More on the media and murky lobbying in politics

Bryce Edwards has continued to question the relationships between paid lobbyists and politicians, but also points out that relationships between lobbyists and media mean it isn unlikely ton get much exposure.

Political Roundup:  Lifting the lid on lobbying in politics

Recent revelations that a lobbying firm owner and director was recruited to work over summer as Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, with the expectation he would then immediately return to lobbying, barely raised a mention in our media.

What should have been a major political scandal, was the subject of a must-read investigative report last week on The Spinoff website – see Asher Emanuel’s Conflict of interest concerns over lobbyist turned chief of Jacinda Ardern’s staff. Emanuel’s article is important because it raises unanswered questions about ethics and procedures in the hiring of lobbyists to work for the government.

One explanation for this extraordinary situation going largely unreported, is that Wellington political insiders often operate as a “political class” who are careful not to step on each other’s toes. For the media, in particular, a symbiotic relationship can make it problematic to report on powerful individuals who they depend on for stories and access.

Danyl Mclauchlan earlier this week pointed to a second, very important, factor in why so little public scrutiny had been applied to this lobbyist. He writes, “a jaw-dropping conflict of interest” such as this could have been massive: “If such a thing happened during the Key government there would have been a huge outcry: protests, online petitions, Twitter hashtags, Radio New Zealand flooded with academics lamenting the death of our democracy. Instead there was an indifferent silence” – see: Simon Bridges and the opposition vacuum.

Partly, Mclauchlan attributes this to partisan bias. But, crucially, he suggests that another important component of New Zealand’s “political class” – Parliament’s Opposition – decided not to make the issue a scandal. He says “Most government scandals need opposition leaders asking questions in the house, crafting lines so that the voters can understand what’s happening, providing optics for the TV news, and having their research units breaking new angles to keep the story live. If none of these things happen then there’s no scandal.”

The Opposition is supposed to be a check on Executive power – it’s their job to expose the government’s ethical transgressions such as any misuse of power or willingness to allow conflicts of interest to occur at high levels. So why didn’t National push the issue? According to Mclauchlan: “National has no interest in progressing such a story because they in many ways spent the last nine years acting as a vertically integrated lobbying and fundraising operation, and their former chief of staff is now a consulting partner with the same lobbying firm as Labour’s former chief of staff.”

More here from Edwards:

But with the primary means of holding power to account – the media and the Opposition – both complicit it is unlikely this will be given much scrutiny.

Good on Edwards for having a crack at it. He could be putting his media access at risk.

Latta on what our politicians do

Nigel Latta has had a look at what our politicians (and media and lobbyists and activists) do.

Stuff: Nigel Latta: What Do Our Politicians Actually Do?

We decided to go and look at Parliament because whenever you’re looking at how to solve the nation’s problems, it always comes back to Parliament. 

Politicians are despised but when you spend some time with them, you quickly realise that almost all of them are there because they want to make a difference and do something positive. It’s just that ambition and ego sometimes get in the way. 

And the public mostly sees what our politicians do through the eyes of the media, who tend to focus disproportionately on conflict, disruption, controversy and mistakes.

Our Parliament is based on a clash of ideas and we’ve been led to believe that’s a good way to solve problems, but that’s the worst way to solve problems. It’s not the best idea that emerges, it’s the person with the loudest voice  who wins.

To an extent that’s true but it does require about 60 MPs supporting the loudest voices.

In a perfect world we’d be able to sit down as humans and talk through ideas. We’d just have a bunch of people who aren’t members of any party; they’re smart people, they’re going to talk about ideas.  They’d be genuinely open to any solution rather than driven by ideological views.

Theoretically perhaps, but what sort of people would we end up with as MPs if things worked like that?

The politician who is elected on the basis of a cause will behave very differently than the politician who is there for a career.

The problem now is we have this political class, career politicians whose primary focus is on getting reelected, and because of that they can stay in power for decades.

We seem to be getting a growing number of ‘career politicians’ under our party based system.

