Taxpayer funded lobbying

This is an issue that should be investigated by the Government or the Auditor-General. Yet again we have evidence of taxpayer-funded groups using their funding to lobby the Government for specific law and policy changes.

This is an extremely bad thing. The Government should not be effectively paying people to lobby Parliament and the Government a specific way.  Just as Ministries are forbidden to lobby, it is equally wrong for them to contract other groups to lobby.

This was first exposed in 2003. Then ACT MP Rodney Hide revealed that Action on Smoking and Health () and five other NGOs were receiving taxpayer money from the Ministry of Health to help lobby MPs on the Smoke-free Environments Amendment Bill (the one that banned smoking in bars and cafes).

The Director-General of Health then ordered a State Services Commission investigation into the matter (the Hunn/Brazier inquiry). Hunn and Brazier considered that the advocacy and clauses in six contracts were unacceptable under public service standards and in their view could compromise the political neutrality of the Ministry of Health. They recommended that future agreements with NGOs explicitly exclude lobbying activities.

The Treasury’s most recent guidelines (2009) for contracts with non-governmental organisations also make it clear: “Government agencies should also be careful to ensure that contracts do not breach public service standards of political neutrality”.

However, the Health Ministry is still funding the “advocacy” and “awareness raising” that these organisations engage in. The Ministry still funds ASH and other organisations like the Public Health Association – it is just more careful about what it puts in the contracts.

The current ASH contract allows it to “liaise with government and private health agencies, the media and any other appropriate organisations to raise public awareness of tobacco related issues and developments”. It says it will “prepare and distribute media briefings, commentary and releases on key tobacco issues. This will include maintaining relationships with key media.”

A quick look at the ASH website makes it clear it is a lobby group, but a lobby group that gets 89% of its funding from the taxpayer. I am all in favour of taxpayer funding quit smoking initiatives, but not funding a lobby group. One of its values is “A dedication to influencing public policy and social norms to tobacco related harm.” It has a page on its current campaigns, of which seven are about law changes, only one is actually about quitting smoking,

The current ASH contract provides for it to receive $578,000 p.a of taxpayer money in 2012. I’d say the vast majority of this goes on lobbying and media activities.

The Public Health Association received $311,967 from government grants in 2011, $305,843 in 2010 and $323,498 in 2009. In its financial statements it lists an item of income as “Advocacy/Healthy Public Policy”, as well as “Informed Debate/Communications”.

The says that it “takes a leading role in promoting public health and influencing public policy…Our goal is to improve the health of all New Zealanders by progressively strengthening the organised efforts of society by being an informed collaborative and strong advocate for public health.”

On its website it has a letters to the editor guide.  It says: “Do you feel strongly about a public health issue? Write a letter to the editor using our simple letter writing techniques, list of email addresses and examples of sample letters (alcohol, housing, tobacco, oral health and preventing family violence).”

Smoke-free Coalition

The Smokefree Coalition (www.sfc.org.nz) says it is “committed to preventing the uptake of smoking among young people and reducing the smoking rates of all New Zealanders” and it has published a road-map for how to make NZ smoke-free by 2025. It received $167,213 in 2011 and 2010 and $179,890 in 2009 from government. This represented 98%, 96% and 95% of its funding in each of those years.

Those are just three examples where there is over a million dollars a year of government money going to NGOs for lobbying.

Another example is  the Turanga website (a government funded anti-smoking research initiative) has posted a page listing “3 ways to support a tobacco tax increase.” One of the ways is to write to MPs. The website directs readers to http://www.taxtobacco.org.nz/ in which readers can fill in their name and write a personal message to Key, Ryall, English or Turia. Readers can select from a range of sentences that they have written for them.

Now I personally support an increase in tobacco tax. But that is not the point. Government money should not be used for NGOs to campaign for what the law should be. It is the thin end of corruption.

The second way of supporting a tobacco increase is: “ASH have some tax postcards to send to John Key, Bill English, Tony Ryall and Tariana Turia. If you would like a batch please email ash via their website www.ash.org.nz with your postal address and let ASH Director Ben Youdan know how many you need.”

That is also explicitly political lobbying.

As an individual taxpayer I’d be quite happy to donate some of my money to anti-smoking groups. But the Government should only fund anti-smoking groups which actually provide stop smoking services or genuine medical research. They should not fund advocacy groups to influence public opinion on future law and policy changes. ASH and the PHA should have their public funding removed, and they should rely on donations like all the other advocacy groups out there have to.

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