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Cool, calm and connected: Meet New Zealand’s top lobbyists

They speak the language of Government for well-paying clients, leading to claims of influence for hire. So who are New Zealand’s top lobbyists? Since the change in Government in 2017 the game is increasingly dominated by figures with links to the Labour Party. Hamish Rutherford reports.

Depending on who you talk to, lobbying is either an essential element of a democratic system, or powerful interests using money and connections – often those built up while working as or for the Government – to short-circuit the political process.

Government relations, as those who engage in it like to call it, involves helping clients, bodies or causes speak to politicians and officials.

It is often associated with attempting to get meetings with politicians – ministers especially – and preparing for select committee appearances. It is also about attempting to change the Government’s mind in a crisis, or attempting to secure a better outcome for companies or sectors when new laws are being proposed.

Some describe the service as explaining why politicians make the types of decisions they do to businesses with little knowledge of Wellington, or talking to politicians about the pressures and risks to businesses in a language they understand.

“Government relations is often a translation service. Politicians often don’t understand the realities of business, and businesses don’t always understand the mysterious goings on that lead to political decisions,” Neale Jones, a director at Capital Public Relations.

“Part of what a good government relations practitioner does is be able to talk to both sides and translate to the other.”

Another lobbyist put it more bluntly: “That’s what Auckland is designed for: to not know how Government works,” creating a potentially lucrative market to explain the mysteries of the bureaucracy to clients.

For those able to convince clients to hire them, it can be big money. Big international clients are said to retain firms for $10,000 a month or more.

Often big companies retain lobbyists as an “insurance policy” so they have well-connected friends before the moment they are needed.

In pressure situations or during major projects, services can cost thousands of dollars a day, one lobbyist said.

In the past lobbyists charged more by the hour, but now the overwhelming bulk was in the form of retainers, following the trend of the US, UK and Australia.

Clients were charged on a “value basis” as the actual work being done in a particular period might not reflect the effort taken to make it possible in the first place.

“If you are able to make a call to a minister to sort out an issue quickly, you don’t charge them for the five minutes of the call. You charge them for the five years it took you to get the relationship to that point.”

Others said that, high day rates aside, often work was patchy and this more than anything else was why lobbying firms tended to be small.

Major campaigns designed to abruptly change the Government’s mind on an issue might cost more than $200,000, one lobbyist said, adding however that some of this went to PR companies, researchers or pollsters.

But there is no denying that, like every other aspect of politics, much of the lobbying is a relationship business. One lobbyist said it could be described as something akin to a “dating agency”, striving to be the best at setting up meetings or phone calls for clients with politicians, especially at key moments in the policy process.

Exactly how much of a difference knowing the right people makes in the process, those who are successful in lobbying are almost invariably the ones who can forge close relationships with not only politicians, but officials and Beehive staffers.

The industry is also relatively small, made up largely of individuals or firms with just a handful of staff.

It is also showing signs of becoming more party aligned, which is not unusual overseas, but is less common in New Zealand until now.

Over the past five years there has been something of a shift in the power balance of the lobbyists, with many leading figures coming from top positions in the Labour Party.

Part of the change is generational, with the leading figures holding close relations to the current staff and Cabinet ministers from their time in Opposition.

Observers have questioned whether some of the newer companies can survive a change in government, but also when issues become difficult, who will the lobbyist choose?

New Zealand, unlike many jurisdictions, has nothing in the way of lobbyist registers, although around a decade ago Parliament published a list of all visitors who had access cards to the precinct and more recently, Ministers have begun publishing meeting diaries.

Bryce Edwards, a director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Democracy Project, has repeatedly called for greater scrutiny of the industry. He has speculated that the reason the issue was not more widely covered in the media was possibly because Wellington political insiders often operate as a “political class” who are careful not to step on each other’s toes.

“For the media, in particular, a symbiotic relationship can make it problematic to report on powerful individuals who they depend on for stories and access.”

