More on Labour advisers, lobbyists and conflicts of interest

A follow-up to Lobbyists and Labour advisers in Government – more coverage plus some interesting tweets.

The Spinoff: Conflict of interest concerns over lobbyist turned chief of Jacinda Ardern’s staff

The government lobbyist who served for several months as chief of staff to the prime minister as the new government took office says he didn’t do any work for the lobbying firm of which he is part-owner while working at the Beehive. Nor, he says, was he paid by the business.

In response to questions on potential conflicts of interest, GJ Thompson, who advised the prime minister for five months ending last Friday, told The Spinoff he “declared the potential conflict at the very outset” and that it was for the Department of Internal Affairs to manage any conflict.

Thompson did not directly respond, however, to questions put to him on why his name and personal telephone number remained on the front page of the lobbying firm’s website while he was in service at the apex of the new government, or what steps were taken to address any conflicts of interest.

hen Labour’s previous chief of staff, Neale Jones, left to become a lobbyist late last year, questions arose about conflicts of interest and the potential for disclosure of inside information.

But concerns over Jones’ move are dwarfed by those surrounding his replacement, GJ Thompson. Last Friday, Thompson concluded a five-month stint as Labour’s chief of staff. Before taking on the leading Labour position he was a partner at Thompson Lewis, the lobbying firm he founded in 2016. Having left the role, he has returned to Auckland and his firm to continue as a lobbyist.

His time advising Ardern leads in his promotional bio on the front page of the firm’s website, which boasts: “He spent five months as chief of staff to prime minister Jacinda Ardern, assisting the new government transition into the Beehive.” The firm’s blurb advertises its “strong political networks” and its partners’ “significant time in senior roles in Government and Opposition”.

The Spinoff got a limited response from the PM’s office and “no specific comment” apart from dates of employment from Ministerial Services.

The Spinoff asked Thompson about these circumstances and how any conflicts of interest were managed, including whether the disclosure was about his role at the firm generally, or relating to particular clients.

Thompson responded: “Your questions are best directed to DIA [the Department of Internal Affairs] given they were the employer. DIA manages any potential conflict of interest. I declared the potential conflict at the very outset of my short-term appointment.”

“While I was temporarily working as chief of staff, I took a leave of absence from Thompson Lewis and did not work for the business at all”, he said.

“Nor was I paid by the business. I stepped out of the business completely. My time in the Beehive was always on a temporary basis so we took careful steps to manage it.”

Thompson did not respond directly to questions from The Spinoff whether he had professional contact with his firm while he was chief of staff.

It remains unclear from the answers provided by Thompson, the prime minister’s office, and the Department of Internal Affairs whether Thompson disclosed his clients’ identities or simply that he was involved in Thompson Lewis, though that question was put directly to all three.

Without knowing who Thompson’s clients are, it would have been challenging for the department and the prime minister’s office to decide what steps should be taken to mitigate potential conflicts of interest, such as what information Thompson should have had access to, and whether he should have resigned his directorship of the firm.

Risks of corruption aside, political scientist Bryce Edwards, speaking to RNZ about his coverage of Thompson’s appointment, explained why he was concerned about changes in the lobbying industry: “There is increasing suspicion about what is basically a political class.”

“A lot of people — in especially the Wellington circles — that work in government departments, work in ministers’ offices, or are politicians, then work in the media, they work in PR, they work in lobbying. It’s all a bit too close, I think. It’s a very cohesive political class.”

Thompson told The Spinoff he has spent over 20 years as a journalist, working in parliament and for some of New Zealand’s largest companies. “During this time, I’ve developed long-standing contacts in media, politics and business.”

A fair question to ask. It does not appear to have been asked or answered at The Standard.

Some interesting responses to Manhire’s tweet:

“A relatively inexperienced outfit” does need “needs all the help they can get”, but not by compromising the integrity of political advice untainted by the interests of lobbyists paid to influence the Government.

Some responses from what I think are left leaning people:

41 Comments

  1. Gezza

     /  February 23, 2018

    WTF is nbd?

