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Howard's End: Do We Truly Have Democracy?

Why should lobbyist's who represent for-profit entities and trade associations have privileged access to politicians and Ministers while the rest of us have to organise petitions or make formal submissions to legislation to have our voice heard? In the name of democratic transparency and accountability, there is another way. John Howard writes.

Do we truly have democracy in New Zealand? Many of the scandals and corruption claims in the Western democracies, have related to "soft money" contributions to political parties, and political cronyism or favouritism to special interest groups of whom the general public are mostly unaware. Politicians have lost their jobs and been disgraced because of it.

Transparency, accountability , reducing corruption, or the perception of it, must be a first priority for any Parliament who claims it represents the will of the people.

After all, the principle that Parliament consists of members drawn from the people and representing the will of the people, is supposed to be the fundamental purpose of a democracy.

But when it becomes the norm that for-profit lobbyists and trade associated lobby groups become so entwined with the political class, and unlike the general public more influential because they have ready access to the halls of power, then that ought to be worrying all of us.

Even worse, political parties don't generally announce the source of their donations and nor do the donors generally declare who they funded. Why would they, they don't have to, so how does the public know what level of clandestine deals are being made, or what influence is being exerted behind closed doors if a political party ultimately becomes the government? Under our system, open democracy is the loser.

There should be a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open. Lobbyist's being received in the shadows of the offices' of the political class, can subvert that principle.

For example, how is it that when the government was concerned about the spiraling public cost of legal aid it tightened controls for those at the bottom of the heap in the name of fiscal responsibility, while ignoring the fact that companies can be a pretty litigious lot and burst into court using money which is tax deductible? - i.e also a burden on the tax payer.

The political class simply doesn't seem interested that, unlike the little bloke, even the fees that are charged by courts and the solicitors fees charged to companies are tax deductible, as will be any judgment award made against them. That is simply not fair and equitable to all New Zealanders and its solution clearly rests with politicians.

So how do we know whether the for-profit lobbyist's or business lobby groups didn't go to see the political class in Wellington and lobby that their tax deductions should not be interfered with when legal aid costs were being reviewed. The simple answer is that we don't - and that perception worries the hell out of me.

To solve the equality issue surrounding costs of justice, some countries have either introduced or are at least looking at a proposal, to charge for court time or deny tax deductibility for commercial court cases.

But what about the lobby groups? How do we know who they are, while ensuring that undue influence is not being exerted behind-the-scenes, without some form of transparency?

The answer is simple. A $200 annual fee should be charged and public records kept, of all those who represent for-profit entities or trade associations to the political class.

Before business groups throw their hands in the air, remember, that the rest of us only have a right to petition for redress of our grievances. The general public doesn't have equal access to the political class because we don't have the money to send lobbyist's to Wellington to exert our influence.

Helen Clark should also organise a stream of high-powered Minister's to speak with community organisations and individuals at a government-arranged think-tanks across New Zealand about our problems, like she did with the business groups?

It seem to me the political class likes to talk 'to' business, but 'at' New Zealanders

So what is the purpose of charging lobbyist's $200 annually? We get to know the name of exactly which special interest group is lobbying - it's called democratic transparency.

And If we charge a fee for lobbyist's to lobby the political class, what do we do with the money? Again it's simple. We put it in an account to be used by independent political candidates or small political parties who can't get access to the selective largesse provided at election time to some and not others. And why shouldn't the voice of their ideas also be fairly heard?

And there's the political donations issue. Nothing more than a full declaration by the political parties about the source of donations will do. That's because it now costs hundreds of thousands of dollars - billions in America - to conduct an election campaign and the public has a right to know the source and connections of donors.

The time is ripe for the government to engage in some audacious thinking and new concepts for our democracy.


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