One lobbyist said the reality was less exciting than Edwards suggested. “Perhaps Bryce will finally call me one day and we can talk about it.”

Mark Unsworth, a partner at Saunders Unsworth, pointed out that many of the current and former clients are listed on the company’s website.

Jones said he would welcome disclosure of clients and registering as a lobbyist.

Several others in the field said they would welcome some kind of disclosure requirements, but one also warned such a move could drive the more fringe operators further underground.

“People who breathlessly argue that [disclosure] is going to flush out all sorts of behaviour and lead to major change will be sadly mistaken.”

Here are New Zealand’s heavy-hitting lobbyists.

NEALE JONES – The media star

Neale Jones is arguably the highest-profile lobbyist in New Zealand, and the most nakedly partisan.

A regular guest on NewstalkZB, RNZ’s Nine to Noon political segment, The Nation and an occasional Herald columnist, Jones supplements his media appearances with dozens of posts on Twitter a day, mostly defending the Government or offering advice to Opposition MPs, often to the point of ridicule.

Rivals in the field of government relations privately claim to be perplexed by Jones’ approach.

The sheer breadth of his outspoken views would alienate more potential clients than they gain.

Jones, meanwhile, says business is strong and looking to expand. “We have a very reputable and large stable of clients.”

His media appearances are not direct marketing, but he believes it helps him build profile.

While “no one calls me up and says they want to be a client because they heard me on the radio … If you are in the media, being put up as someone who can talk about politics as an analyst; that’s a proof point people can see that you probably know what you’re talking about.”

He also admits he engages in punditry and social media in part, for personal reasons. “I enjoy it”.

Though not quite a complete shill for the Labour Party, Jones’ commentary is largely aligned with the party, hardly a surprise for a former CTU official who rose to chief of staff for Opposition leader Andrew Little (and briefly Jacinda Ardern).

After Jones left Labour after the 2017 election, he became New Zealand representative for Hawker Britton, an Australian firm which exclusively lobbies Labor MPs.

He now operates as Capital Government Relations, which since being established has seen Jones hire Clint Smith, a former Labour and Greens staffer (whose Twitter use is even more aggressively pro-Government than Jones’) and Hayden Munro, Labour’s campaign manager during the 2020 election campaign. Munro, in contrast to his colleagues, is almost silent on social media.

Jones believes his support of the party helps build trust with those in the Beehive.

“When you have a conversation, and I say to them something is the case, they will tend to put more trust in what I’m saying than someone who is trying to play both sides.”

What will he do in the future in the event that, sooner or later, the administration will change? He points out that the business is expanding beyond lobbying into public relations and that whatever happens, something will be available.

“It’s not something I’m concerned about.” Where clients need work related to National MPs, Capital sometimes uses contractors to do the work for him.

Jones’ close connections to Labour are often the subject of what appear to be conspiracy theories on social media, but Jones says he advocates for some form of scrutiny, including disclosure of clients.

Not only does the company have a lengthy code of ethics on its website (which arguably talks down the company’s “ability to realise outcomes”), it will attempt to satisfy itself it is always being truthful with clients, as well as the government and other agencies.

While he claims to maintain high standards of honesty for himself – including on the basis that not doing so would put his clients at risk, Jones claims – unspecifically – that others in the field, past or present, have not.

“New Zealand has seen cases of lobbying that has been unethical, and has had unethical results and that has come back to bite people.”

THOMPSON LEWIS – the in-crowd

In April the Dominion Post revealed that NZ Bus, the Australian-owned company in a bitter dispute with unions representing Wellington’s bus drivers, had turned to Thompson Lewis for its PR work.

The company was referred to as the “big-hitting PR and lobbying firm led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s former chief of staff”.

Some in the highly factional Labour movement see the contract as union busting; NZ Bus endured a lengthy standoff with unions over pay and conditions. Would this be the moment the Beehive sought to distance itself from the small but influential lobbying firm?

