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Mallard Speech: Lobbying and the government

Trevor Mallard Speech to the Four Winds Communications seminar, Te Papa, Wellington

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.

Lobbying is a topic that often makes headlines. Sometimes lobbyists seek out the media - often through stunts and protest marches or sometime the results of lobbying efforts make the headlines - such as the banning ownership of dangerous dogs.

And yet lobbying as a topic is often misunderstood.

Lobbying is a legitimate activity in a democracy. The Oxford Concise dictionary defines lobbying as seeking to influence members of legislature, get bills through or soliciting the support of an influential person.

As a minister, I am considered an “influential person”, and I have people contact my office every week seeking my views, or wanting to meet with me.

These people have varying aims but they are usually trying to influence policy direction in my portfolios. I might hear from people who want me to stop the school review process; sports organisations might lobby me over proposed legislation that might impact on them – like the Health and Safety in Employment bill; and I might be contacted on the hot issue of the day.

In New Zealand, lobbying has not reached the art form that is practiced in some other countries.

For example the United States has detailed ethical requirements and regulations around how lobbyists are supposed to behave, and matching requirements for politicians and public servants.

However, in New Zealand lobbying has not reached this level of activity, although increasingly more organisations are using lobbying, or are hiring companies to give them advice in this area.

Today I wish to shed some more light on this topic. I will outline some formal protocols that apply around this subject, give you my personal view on some informal protocols and also discuss the role of political advisers in ministers’ offices. Formal protocols

Governments are guided by sets of rules and guidelines. These apply across the board, from ministers, to MPs and to the public servants who staff the many government agencies.

As a minister I am a member of Cabinet. This means that I am bound by collective Cabinet decision-making, and while I can listen to what you have to say, policy decisions have to be signed off by Cabinet as a whole.

Cabinet is required to operate according to certain rules and guidelines outlined in the Cabinet Manual.

As a general rule, as ministers we have to put before our colleagues the following sorts of issues:

the release of public discussion documents, or reports of a substantive nature affecting government policy or government agencies; significant policy issues; proposals that will affect the government's financial position, or important financial commitments; proposals involving new legislation or regulations; government responses to select committee recommendations; matters concerning the portfolio interests of a number of ministers (particularly where agreement cannot be reached); and controversial matters.

In other words, most of what you or your clients wish to talk to me and my colleagues about.

Why? It’s the collective responsibility principle in action.

Almost all policy proposals have implications for other ministers and government agencies. The onus is on us as individual ministers to ensure that all other organisations affected by a proposal are consulted, or at the very least considered, at the earliest possible stage.

Acceptance of ministerial office requires a number of things, including the acceptance of collective responsibility. Issues are often debated vigorously within the confidential setting of Cabinet meetings, although consensus is usually reached and votes are rarely taken.

Once Cabinet makes a decision, then ministers must support it, regardless of our personal views and whether or not we were at the Cabinet meeting concerned.

Conflicts of interest

You need to know that the Cabinet Manual also specifically reminds us that ministers need to be aware that association with non-governmental organisations or community groups may lead to a conflict of interest, particularly where:

the organisation is a lobby group; the organisation receives or applies for government funding.

That puts us on our guard - and means we have to be transparent and open in the ways in which we deal with you.

Because we have a responsibility to keep the public informed about important issues of the day, we do participate in marketing and communication events - we use print, visual or sound media, or appearances at conferences like this and other gatherings to explain and discuss government policies and plans.

This always must be done in line with the Guidelines for Government Advertising. The state would expect to meet expenses and no appearance fee would be expected or accepted.

While we’re on the topic of public information campaigns, I’m sure you’re all aware of a recent public information campaign in the health sector that went beyond pure information provision.

Ministers often require departments to run public information campaigns - Te Mana by the Ministry of Education is a good example. What public servants cannot do though is seek to educate and influence the political sphere - lobby for political change.

It flies in the face of political neutrality. As ministers we cannot ask public servants to do that and as lobbyists, be aware that you cannot do it for the public service. While the report into the health sector contracts has not yet been finalised and released, one thing is clear - the public service cannot contract out what it cannot do itself in terms of influencing the political process.

While we’re talking about do’s and don’ts - no minister can endorse on television or in other media any product or service except when appearing in party political advertisements or in non-political public service type advertisements or announcements (promoting, for example, water safety), where no fee would be expected or accepted.

We can’t be your next Rachael Hunter extolling the benefits of Pantene - not that ministers like myself would necessarily fit the bill for that particular job!

In fact it may interest you to know that there was some discussion in the office about whether or not I should speak at this conference.