  2. robertguyton

     /  February 23, 2018

    “You mean we could have another dirty politics on our hands? I think not. ”
    You’ll be disappointed then, Pete! You use the term so freely.
    I declared the potential conflict at the very outset of my short-term appointment.”
    So he declared his potential conflict of interest at the get go and he says he did not work for the firm while he was working in the Beehive:
    I “did not work for the business at all”
    All good 🙂

    “While I was temporarily working as chief of staff, I took a leave of absence from Thompson Lewis and did not work for the business at all”, he said.

    “Nor was I paid by the business. I stepped out of the business completely. My time in the Beehive was always on a temporary basis so we took careful steps to manage it.”

    • I rather suspect that if this were a lobbyist still being advertised as a lobbyist working for John key or Bill English your response would have been rather different.

      Whether professional conflicts occurred in this case or not, I think there needs to be a very clear demarcation between political advisers, especially the Prime Minister’s advisers, and professional lobbyists.

    • Nothing to see here folks. It’s Labour, it’s the Progressives, it the Libs. Whatever they do, it’s in the interests of advancing society. No frothing at the mouth unless it’s the National Party please.

      It just beggars belief that putting a Lobbyist fox in the Labour Hen House, giving him 5 months of full, unfettered access to all protocol and communications, (indeed setting them), getting a handle on values and the machinations of the body that is Labour – is considered unworthy of investigation. This, in terms of influence strikes to the heart of the dirtiest Politics. No stomach for investigation of the left by their own – the acolyte Press.

    • PDB

       /  February 23, 2018

      Only a true left-wing zealot could believe this nonsense: “I took a leave of absence from Thompson Lewis and did not work for the business at all” considering he owns the business and therefore could never actually take a ‘leave of absence’ as he would be always be benefiting from that business. The “Nor was I paid by the business. I stepped out of the business completely” is a complete lie as he would be making money on any work they were doing due to his ownership.

      Not to mention the long-term benefits to his business gained from his Labour party activities.

      • Blazer

         /  February 23, 2018

        yes reminds me of corporation’s and their so called…’chinese walls’…trust us…yeah..right!

  3. robertguyton

     /  February 23, 2018

    You rather suspect…
    Probably right too, I’d jump in without looking at the detail but in this case I have read closely and compared the situation with several I’ve experienced as a councillor where I’ve been the one “calling out” others I believed were conflicted, so I’m not without experience here. That said, I agree with you where you say there needs to be clear demarcation. Good luck though, keeping lobbyists and politicians apart – such relationships exist at all levels of Governance.

  4. Blazer

     /  February 23, 2018

    Bit ironic that the Spinoff is taken seriously by the right,when it suits.As the Nats would say,’its not a good look’…and you would have to agree.’Thompson did not respond directly to questions from The Spinoff whether he had professional contact with his firm while he was chief of staff.’….not good enough.

    • robertguyton

       /  February 23, 2018

      “I took a leave of absence from Thompson Lewis and did not work for the business at all”
      Professional contact” If he wasn’t working for them, how could he have “professional contact”?

      • Blazer

         /  February 23, 2018

        aside from the glaring fact that it was his own firm…you mean!

      • Gezza

         /  February 23, 2018

        He hasn’t said that he didn’t have unprofessional contact.

        • robertguyton

           /  February 23, 2018

          What is “unprofessional contact” – do you mean not crossing the threshold of Thomson Lewis? No coffee and croissants with anyone who worked there?

      • He’s a founding director and is back there now. You can’t minimise the potential for corruption. He’s a lobbyist, he was front aand centre of implementing everything about this new government. You don’t think this advantages him or his firm, affects how they lobby? You don’t think he created relationships or actively implemented procedure advantageous to himself, his interests? Maybe you think he was so principled he acted against his future pecuniary interests ?

        I have a bridge I can sell you….

        • Blazer

           /  February 23, 2018

          this is an inherent danger in a small country…’ You don’t think this advantages him or his firm, affects how they lobby? You don’t think he created relationships or actively implemented procedure advantageous to himself, his interests’.I recall Ross Armstrong,once Helen’s favourite trying to leverage his access to Govt for gain.And you can look at Key and his relationships…down on Kiwi Bank,now Chair at ANZ,tried to make NZ an appealing tax haven,a sector his lawyer Whitney parlayed into.. tidy profits.Examples abound from all sides of the political..spectrum.

    • “Bit ironic that the Spinoff is taken seriously by the right,when it suits”

      The tweets show that they were being taken serious by the left.

