Taxpayer funded lobbying

May 14th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

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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19 Responses to “Taxpayer funded lobbying”

  1. Nick R (513 comments) says:

    Does this mean the Minister should resign?

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  2. BeaB (2,148 comments) says:

    Hear hear. This issue has annoyed me for ages – being lectured to by lobbyists/fanatics/moralists I am also expected to fund.
    It’s nuts.

    As stupid as having the police arrest people for smoking in their own cars rather than looking for criminals and crimes.

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  3. PaulL (6,048 comments) says:

    Interesting question Nick. Do Ministers normally resign when something goes on in their Department that they don’t agree with? I’d be interested in some examples.

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  4. Crampton (215 comments) says:

    My prediction: nothing comes of this. Ryall will deflect to Turia as tobacco is her bailiwick. Turia will claim this doesn’t count as being against the guidelines and will say it goes only a small distance towards counterbalancing big tobacco, blah blah blah.

    I wonder what any SSC investigation would do to National’s agreement with the Maori Party. ‘Cause, at least so far, Turia’s seemed to be able to whatever she likes on that file.

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  5. Alfred (52 comments) says:

    So if Bill English is so desperate for cash why doesn’t the govt look into how much government departments are paying NGOs.

    How much are all the anti-tobacco NGOs are getting?

    How much is going to the NGOs against anti-obesity NGOs; anti-booze NGOs, anti-gambling NGOs etc etc etc?

    If this one NGO is getting $578,000 then there must be millions of dollars being handed over to NGOs each year.

    Talk about social welfare – the Government is funding (keeping alive and employed) thousands of people who work in NGOs – all of which will have some mandate to lobby the government.

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  6. Chuck Bird (4,928 comments) says:

    How about the government funded AIDS Foundation lobbying for a lot of things completely unrelated to HIV and also lobbying for things related to HIV but will actually increase the rate of HIV in NZ? Lobbying against the screening of migrants is but one example.

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  7. Nick R (513 comments) says:

    @ PaulL – They used to, once upon a time. I believe the principle was known as “Ministerial Responsibility”.

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  8. john.bt (170 comments) says:

    The MoH dishes out not less than $1 million per week to these anti-smoking groups and have done for many years. By their own admission it does not make the slightest bit of difference. As most of these groups are Partmaori there is not much chance of the funding decreasing. $50 million plus every year of our money wasted.

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  9. JC (973 comments) says:

    Its not that simple a matter.. once you get past the big political groups like ASH there are the hard core working charities typically funded by Govt to the tune of 10-20% of total costs. That hardly gives the Govt the right to dictate they not lobby. The public and local institutions provide the bulk of the funding and they expect the charity to advocate on behalf of their clients.. indeed most of the big donors require properly signed off financial statements on how their specific donations were spent.

    JC

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  10. Jeremy (319 comments) says:

    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.

    They shouldn’t get a bloody cent! If busybodies want to tell idiots not to smoke they should do it on their own dime.

    It’s just lucky we have a massive surplus at the moment, oh wait…

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  11. Griff (8,203 comments) says:

    Were is penny when you need her?

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  12. calendar girl (1,270 comments) says:

    Lobbyists and publicists in NGOs like ASH, ALAC and Problem Gambling Foundation (amongst others) live well as “professionals” on public money. In reality they lack publicly-scrutinised mandates or hard-line objectives to achieve, sales targets to meet, or the normal disciplines or sanctions of a business or other fully-accountable organisation.

    Such NGOs are often formed by do-gooders who create an organisation out of thin air that provides a future personal income, knowing from the outset that their only realistic source of material funding is sugar-daddy Government itself. Once they gain access to grants from the public purse, they can effectively decide what to pay themselves.

    These NGOs’ lobbying and public finger-wagging activities are usually paid for using “soft” public money, i.e. duties and/or levies on sales of legal products in addition to the GST which was supposed to be a total substitute for the various sales taxes in force before its introduction. These enormous secondary streams of indirect taxation on selected products, sometimes referred to as “sin taxes”, are justified by Governments by pointing to their deterrent effects (in the public interest, of course). But in practice they are predominantly sources of soft income used for general Government expenditure, raised from (sometimes) narrow groups of consumers. Relevant consumers are vilified for their consumption habit to the point that they attract no public sympathy for being selectively over-taxed.

    The public money spent by the NGOs on lobbying and publicity activities goes in a circular fashion: taxpayer -> Government -> NGO -> either advice back to Government (lobbying) or castigation of taxpayers (publicity campaigns).

    We are witnessing the perpetuation of an environment of mutual back-scratching, at best, with potential for far worse effects (corruption even?) within NZ’s constitutional framework.

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  13. swan (665 comments) says:

    “Now I personally support an increase in tobacco tax.”

    Are you a nanny or a thief?

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  14. Chuck Bird (4,928 comments) says:

    calendar girl , what do you think of the government funded AIDS Foundation that puts more effort into homosexual rights issues than reducing the incidence of HIV in NZ?

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  15. Chuck Bird (4,928 comments) says:

    HIV epidemic and NZAF – a flawed crock
    Monday, 5 November 2007, 8:37 am
    Press Release: Society For Promotion Of Community Standards Inc.

    The Society for Promotion of Community Standards Inc.

    5 November 2007

    HIV epidemic and NZAF – a flawed crock

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0711/S00063.htm

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  16. PaulL (6,048 comments) says:

    Chuck – what $ amount funded by govt, what $ amount spent on HIV related education? If the latter is greater than the former, no issue.

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  17. Martin Gibson (247 comments) says:

    It always amazes me when lobby organisations have not only their own funding, but their own ministry, like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. There’s another $6m per year.

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  18. Chuck Bird (4,928 comments) says:

    “Chuck – what $ amount funded by govt, what $ amount spent on HIV related education? If the latter is greater than the former, no issue.”

    Paul. What you or they call education I would call dangerous propaganda that put the public at risk, especially adolescents. Liberal schools have had rainbow youth “educate” the school children. These have been organised by the AIDS Foundation without parents knowledge. When parents find out there is a bit of an uproar till the next time.

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  19. TeKupu (1 comment) says:

    Of course WE all collective sit in smokefree bars, restaurants, public transport and workplaces etc etc without a moments thought that the main driver was of course NGOs. If you really think Govt’s manifest self-awareness over a meal at Bellamy’s then you are deluded. Paying NGOs to perform a service, particularly in tobacco control, falls in alignment with The Ottawa Charter but also means that some semblance of a ‘level playing field’ is established when you consider the multi-billion dollar industry that is taken on. For a miniscle amount of money you sit in those smokefree environments even if it meant NGOs advocate for such measures for the public good!

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