The Government’s withdrawal of Parliamentary access cards for lobbyists yesterday is largely symbolic and, in practice, pointless.
But it is a revealing insight into the Government’s sensitivity over the Nash affair.
Nash himself announced yesterday that he would retire from Parliament at the election.
That is because the cards only get the lobbyists and others through the door.
If the lobbyists wanted to visit a Minister – or even the Opposition — they needed someone from the office they are visiting to come and escort them.
(The same rules apply to the Press Gallery).
As one of the capital’s longest-established lobbyists put it yesterday, the cards are like belonging to the Koru Club.
He said they get you into the door, but you still have to buy a ticket to fly.
The announcement by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday was plainly in response to the revelations about Stuart Nash and his donors, but neither Troy Bowker nor Greg Loveridge was on the lobbyists’ card list.
Ironically three of the four chiefs of staff to Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins (GJ Thompson, Mike Munro, Andrew Kirton) have been on the list of cardholders. The former Chief of Staff to John Key, Wayne Eagleson, is also on the list.
Hipkins acknowledged yesterday that the withdrawal of the access cards would have little practical effect.
However, he is also asking for work to begin on a more comprehensive review of lobbying.
“ I’ve commissioned a significant piece of work that will look at policy options for regulating lobbying activities,” he said.
“To do it well, that will require consultation in a good amount of time.
“I anticipate that advice will come back to Government next year.
“This was last looked at in 2012, and ultimately it didn’t lean because it was too broad in scope and also because the majority of the Parliament did not agree to it. I want Parliament to take another look at that, learning the lessons from that process.”
And he said the Government was looking at two further moves designed to make lobbyists’ activities more transparent.
“I’m calling on the third-party lobbyists themselves to develop a voluntary code of conduct that would help to enhance transparency, for example, by including the names of the clients that they represent on the websites,” he said.
“Others involved in lobbying, for instance, peak bodies, industry associations and other entities, could also sign up to the voluntary code.
“The government will offer assistance from the Ministry of Justice to help draft that code and to draw on overseas practice and guidance if that’s useful.”
There will also be a tightening up on Ministers and senior staff becoming lobbyists in the rewrite of the Cabinet manual currently being undertaken.
“A refreshed Cabinet manual will be published later this month; that makes it very clear that while in office, or staff ministers’ conduct and decisions should not be influenced by the prospect or expectation of future employment with a particular organisation or sector, further change in that area.”
Ironically one of the main speakers in the debate on the 2012 Bill was Chris Hipkins.
He was in favour of the Bill but concerned that it might limit the ability of an MP’s constituents to come to Parliament to make a case for or against something that might affect their employment.
Australia has a register of lobbyists and also requires them to abide by a Code of Conduct.
The code defines lobbyists as “any person, company or organisation, or their employee, who conducts lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client.”
Entities that are excluded from the definition of lobbyist include charitable, religious and non-profit organisations and individuals making representations on behalf of relatives or friends about personal matters.
The code does not apply to any organisation or individual who engages in lobbying activities on their own behalf rather than for a client.
Australia also has a “cooling off” period which requires that when Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries cease to hold office, they do not engage in lobbying activities relating to any matter with which they had official dealings in their last 18 months in office.
That would have been particularly difficult for GJ Thompson and Mike Munro, who went straight back to lobbying after brief times as Chief of Staff to Jacinda Ardern. Wayne Eagleson joined Thompson’s firm, Thompson Lewis, in February 2018, after the National Government left office in 2017.
There are also challenges bringing lawyers into any lobbying register.
At what point do legal submissions – to a Select Committee, for example — become lobbying?
After all, their intent is the same as that pursued by the professional lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has released the terms of reference for the Inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary, Rachel Hayward, into Stuart Nash’s communications.
“It will look at whether there were other breaches of Cabinet collective responsibility or confidentiality, or perceived or actual conflicts of interest in communications he had with people and entities who made declared donations to his 2017 or 2020 electorate campaigns,” Hipkins said.
“Communications in scope are those by letter, email, text message, WhatsApp or Signal between 26 October 2017 and 28 Match, 2023 when Mr Nash held ministerial portfolios.”
Nash himself announced his retirement from politics.
That was not unexpected.
Last Monday night, just after he sacked him, Hipkins said: “Stuart himself will be reflecting on his position, and I imagine that there will be further conversations.”
Nash has been a popular figure within Labour’s caucus and a respected Cabinet Minister.
One senior Minister told POLITIK that he was the one Minister you could guarantee had read every Cabinet paper every week.
He has also been popular in his electorate; his vote at the last election was 52 per cent compared with Labour’s party vote of 50.9 per cent.
So his departure, and the circumstances around it, will have come as a blow to the caucus and to the Prime Minister himself.
That won’t be helped by a Roy Morgan poll showing that even with the boost that Hipkins leadership initially received, Labour is stuck at 33 per cent while National is similarly stuck at 32 per cent. Overall, National and ACT have 45 per cent, while Labour and the Greens have 43.5 per cent.
It is the closeness of that polling which would mean that any incident like the Nash affair could easily blow Labour off course, which explains why Hipkins has been so firm and so quick to try and damp it down.