It’s obvious what the decision was but I’m sure that it may not have occurred to some of you that we even considered whether or not we would be in breach of Cabinet’s guidelines by being here today. Which leads me to talk about my own personal style - my own personal do’s and don’ts on lobbying.

Informal courtesies

Don’t waste time If I look at my diary for each week, every single minute is accounted for. Therefore your time with an influential person is precious and you need to make every minute count. So please don’t be late for scheduled meetings, or take up too much time with unrelated chit chat.

Do think carefully about your goals If you only have limited time with people then you need to think carefully about the goals you wish to achieve. Decide what you would like to get out of the sessions and know what topic you are going to address. Please don't overload ministers with lots of issues. If you are going in a group to a meeting then decide beforehand who will lead the discussion.

A single sheet of paper that sets out the issues and main points you want to make is useful to give out at the beginning and leave behind.

Don’t blab (or give nasty surprises) If ministers make an effort to meet with lobby groups, then they dislike having their good will abused.

For example, it is extremely annoying to meet with a group and have a frank debate about their issues and then to read in the DomPost the next morning all about the meeting and supposed outcomes.

It is also extremely annoying to be told the meeting is about one subject, and to be ambushed on a completely different topic.

Game playing will not make many friends.

Don't tell ministers how to suck eggs Ministers are in the best position to decide political consequences of a decision one way or another so, tell them the facts, and don't try and threaten them with your views on how it will affect their political wellbeing.

Do go to the right Minister Every minister has been assigned specific portfolios - and roles within a portfolio.

Therefore it is important that lobbyists do some research and find out who are the appropriate people to talk to on a particular issue.

For example, whilst I may be Minister of Education and have overarching responsibility, there are also several associate ministers who have been allocated particular areas within the sector. For instance Marian Hobbs is the Associate Education Minister responsible for school buses and curriculum.

Also – every minister is not the Minister of Finance. We do not hold the budget purse strings and may have to do our own lobbying within Cabinet and with Dr Cullen for policy initiatives. And discussions about money are never easy.

Don’t expect a private meeting Ministers very rarely have one on one meetings with anyone. There should be officials present to take notes and to provide the minister with advice on your particular topic.

No usually means no I usually am happy to say no twice. Please don’t come back a third time.

Do be aware of the wider political environment This is common sense. You must be aware of what is actually possible to achieve via lobbying given the political alignment of a particular government or coalition government. For example, a Labour government is never going to support the privatisation of the entire public service.

And finally don’t door stop Please try not to buttonhole ministers who are obviously in a hurry or attending functions in a social capacity.

There are other, and better, ways of making your voice heard. For example, letter writing, making submissions, appearing before a select committee, public meetings, scheduled meeting with ministers, rallies etc.

In terms of how I approach lobbying – if I meet with a lobbyist from one side of an argument, I will inevitably also meet with the other side. Balance to me is important.

How to deal with the political/public service interface (and get your messages through)

Many organisations seeking ministerial support on an issue will need to have dealings with ministers’ office staff.

You need to understand that our office staff fall into two groups - politically appointed staff and public servants, who are usually on secondment from their agency or department.

The appointment of political or special advisors to assist ministers has increased since 1988, and particularly since the advent of MMP.

Public servants on secondment to ministers' offices are obliged to follow the public service Code of Conduct and therefore have to provide free and frank advice, be ‘politically neutral’ and be able to serve successive governments, whatever their political colour.

For this reason it is really important that both government and opposition politicians - and lobbyists - do not try and put officials in compromising positions.

The need for political neutrality in the public service is a point I would like to stress as we have had some unsavoury incidents of opposition politicians making cowardly attacks on officials and public servants, trying to draw them into the political fray.

I say ‘cowardly’ because they know these officials are not in a position to defend themselves because of the public service Code of Conduct. Special advisers, or political advisers - call them what you will - have a particular role in ministers offices and in determining who gets heard.

These advisers provide advice of a political nature and act on a minister's instructions and with the minister's political interests in mind.

They often act as the day-to-day political liaison point between coalition partners or parties that support the government – which are activities that public servants cannot do.

The distinction between the political and public service aspects of the minister's role is therefore clearer. This means it is appropriate for political messages to come through political adviser channels, not through officials.

In the many years I have spent in Parliament, I have noticed a growth in lobbying. This growth is likely to continue. Lobbying as a practice and a discipline is going to get more sophisticated and more common.

So long as we all abide by the written and unwritten conventions and practices that I’ve discussed, and respect each others' professional requirements, then we can all do our jobs better.

I wish you well for the remainder of this conference.

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