Not a bit. A few days later at the Press Gallery’s 150th anniversary, Ardern greeted Gordonjon Thompson, known universally within political circles simply as GJ, with a kiss on the cheek, in the middle of a crowd including hundreds from Wellington’s gossipy political and media set.

If the art of lobbying is appearing to have access to the people in power, it was the latest reminder that no one is closer to the power than GJ.

Recognised as being one of Ardern’s inner circle, he had previously worked alongside her as a Labour staffer, then again when she was a new MP and he chief of staff to Opposition leader Phil Goff, until he left for a career in the corporate sector, with spells at SkyCity and Fonterra.

When she needed help setting up the new Government, Thompson was among those to get the call, including briefly as her chief of staff. That period may ultimately define his career and, while he declined to comment last week, he has previously said issues relating to the conflict of interest between his two jobs were well managed.

Thomson and David Lewis, for a time Helen Clark’s chief press secretary (who later advised Auckland mayors Len Brown and Phil Goff), set up their company in 2016. A year after forming the company hired Sifa Taumoepeau, yet another former political staffer who had also worked for SkyCity and Fonterra.

Arguably the company’s key hire, and the one which means it is seen as less of a partisan firm, came after the 2017 election, when they secured Wayne Eagleson as the firm’s Wellington-based director. Eagleson was chief of staff for both John Key and Bill English, a figure so secure he was regarded as being more powerful than some ministers, and he remains a highly respected figure within National.

Even for Thompson Lewis, there is a limit to the government relations work, with Lewis appearing to spend much of his time on work more akin to public relations.

SAUNDERS UNSWORTH – The establishment

Saunders Unsworth’s website describes the firm as “New Zealand’s pre-eminent Government Relations and Lobbying Consultancy”.

Mark Unsworth, who founded the firm with Barrie Saunders in 1994, laughs at having the words read back to him.

“That was written a long time ago.”

He is far from surprised to hear that most of the people approached to discuss this piece say most people would say the title now sits with Thompson Lewis.

“They are the go-to people with the current Government,” he said.

For years Saunders Unsworth was the name in New Zealand lobbying, surviving several changes of Government.

Its annual party at the Backbencher Pub was one of the go-to events on the political calendar, at least before Covid-19. Among other things, the party was known for having exactly the right amount of speeches to keep socialising politicians, staffers and journalists interested: none.

Over that period the nature of lobbying has changed markedly, as the rules around disclosures meaning MPs and especially officials cannot be entertained as they might have in the past.

“That’s why about a third of the corporate boxes at Sky Stadium are full. The rest of them are empty.”

Although Roger Sowry, a former Cabinet minister who served as a National MP until 2008 is a partner, Unsworth (for David Caygill) and his former co-founder Barrie Saunders (for Bill Rowling) began working for Labour MPs.

This has not stopped the perception that the company is more successful under centre-right governments. Unsworth said this was in part because of the proliferation of lobbying firms staffed by people closely aligned to the left.

“When more specifically left people set up it does make you look more like the opposite side [politically], even if you aren’t. My politics are not overt,” Unsworth said.

“There’s been a change of government, but obviously a generational change as well.”

The firm’s remaining partners are Charley Finny, a former diplomat and trade expert and Joanna Murray, who has spent 35 years in public relations.

Even with the increasing number of firms on the left, there was still work available, in part because in large sectors any given lobbying firm could only have one company on its books.

“You can only have one bank, or one energy company as a client, so there’s still a tonne of work out there.”

Unsworth said there are clear benefits to having close connections to key figures in the Beehive, as it could make it much easier that your client got a call from the minister when they wanted one.

But, he said companies and friends had told him that sometimes it appeared the more Labour Party-aligned lobbyists may not push the interests of the clients as hard as non-aligned people would.

“It’s great to be able to jump on the phone and speak to Grant [Robertson] or Jacinda or whatever, but if it’s a client that’s not at the top of the popularity stakes, they’ll say they want to keep [that ability to get access] for an easier client.”

