Thursday, June 09, 2011

Time for transparency on lobbying

Over the weekend, the Dominion Post's Tracy Watkins posted a piece about the lack of transparency around lobbying in this country. It is apparently easier to find out what New Zealand companies are demanding from overseas governments than from our own, because those governments have proper laws in place. Here, we don't - and so who is lobbying who, for what, and how much they get in return, is kept completely secret from voters.

It shouldn't be. Lobbying can affect policy. It can lead to poor government decision-making, favours for friends, laws stacked in favour of deep-pocketed special interests willing to spend up large to bend the ears of politicians to obtain legislative benefits. And that is something we should be able to hold politicians accountable for. But we can't, unless there is transparency.

With the exception of Chris Hipkins, who in typical Labour fashion seemed to think the real problem was the media, the article has met with a deafening silence from politicians. That's not really surprising, as the opposition of MPs to transparency is well-known (two obvious cases in point: their collective opposition to the register of pecuniary interests, and their continuing refusal to make Parliament subject to the Official Information Act). But as the concerns raised about Westpac's corporate bribery, and low-value gifts in general show, we desperately need rules in this area.

The Greens, to their credit, are interested in this issue, and include lobbyists in their open government policy. The other parties are of course silent. Almost as if they've got something to hide...

We deserve more progress in this area. Lowering the gift disclosure threshold for the register of pecuniary interests to $100 would be a good start, but we also need legislation. The best way of advancing it is to bring a member's bill. This will put transparency squarely on the political agenda, and while the old parties will want to vote against it, they will face a severe public backlash if they do so. That is exactly what I want to see. MPs will not open themselves to scrutiny out of the goodness of their hearts; we must threaten them democratically into doing it.