Lobbying: Self-Interest or National Interest?
Business Lobbying: Self-Interest or National Interest?
Nicky Hager’s recent re-heating of the vast right wing conspiracy theory raises a significant question in relation to business lobbying, which his book makes no attempt to explore. That is: what was the motivation and purpose of those in business whom he demonises?
The innuendo in Mr Hager’s book is that those offering advice, ideas, criticism or support have some kind of sinister or self-interested agenda, and that their efforts are thus illegitimate.
I cannot of course speak for all business people who engage with politicians and political parties, or for that matter with any other causes of their choosing. Such engagement is healthy and essential in a free, civil society and is to be encouraged.
I believe however that I can speak for most of the business people and business organisations mentioned in the book in noting that the common feature of business efforts to influence New Zealand political thinking in the past 20 years is that it has been overwhelmingly about the national interest, not self-interest.
Prior to the mid-1980s businesses were actively engaged in lobbying politicians to preserve or enhance the elaborate network of subsidies, favours, controls and protections upon which so many sectors depended. It took the crisis of 1984 for business leaders, among others, to recognise the need for New Zealand to move out into the real world and to abandon special interests and privileges in the interests of the broader economy and the nation as a whole.
It was this radical shift in thinking that gave rise to the establishment of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, and in its 20-year life the organisation has never strayed from its founding purpose: “to contribute to the development of sound public policies that reflect overall New Zealand interests”.
Promoting sound public policies has never been a popular sport. It means taking on vested interests, like unions and producer boards, raising challenging concepts, like privatisation, and tackling sacred cows, like ACC, and inevitably encountering fierce opposition. (As an aside, the perception that privatisations served the interests of ‘big business’ is entirely without substance: most if not all were conducted through open, competitive, international sales processes which meant there was no scope (ex ante) for abnormal profits.)
The past 20 years have seen four Labour and three National administrations, and the Business Roundtable has sought to engage with each of them. Its concern has always been with policy, not politics. While it was regarded as supportive of many of the Labour government’s policies in the 1980s, it was also quite critical of a number of the things it was doing and not doing. Similarly it has supported and criticised policies promoted by National. This is in strong contrast to the partisan modus operandi of the unions, for example, who typically support the Labour Party.
Likewise the Business Roundtable actively seeks to engage with all political parties. Politicians who have attended and addressed our two-monthly meetings over the past year include Tariana Turia (Maori Party), Peter Dunne (United Future), Don Brash (National), Shane Jones (Labour), Rodney Hide (ACT), John Key (National), Jim Sutton (Labour) and Annette King (Labour).
In my capacity as chairman I have had meetings with a range of political leaders, including Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Winston Peters, to discuss policy issues in which the Business Roundtable seeks to engage.
For the record, the Business Roundtable has never given a cent to any political party. I am more than happy to open our books to the government’s auditors to verify that fact.
The Business Roundtable’s total annual budget is $1.8 million (much less than that of the big unions), the lion’s share of which is spent on research, published material and public events. A glance at our website (www.nzbr.org.nz) gives an idea of the depth and range of material that has been produced over the years. There you can trace the progress and promotion of many powerful ideas, like the State-Owned Enterprises Act, the Reserve Bank Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the open economy and the freer labour market, which once might have seemed extreme, and are now simply taken for granted and enjoy multi-party support.
Ideas, not politics and political connections, matter most in the long run. Mr Hager has lost out in the contest of ideas and has taken to playing the man, not the ball.
Those who are prepared to raise public debate on issues of national importance should not be deterred by his efforts. Many people find it easier to keep their heads down and leave this task to others. I am proud to represent business leaders who have been prepared to put aside self-interest and continually explore whether our institutions and policies are in the best possible shape to make this country prosperous and competitive. Such concern for the national interest is a feature of business life in New Zealand which marks us out internationally, and is to be celebrated, not denigrated.
Rob McLeod is chairman of the New Zealand Business Roundtable