Unsworth acknowledges that to an extent this is the case for any lobbyist who wants to have an enduring career, and that over the years he has had numerous conversations with clients that their case was impossible.

“But if you’re really, really close and you’re part of the party, you look at it from a slightly different prism.”

CLAYTON CCOSGROVE – The former MP

While political lobbying is made up mostly of former Beehive staff, many MPs also look to use their experience and connections in a life after politics.

When Clayton Cosgrove announced he was stepping down from politics in mid-2017, even the six-term Canterbury MP was likely among those who expected National to win a fourth term.

But Cosgrove’s business experience, contacts across the political spectrum andrelationships with most of the top Labour MPs have made him in demand for services both in government relations and providing strategic advice to companies.

As well as a controversial mining project in Otago, Cosgrove is known to have done work for Westpac and energy clients.

From time to time, when the banking sector needed to quickly get the ear of Ardern or Robertson, the task has fallen to Cosgrove.

A former staffer for Mike Moore who was always seen to be on the right of the Labour Party, Cosgrove appears to have reasonable relationships within the National caucus.

He declines to comment and the website for Cosgrove & Partners suggests the business does more than lobbying MPs, from strategic communications, change management “support” and even litigation communication.

He is far from alone, especially if you look further into the field of pressure groups.

Roger Sowry, a Cabinet minister in the Key Government, is a partner at Saunders Unsworth. Katherine Rich, the former National MP, is the long-time boss of the Food & Grocery Council. Former Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman heads Greenpeace in New Zealand.

Whatever their party, being an MP counts

“I just think there is something different about a message coming from an MP rather than a staffer,” one lobbyist said. Not only do they understand the real nature of the political pressures, the messenger is likely to be seen as more of an equal.

ANDREW KIRTON – The future MP?

When Andrew Kirton stepped down from his role as General Secretary of the Labour Party to take up the public affairs role at Air New Zealand, some in the party saw it as a step toward becoming an MP.

Instead his wife, Camilla Belich, an employment lawyer and (like Kirton) former student politician, contested the Epsom electorate and entered Parliament at the 2020 election as a list MP for Labour. Some in the party seem to believe it is not impossible his time will still come.

Kirton earlier worked as a Beehive staffer including for Helen Clark, then in public affairs in the UK including for Heathrow, before returning to work for the Labour Party in 2016.

Last year he stepped partly away from Air New Zealand, setting up his own consultancy which maintains the airline as its main client. While regarded as extremely well connected, it is not clear how actively he is looking for new clients, with Kirton Consulting having no website and its principal working around childcare duties.

He may also be proof that, no matter how good you are, there are limits to how reliably a company can expect its lobbyist to get the inside word on what the Beehive is thinking.

Air New Zealand was ready to undertake a major capital raise with its annual results this month, until Grant Robertson summoned chairwoman Dame Therese Walshe to his office on August 12 to inform her that the Government was effectively pushing back the process into next year, a move which seemed to catch the company completely unaware.

THE HEAVY LIFTERS

People who set up shop as lobbyists are far from the only ones trying to influence government. With some of the heavy lifting for major, complex regulatory reform, the real work tends to be done by lawyers.

Here the leader in the field, according at least to the mainstream lobbyists, is Tim Clarke, a partner at Russell McVeagh, regarded as being a top lawyer as well as having built the kind of contact network as the regular lobbyists.

Clarke previously worked at Kensington Swan (now called Dentons Kensington Swan) which is now chaired by his former colleague Hayden Wilson (who recently, along with fellow partner and former TVNZ political editor Linda Clark recently acted for Rachel MacGregor in her long running legal battle against her former boss Colin Craig.)

Previously the highest profile player in the field was Mai Chen, who as managing partner of Chen Palmer was known for high profile and sometimes forceful lobbying campaigns, but is seen less around Parliament now after relocating to Auckland.

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