We spent some time with Paula Bennett, and regardless of what you think of her as a person or her politics, she works incredibly hard. She oversees a huge budget. And that’s the thing, they do an important job so we want smart people in there.

The public doesn’t see anything of the hard graft that goes on. Instead we are bombarded with images of opponents trying to destroy their credibility and careers, and of the media trying to concoct sensational stories hold them to account.

The bulk of Parliament’s work is in select committees. In the select committee that we sat on, it was the politicians who were being sensible, and it was the public servants who were trying to argue for a position that may have been legally correct, but was not in the actual interests of everyday New Zealanders.

It was the first time I’d seen MP’s as the sensible ones protecting all of us, and that was refreshing. 

MPs working for us against the bureaucrats? Who’d have thought.

One of the interesting things we did was to follow the procedure of how questions are asked in the House.

The whole process builds in intensity over the day and I can understand how they all get caught up in the drama of it all.

The problem is that while they all think it’s a really big deal getting to ask a question in the House, but none of the rest of us care. In fact most of us are appalled by their behaviour in the Chamber.

It was fascinating watching the reaction of school kids who’d come to see democracy in action. Their faces alternated between amusement and disbelief that our nation’s leaders could be acting like this. 

Ultimately though, our knowledge if what happens in Parliament comes from the media. And a lot of what we see is the antics in the debating chamber or gotcha journalism.

We see a small snapshot via a media seeking sensation and readers/viewers.

The real work in Parliament happens in select committees, and a huge amount of that work happens with politicians working together to get stuff done.

It’s not as entertaining as the silliness in the house so it doesn’t get covered.

Sensible and hard work doesn’t make good headlines.

And the end result of that is that we think they’re all acting like kids all the time, when actually they only behave like kids a very small percentage of the time. The rest of their day, they’re actually doing important work.

And quite a bit of that work involves working together.

At the end of my time in parliament the thing I was most concerned about was the influence of lobbyists.

I think any time a lobbyist goes to see a politician, given this is a person who’s being paid to influence politicians and policy, we should know who’s there, who they’re representing, and what was discussed. That goes for all lobbyists, whether it be a lobbyist for big alcohol or for environmental groups. 

We should all be concerned about the influence of lobbyists.

Yes, lobbyists (and often the money and vested interests behind lobbyists) have more influence on what happens than many realise.

After watching this people might say ‘you were too soft on them’. I’ll undoubtedly get emails about why I didn’t slam them on issues like inequality, or housing or any of the other weighty problems we face as a nation.

But that wasn’t the point of going. I wanted to know more about how Parliament works, not circle round the usual policy debates. So now I know that if you want to have some influence find your local MP and feed them a question they might get to ask in the House. Because if it gets asked in the House, you might just get some media attention on your issue. 

So the influential voice is not always the loudest voice in Cabinet, it is influenced by getting a loud voice for your views in the media.

This is something that’s also attempted via social media and blogs, and it sometimes succeeds, like the Red Peak flag. But it’s very competitive, there’s a lot of political and social activists competing to be the Nek Minute in the spotlight.

There are some principled, genuinely compassionate in there who really want to make a difference.

I think most are to an extent at least.

And then I think there are people that are the complete opposite.

Some seem to be hanging in there to collect healthy pay packets. Some seem to think that destruction (of their opponents) is a requisite for getting power to change things.

For us though, as voters, I’m hoping we can learn to demand more than coverage of the trivial, or the endless inane controversies, and instead expect a higher quality of debate. We should also, just by the by, lift our own game.

To an extent at least we get (from the media) what we demand or deserve. And those active in politics outside Parliament demand sensation, as long as it is applied to those they oppose.

Ordinary people (voters) are either bored by politics or turned off by the worst that the media shows them, so they are turned off rather than inspired to demand better.

So I doubt that we will see much improvement. The noisiest politicians, the noisiest journalists and the noisiest activists and lobbyists rule, and while the rest of us allow it to continue like that it will continue being like that.