fletcher Tabuteau. Hines comes from a background in the corporate world and as a PR advisor for the National Party.
Tabuteau has been seen as a major recruit, becoming a director in the lobbying firm, straight from 30 years of involvement with Winston Peters and the NZ First party. Tabuteau had been an MP for six years, recently deputy leader to Peters, and in the Ardern-led Government had been part of the Executive as undersecretary for foreign affairs and trade.
Tabuteau’s links to Peters and new NZ First ministers are extremely strong. According to the Herald’s Adam Pearse, Tabuteau “has been seen at several meetings of the party’s caucus as it progresses negotiations with National”. And Stuff’s Thomas Manch reported last week that “Tabuteau has in recent weeks been training the party’s new MPs as they are inducted into Parliament life.”
Manch also reports that “Tabuteau said he had relationships across the political parties, and would act as a ‘translator’ between the business sector, and government and Parliament.” His main lobbying area is expected to be around business areas relating to energy and infrastructure.
Ministry of Justice research into the revolving doors of lobbyists
Is it time to regulate access to the Beehive for lobbyists? With growing awareness of the potential conflicts of interest involved in the “revolving door” between the Beehive and lobbying firms, it might be possible for some strong rules to be forced on the lobbying industry and politicians. If not, public confidence in the political process will surely erode.
The Ministry of Justice is therefore currently undertaking its own “Political Lobbying Project”, looking into what regulation could be introduced. Its most recent update to the Minister of Justice has highlighted concerns about the “revolving door”, stating that “Movement between roles in government and lobbying agencies can result in misuse of privileged information and unfair access”. Furthermore, their paper advises that “larger, better resourced organisations are getting better access to decision makers” and that this occurs without enough scrutiny, because there is “limited monitoring of lobbying activities with no dedicated watch-dogs”.
The Ministry of Justice research programme was set up after public controversy over Kris Faafoi shifting almost straight from the Beehive to lobbying last year. Since then, other former ministers such as Stuart Nash and Kiri Allan have taken on new business roles that might also bring conflicts of interest.
The Ministry of Justice therefore has some major lobbying issues to grapple with in its advice to the incoming government. It is currently due to report its findings and recommendations for reform on 24 April next year.
But will the National-Act-NZ First government listen and then tidy up what has turned into a “wild west” of untrammelled lobbying? There are some positive signs – the NBR reports this week that “National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis said her party would impose a 12-month stand down period for former ministers and introduce a compulsory register of lobbyists, rather than a voluntary code of conduct.”
National needs to be held to this promise. But the news that the incoming administration seems to be just as reliant and connected to the lobbying industry as the previous one is a very worrying sign.
Dr Bryce Edwards is the Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.