      I take any media serious if they post serious articles.

      • Blazer

         /  February 23, 2018

        good to see you finally…come out…at least you can detect what’s…’serious’.Bol.

        • I have no idea what you mean by this.

          I’ve looked for what’s serious in politics for a long time. I’ve long been criticised for being able to both criticise and praise politicians and stories across the spectrum – some aligned activists seem to hate this type of political neutrality, which seems to clash with ‘us perfect, them the pits” mentality..

          • Blazer

             /  February 23, 2018

            Is there always a crystal clear divide between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ ,politically,…of course?

            • Of course there’s not. Far more of politics and government is in the muddled middle than in clearly defined (sometimes) fringes.

          • You’re dealing with extreme, thoroughly subjective partisanship here PG.

  5. Gezza

     /  February 23, 2018

    PZ posted a very good article on NZ lobbyists yesterday. It’s long, but it makes me very leery of the suspect blighters.

    https://yournz.org/2018/02/22/lobbyists-and-labour-advisers-in-government/#comment-254303

    • PartisanZ

       /  February 23, 2018

      Cheers Gezza. I believe there’s a relatively simple explanation for what’s going on.

      IMHO the very human penchant for opportunism and taking personal advantage of situations which, according to Righties, expressed itself as ‘favoritism, bureaucratic empire building and public service corruption’ during NZ’s mislabelled ‘socialist’ era of import licenses, tariffs and subsidies, simply got transferred to ‘consulting and lobbying’ as the nation’s polity was first thoroughly Rogered and then viciously Ruthanased …

      The activity of ‘shafting your own’ also got very much more personal and ‘individualized’ – as was the New-Right ideological way – and greatly enhanced and exaggerated … like the violence portrayed on TV & movies during the same time … Much more influence was required to keep the neoliberal ideology in place … hence much more money for many more influential individuals …

      In other words, for better or worse, it had the “public service” taken out of it …. and that was definitely worse!

  6. More on this, from Newsroom:

    Lobbyists and PR professionals play an increasingly central role in New Zealand’s political system, and yet the public knows very little about what these people do. But we should. More sunlight shone on the activities of communications professionals active in our democracy would offer greater protection against conflicts of interest and corruption.

    So, the story is not only one of New Zealand’s unregulated lobbying industry, but also a reminder of the peculiarities of the very small and closely-networked nature of politics, media and business in New Zealand – and especially in Wellington. There’s something of a harmonious “political class” that underpins how democracy functions – or doesn’t function properly – in this country.

    As lobbying grows in importance in New Zealand – as it is in the rest of the world – there is likely to be more public demand for investigative work on who the lobbyists are, and how they operate. The public is increasingly suspicious of the influence of “vested interests” on the political system. Journalists – and others – will therefore have to rise to the challenge of digging into this largely unknown sphere.

  7. duperez

     /  February 23, 2018

    I found the word ‘integrity’ on here and knew it wasn’t the place for me. “… compromising the integrity of political advice…”

    It’s Parliament, it’s Government, it’s where Jason Ede used to work.

    • You don’t think anyone in the Labour offices talks to bloggers, activists and the media?

      I’ll tell you this for free, they in all probability do. I’d say with equal certainty that they won’t need to worry about Hager soliciting anyone to hack them and write a book about their backroom antics though.

    • duperez

       /  February 23, 2018

      I like the idea of cynicism about the lack of ‘integrity’ in politics, or ‘integrity’ being of relevance in politics, being of more concern than the the lack of integrity in politics.

  8. Alan Wilkinson

     /  February 23, 2018

    The fundamental problem is that Government is permitted too much intrusion into our lives and wallets. The inevitable consequence is opportunities for corruption, collusion and cheating.

    • Zedd

       /  February 23, 2018

      @AW

      I was about to downtick (on your first sentence).. BUT I tend to agree with your second sentence & I dont think I can tick both options 😀

      • Gezza

         /  February 23, 2018

        Tick one, & let me know which. I’ll tick the other. But then you owe me one, buddy.

  9. robertguyton

     /  February 23, 2018

    AsleepWhileWalking 12
    23 February 2018 at 10:22 am
    I prefer the Iranian custom of greeting women by placing a hand over their heart and bowing the head slightly. It has a sweetness about it.