The Herald had a headline “Long time lobbyist lobbies against lobby law”, but in fact the substance of the story was quite different:
One of the country’s longest standing lobbyists says a bill which would force lobbyists to register and disclose their clients and meetings with Government ministers is not necessary in New Zealand.
Mark Unsworth, a partner of government relations firm Saunders Unsworth, said he was not against the proposals in a Green Party bill which will soon go before Parliament but did not believe it was necessary.
I would suggest that this bill is a solution looking for a problem. But as no one wants to be seen as against transparency, it will probably proceed. Like Mark Unsworth, I have no problem in principle with the intent, but people should be aware of how far reaching the bill may be.
The proposed bill makes it an offence for any person to engage in lobbying activity, unless they are registered with the Auditor-General. The definition in the bill of lobbying is very wide. I blogged last year:
Arguably I could be regarded as a lobbyist for InternetNZ. For many years I chaired their Public Policy Committee as Vice-President of InternetNZ. As VP I had a small honorarium of $12,000 a year. I’ve retired as VP, but still chair the now titled Policy Advisory Group. This involves literally chairing the monthly meetings, but also meeting with policy staff regularly to help develop submissions, pro-actively identifying policy issues etc. I am now technically a contractor, as I am no longer an officer, and still get $12,000 a year for it.
Now for the last seven years or so, I’ve been one of the InternetNZ people who speaks to our submissions at select committees, and meets with MPs to advocate for what we regard as good for the Internet.
One could argue I am a paid lobbyist for InternetNZ in my current role. I don’t quite see it like that because my advocacy is based on my beliefs of what is good for the Internet, which coincide with InternetNZ. But under the proposed law, I might be classified as a lobbyist. Now that doesn’t worry me at all, but it seems strange to me as I’m not like a lawyer or lobbyist who will argue for a client regardless of their own beliefs. If ever INZ adopted a policy position I disagreed with, I would not take part in the advocacy around it.
Now depending on how you define a lobbyist, my advocacy on behalf of InternetNZ might be deemed lobbying in my role as a contractor to them, but how about when I was their Vice-President? I was doing much the same then, as I was today. I would argue you should say that if I am deemed a lobbyist as a contractor, I am also a lobbyist as an office holder.
Now if you do take that definition, then just be aware that an awfully large number of people will now be classified as lobbyists. I’d suspect 1,000+ people would fall into that definition.
Now if I am classified as a lobbyist for InternetNZ, then under this bill I’d say I’d have to report any tweets I direct towards MPs on Internet related issues.
At Kiwi Foo Camp there was a roundtable discussion with David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Clare Curran on innovation. I’m pretty sure we discussed some Internet issues there, so does that have to be disclosed even though there were 40 people in the room?
What if I go to a Meet the Candidates meeting and ask MPs a question on copyright issues, mentioning my own views on them? Do I face a $10,000 fine for not including that?
How about my blog posts? I know many MPs read this blog. Does that count as a communication towards them, that must be disclosed?
The bill should be supported at first reading. Its intent is worthy. However I think a select committee will have to very carefully consider it to ensure it doesn’t become a bureaucratic monster where (for example) every discussion between a Greenpeace activist and a Green MP doesn’t require forms in triplicate.