More taxpayer funded lobbying

June 26th, 2012 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Last month I blogged on taxpayer funded lobbying. This should be of grave concern, because what it means is effectively you have Government Departments funding NGOs to lobby MPs on what the law should be.

I had a response from the Public Health Association, which was:

Hi David, We would like to respond briefly to your 14 May post about taxpayers funding lobbying. The Public Health Association (PHA) acknowledges you have a valid concern and would like to make it clear that none of the public money we receive is spent on lobbying or advocacy. It is part of our contract with the Ministry not to do so. Any lobbying we do is funded by membership fees, individual donations and fund-raising. Money we receive from the Ministry is spent only on activities such as supporting the public health workforce.

The reality though I believe is that if the vast majority of your expenses are staff, then there is no way you can say that no public money is spent on lobbying.

Now I do not advocate that a body which receives some taxpayer funding should not be allowed to express a view on issues. That would be wrong. But when a body is both primarily funded by the taxpayer, and the bulk of its work appears to be advocacy and lobbying – that is when I think it should not be allowed.

The PHA openly states “The PHA is a voluntary association that takes a leading role in promoting public health and influencing public policy.”, and over 50% of their income is from the Ministry of Health. Most of the remainder is their conference which is I believe 90% public sector funded. Actual voluntary membership fees are only 5% of their income.

I’ve also been sent examples in the alcohol area. An OIA from the Ministry of Health reveals taxpayer funding of Alcohol Healthwatch with $3.35m, the vast majority for “alcohol health promotion”.

Have a look at their website. It is all about lobbying MPs on the Alcohol Reform Bill.

The Health Sponsorship Council has a presentation on their website from ASH. Slide 16 is about how they must “Hold the Government to account”.  ASH is 89% taxpayer funded, and was saying this at a taxpayer funded conference.

This outbreak of taxpayer funded lobbying is not unique to New Zealand. The Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK has published a report called “Sock Puppets: How the Government lobbies itself and why“. It is a compelling read. They note:

For political parties, the benefits of supporting ‘sock puppet’ organisations extend beyond the short-term utility of progressing their legislative agenda whilst in government. Once the party loses power, these groups become a ‘shadow state’ using public money to promote the same political ideology. The new government must therefore choose between withdrawing the funding (which will prompt outrage from the threatened groups) and keeping it in place (which will mean funding politically hostile organisations).

I think the Government should apply a simple litmus test. No organisation which spends say more than 25% of their time or resources or lobbying should be eligible for government funding. They should be forced to split into totally separate organisations if they provide genuinely useful services which should remain funded, but this should not be used to have the bureaucracy use sock puppets to lobby Parliament and MPs on what the laws should be.

Lobby groups should be funded by their members and supporters, not by taxpayers.

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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 (ASH) 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 lobbying 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 PHA 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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