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:

Lobbyists and Labour advisers in Government

Bryce Edwards has interesting coverage of the revolving door from lobbyist to Government to lobbyist again in Political Roundup: The Government’s revolving door for lobbyists

In many democracies, they call it the “revolving door” of influence – whereby political insiders shift easily between government jobs or positions and lobbying work in the private sector. It’s considered especially pernicious because it can cause conflicts of interest and inequalities of power in democracies. Essentially, lobbying firms and their clients have become more powerful in the political system because they are able to employ insiders who have all the contacts and valuable information on what is going on behind the scenes.

The situation has become so serious that some countries are trying to shut the “revolving door” – making it illegal for people to shift so quickly between these roles. It’s common now for officials and politicians to be subject to a “cooling down” period of six to 12 months before they can take up lobbying positions that might relate to the work they carried out in government.

No such rules exist here in New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean they’re not needed.

This week a perfect example of the “revolving door” of government officials and lobbying has occurred. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff has shifted from the Beehive to a lobbying firm. Lobbyist Gordon Jon Thompson, has been a political manager – or “spin doctor” – and lobbyist for a long time, and shifts between government and private sector jobs with apparent ease.

The story about Thompson was actually buried within an article by Laura Walters yesterday, which focused on another interesting – but less contentious – “revolving door” story about another former chief of staff, National’s Wayne Eagleson – see: Former National Party chief of staff joins firm of Labour’s top advisers.

…but the Thompson story is potentially much bigger, and certainly much more problematic. Thompson, who has been a lobbyist and PR professional for many years, worked with Jacinda Ardern last year, helping prepare her for the TV leaders debates. And then when she formed the new government she invited Thompson to be Labour’s Chief of Staff, despite the fact that he would remain a lobbyist and director of his Thompson Lewis firm.

Walters’ article states, “Thompson finished a four-month stint as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s acting chief of staff, while chief of staff Mike Munro was recovering from illness.” This means Thompson was made Chief of Staff by the Prime Minister, with the full knowledge that he would then return to his lobbying business, where he would be involved with clients with an interest on influencing the new government. Indeed, he finished work last Friday in his job as the number one adviser to Jacinda Ardern, and resumed his lobbying job yesterday.

The issue immediately raises issues about potential conflicts of interest. Many questions come to mind, including: Why did the Prime Minister agree to hire Thompson when she knew he was coming from a position in a lobbying firm, and that he would then be resuming as a lobbyist as soon as he finished in her office? Did she see this as problematic? Did Ministerial Service advise that this was OK? Was the Prime Minister made aware of which clients Thompson was working for? Who were these clients?

The NBR’s Brent Edwards investigated yesterday, and he got a statement out of Thompson: “I took a leave of absence from the company while I worked in the Beehive. My time in the Beehive was always on a temporary basis and we took careful steps to manage it” – see: PM’s former staffer says he declared potential conflict of interest (paywalled).

Brent Edwards also reports: “Ministerial Services has not yet responded to questions from NBR on how the potential conflict of interest was handled. All lobbying firms make a point of promoting the political and public service experience of their staff, including how that gives them access to the political process not necessarily enjoyed by others.”

Plenty of questions remain about the situation. It is highly unusual to have a lobbyist become the Chief of Staff for a government, in the full knowledge and declaration that they will then swap immediately sides after the appointment. It certainly puts Thompson and his business in an extremely strong position. After all, Thompson had the role of recruiting a number of the new people staffing the Beehive. He will know the ins and outs of the staff he hired, as well as everything about the new administration generally.

As Laura Walters puts it in her article, “Thompson left his lobbying job to help set up the new government, before returning to his life in Auckland, meaning he has up-to-date knowledge of and contacts within government.”

This Government pledged more openness and transparency. This sort of morphing between Government adviser and lobbyist (paid money to influence Government) deserves a lot more  light and scrutiny.

(Thanks for pointing this out Maggy)

Prince Charles Britain’s “best informed lobbyist”

The Herald reports on details revealed by the UK Guardian that Prince Charles receives top secret cabinet papers, and he lobbies Ministers.

Revealed: Prince Charles’ access to top secret Government files

The Guardian has revealed that Prince Charles has received confidential Cabinet papers for decades, making him Britain’s “best informed lobbyist”.

Confirmation came from the Cabinet’s “precedent book”, which was locked away “cupboard within a locked office in a secured corridor inside the Cabinet Office”.

The Cabinet Office fought for three years against the release of the documents, which came after a request from Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state.

The document reads: “The standard circulation for Cabinet memoranda includes the Queen, the Prince of Wales, all members of the Cabinet, any other Ministers in charge of departments (or to be treated as in charge of departments)”.

It’s now revealed that Prince Charles lobbied with full knowledge of Cabinet agendas and policy.

“The disclosure of Cabinet papers to Prince Charles is quite extraordinary,” said Graham Smith, Republic’s chief executive. “Not only because they would contain highly classified information, but because it gives him considerable advantage in pressing his own agenda when lobbying ministers. He is essentially a minister not attending Cabinet. He gets the paperwork and has private meetings with ministers about policy.”

Member of Commons, Paul Flynn, said: “This means that he is not only the most influential lobbyist, but the best informed and he is lobbying for his own interests, which are not always benign or sensible.”

Not good for someone who could become New Zealand’s next head of state?