RNZ soft sop on political conflicts of interest

RNZ were embarrassed on Thursday when it was revealed in Parliament that ‘contractor’ Tracey Bridges, who was engaged by Ministerial Services in Jacinda Ardern’s office, had commented on ‘The Panel’ without disclosure. RNZ made a soft concession that it didn’t look good:

“It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. We are reviewing our processes around The Panel to make this sure this doesn’t happen again.”

– see Labour and RNZ exposed using ministerial staffer “as an independent commentator”.

Yesterday RNZ followed up with a sop to Bridges and to another political lobbyist who had come under scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest, Gordon Jon Thompson.

Jane Patterson at RNZ: Commentator welcomes conflict of interest debate

A PR contractor, whose position in the Prime Minister’s office prompted questions in Parliament, says discussions about conflicts of interest are important, and she welcomes questions about how they are handled.

National MP Melissa Lee raised questions about Tracey Bridges appearing on RNZ as a commentator, without it being made clear she had a contract to work in the office of Jacinda Ardern at the time.

In response to that story, Ms Bridges said she had told RNZ she was an independent contractor, but the news organisation had not asked for any details about individual clients, nor had she offered them.

While it should be standard practice for RNZ to insist on full disclosure Bridges also had a responsibility to disclose any possible conflict of interest.

RNZ went back to Ms Bridges and asked her for details about how her potential conflicts of interest are managed more broadly.

She said she identified and declared any of her other clients who could potentially pose a conflict of interest to the Prime Minister’s office, and then managed any conflicts if and when they arose from there on.

Ms Bridges said she did the same with her other clients.

Her work focussed on strategy, leadership and mentoring, she said, and her work in the PM’s office was “consistent with that space”.

It was very important to her to respect the confidentiality of all of her clients and so there was “no flow of information” between the different groups, Ms Bridges said.

Bridges stated “she welcomes questions” but has not faced any questions here, she has been given a free PR platform. This sounds like a sop to Bridges by Patterson, RNZ’s political editor.

Gordon Jon Thompson worked in the PM’s office as Chief of Staff immediately after the election, and has since returned to his corporate affairs consultancy company, Thompson Lewis, that specialises in government relations.

He said the day he signed his contract to work in the PM’s office he declared his interest in his company to Ministerial Services.

Mr Thompson said that in recognition of potential conflicts of interest, he had signed a document saying he would be taking a leave of absence from his company while Chief of Staff and he would not receive any money from Thompson Lewis during that time.

The situation relating to conflicts of interest was “handled well”, he said.

Another PR sop, this time to Thompson. He has been allowed to claim he “handled well” the situation relating to conflicts of interest without question.

I think that it’s fair to question what Patterson’s historic and current relationship with bridges and Thompson is.

And it’s fair to question the way she and RNZ have handled this issue. It raises more questions about conflicts of interest than it answers.

NOTE: This is on matters of principle, but it seems that Bridges did not talk politics on The Panel, she talked about what a big deal it is to her that her daughter is going away to University for the year, about Bob Jones’ controversial Waitangi Day column (she said he had a right to waffle), and allergies in movies – Audio of The Panel on 12 February.

However she did close with:

“I’m probably sitting in a position where I’m feeling a little bit sick of racist old men having platforms”.

Update: there’s more audio of The Panel scattered across RNZ:

https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thepanel/audio/2018631698/the-panel-with-tracey-bridges-and-tim-watkin-part-1

https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thepanel/audio/2018631698/the-panel-with-tracey-bridges-and-tim-watkin-part-1https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thepanel/audio/2018631707/the-panel-with-tracey-bridges-and-tim-watkin-part-2

I haven’t got time to listen to all that right now.

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:

Clayton’s conflict of interest

The conflict of interest you have when you don’t have a conflict of interest?