Looking to kill a conversation? Just say you’re a lobbyist.

1. Mar Blog Pic elijah-macleod-400010.jpg

When I set up my own government relations firm late 2017, I knew the easiest way for people to understand what I do is to refer to myself as a lobbyist. This, despite knowing the term rouses a negative reaction in most people and is a great way to shut down any conversation.

The term ‘lobbyist’ conjures up images of silver-haired aristocrats, seated around an old English oak table, littered with lowball glasses of whisky, setting the agenda for the rest of us to live by. In fact, if you Google the term ‘New Zealand lobbyist’ you will find a decade worth of articles canvassing the age-old question: to regulate or not to regulate? Why? Because for some, lobbying is considered the pursuit of buying influence out of the public gaze.

Around the time Rt Hon Trevor Mallard was appointed Speaker of the House in late 2017, it was reported he would review the list of people with parliamentary accreditation. In other words, he would evaluate those who hold swipe card access to New Zealand's Parliamentary buildings. Many political commentators speculated this was a nod toward incoming changes to the government relations industry, while failing to mention a 2003 speech the Speaker gave as State Services Minister, where he said “lobbying is a legitimate activity in a democracy”. I wouldn’t be so quick to say there is a looming ‘crack down’ – but more about that later.

...lobbying as a topic is often misunderstood. Lobbying is a legitimate activity in a democracy.
— Rt Hon Trevor Mallard, 25 November 2003

A scroll through that article’s comments makes for pretty entertaining reading: “lap dogs”, “rot” and “make dinners illegal for our MPs to attend”. Just to set the record straight, my parliamentary accreditation gives me nothing more than the ability to bypass my old colleagues working at the security desk and avoid taking my laptop out of my bag. My accreditation does not give me the power to waltz into a Minister’s office and have a chat. All our Members of Parliament and their offices retain absolute say in accepting or rejecting meeting requests, and this is the way it should be.

Clients do not engage me to ‘buy influence’ because there is no guarantee I can ever land a meeting. Any government relations representative that says they can is equivalent to a lawyer promising to win your case – not something a good one will do. Often clients come to me to better understand the layers of staff in a Ministerial office: for example did you know there are both political and a-political staff in a Ministerial office?

I also advise clients how to best use their time should they get a meeting. During Rt Hon Trevor Mallard’s same 2003 speech, he said if you get 30 minutes with a Minister “you need to make every minute count”. Indeed all my clients are directed to spend exactly zero minutes discussing how the ridiculous shape of the Beehive meant they got lost ten minutes earlier.

Other areas of my work include how best to engage with a Government department, how to refine a meeting request, and even just having a discussion around why central Government is a client’s first port of call. In that regard, sometimes the best advice I give is free: Government actually can’t help you with that.

So is there a looming crackdown coming? Only a few people will know for sure, but I will use my own knowledge to ensure I am an active participant in any discussions. Of most interest to me will be how advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and Forest and Bird engage. The public tends not to think of these groups as lobbying organisations, but if the definition of a lobbyist is “a person who takes part in an organised attempt to influence legislators” this is exactly what they do. In fact, Greenpeace New Zealand has a 19 page guide available online titled “How to lobby your local MP”. You can check it out here.

If that doesn’t convince you take a look at this open letter signed by representatives of Forest and Bird, Greenpeace New Zealand, WWF New Zealand, Fish & Game New Zealand, Environmental Defence Society, Ecologic, and Generation Zero. It makes the “promise to continue our strong advocacy for the environment and look forward to working with all political parties, both in the next government and in the opposition, to achieve positive gains for our environment.” I applaud this open approach to influencing and acknowledge their mission. Do I care what Members of Parliament these groups are talking to? Not in the slightest. Should you care? Well there are probably more important issues facing New Zealand however if you do, please be willing to call a spade a spade: lobbying has many faces.

In a recent Newsroom article political commentator and analyst Dr Bryce Edwards wrote that lobbying is “big money, and those rich enough can hire them to further their interests.” I don’t disagree with his comment, but am irked by it. New Zealand’s Parliament has been around since 1854 and the public’s appetite for engaging law makers is still far too low. I believe the government relations industry is ready for a bit of disruption.

I believe the government relations industry is ready for a bit of disruption.
— Holly Bennett, Head Of Government Relations

During my four years working in the Beehive, one of the most enjoyable parts of my role was meeting New Zealanders determined to shake up their industries: Kiwis who refused to accept status-quo and challenged public sector thinking around how to advance our nation, encourage innovation and improve living standards. If we can disrupt transportation, how we book accommodation, even disrupt the delivery of our own parcels in real time, then we can disrupt how New Zealanders seek access and engage with Government.

If disruptors work to remove middlemen (think Yoogo, LanzaTech, Centrality and ofo), then my goal is to become so disruptive that I disrupt my own place in the government relations ecosystem. Over the next few years I will be creating a new online platform to improve government engagement for everyone, create high value jobs and offer career diversity to a generation that has probably never even considered working in this industry.

The Chief Executive of investment firm BlackRock recently put the leaders of the world’s largest companies on notice saying “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” BlackRock manages more than $6 trillion in investments – 32 times more than New Zealand’s entire GDP. I would argue it is a greater sense of social purpose people want to see, not the creation of arbitrary regulation to fix a problem, which is quite possibly nothing more than ill-directed perception. In saying that, my industry is not devoid of participating in delivering a social purpose.

So think of me as a lobbyist, as an advocate, or as the Head of Government Relations for my firm. But I am just a New Zealander who knows how to translate all the political gobbledegook for others.

My mission is to ensure all New Zealanders can access affordable and effective government relations services. If we all get a bit better at engaging with Parliament then our political leaders will be in a position to better respond to the will of the people. This is not about being to the left, to the right or in the centre. Government relations is about everyone’s views being heard by Wellington.

This post first appeared on SeedWaikato.nz titled "So.... you work in government relations? What is it you actually do?" Seed Waikato is a newly established not-for-profit organisation with a dream to see young people thrive in the Waikato.