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.