In July, Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith released to the public the list of the 15 non-parliamentarians who held security access cards to Parliament. The release brought public attention to the question of transparency and lobbying in the process of government. Included in the list was Barrie Saunders, co-founder of Saunders Unsworth, New Zealand’s pre-eminent government relations and lobbying consultancy firm. Salient’s Chris McIntyre talked to Barrie about his caution in applying the word power—unless it’s to the politicians whom he is employed to persuade.
Chris: What does a lobbyist do?
Barrie: Act as an advocate for our clients in respect of public policy.You could boil it down to a very simple proposition if you want to, which is, we’re either trying to get the government to do something, or not do something.
Chris: Do you think the persuasive element, on behalf of clients, is something that sways the public perception of what lobbying is?
Barrie: I don’t know what the public perception of lobbying is. I suspect, actually, that very few members of the public think a great deal about it. It’s not exactly a top ten priority when they think about government.
Chris: Recently there’s been the swipe card issue which caused a bit of a public uproar, you’d be aware of some perceptions which have been brought to light through that?
Barrie: Well, there’s been a bit of publicity. I wouldn’t call it an uproar.
Chris: I think what came at the heart of the publicity was the public seemed to think there were some sort of shady goings-on at the heart of power.
Barrie: Any member of the public can walk into Parliament… the difference between any member of public and myself is that their bags will go through an x-ray machine, my bags won’t go through an x-ray machine…We are in exactly the same position—I can’t go anywhere up in the Beehive without having an appointment and getting my access cleared. A whole lot of fuss has been made about nothing. A total media creation.
Chris: Aside from the swipe card issue, do you think the media’s portrayal of lobbyists is unfair?
Barrie: I have only seen one decent article on lobbyists in the New Zealand media, just over a year ago in the Sunday Star Times.
Chris: That article seemed to me to be a look without the hysteria—
Barrie: —the hysteria, exactly.What goes on in Washington just bears no resemblance to what goes on in New Zealand. It’s sort of regulated in a sense in the US, you see a lot of what happens. By our standards it’s corrupt, but in an open sort of way. Money buys policies. In New Zealand, in my experience, money does not buy policies with one possible exception.
Chris: That exception being?
Barrie: The trade union relationship with the Labour Party.That’s a very historic relationship in a sense—talk about a related party— the Labour Party came out of the trade union movement, so it’s a bit of a special case.
Chris: You were involved with the Business Roundtable back in the day, you don’t think there’s any similar relationship with the National Party of the Act Party?
Barrie: Nah. Absolutely not.
The main parties—quarantining off the trade union issue—are almost impossible to be bought in a money sense, because they’re [each] too broad a churches, really. And it would get out; that’s the difficulty.
And people make donations; I’ve never handled money at all, I’ve never had to advise a client on money and political parties. I did say in that Sunday Star Times article, the day we get to a situation where money can buy policy is the day I quit.
Chris: Do you think that if a client is paying you to try and persuade governments and let’s say you get an outcome, is that not at some level money buying policy?
Barrie: Oh, [clients buy] advocacy services—you could put it that way if you wanted to, but look, this is a critical part of the democratic process. If politicians had to deal with every car dealer, every business person, or every trade union, or every member of Greenpeace, they would go nuts! So what [lobbying] does is lowers transaction costs.
It’s much better to work with professional people who have worked through the issues, aggregated and distilled, and then presented. And this costs money, this is not a costless exercise.
Chris: The theme of this issue is Power; what does the term power mean to you?
Barrie: All I know is, as a lobbyist, I don’t have any power at all. Chris: You don’t think lobbyists hold any power?
Barrie: No.We can certainly influence outcomes, but I don’t call that power. Power is people who actually make decisions, we don’t make decisions.We’re just advocates.We’ve got power in the sense that voters have got power, but in a different way—it’s still part of the democratic process.
Chris: So if lobbyists don’t have power, are the people that have all the power the politicians?
Barrie: Well the people who have power are government officials, and politicians.They’ve got power to actually make decisions.All we can do is advocate, and then they have to reach a conclusion. Sometimes people think that, including the media, ‘Oh, the politicians have caved in to this bit of lobby, this is outrageous, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,’ but maybe the politicians have changed their mind because the group presented a good case!
It may be the politicians have actually made a rational decision because what seemed logical from the outside turned out not to be so good when you got closer to it.
Chris: So it’s a case of the media not presenting all of the facts, or enough of the facts?
Barrie: Exactly.The thing to understand about the media these days is that it’s having a hard time itself. Mainstream media is having a seriously hard time. Falling circulations and audience, markets have got very segmented. So, as a consequence of that, you’ll tend to find the media’s got a bit sharper edged than it was, say, 30 years ago.They present things more starkly.
The trouble is with the truth is that it’s often shades of grey— which has now got a whole new meaning I understand, which I haven’t gone into yet—but it’s not actually black and white. So when you’re in a stronger commercial position you can present the shades of grey in a more nuanced way. But if your back is against the wall, and that is the case with quite a lot of media, then the only way to hang on is to get sharper. So that’s what we’ve seen.
Chris: Is it as simple as saying John Key has the most power in Government, or Helen Clark in the Labour days?
Barrie: Helen Clark, definitely. John Key calls the shots in the end but there’s a couple of other guys who matter a lot, that’s Bill English and Steven Joyce, and then there are a few other ministers as well. John Key’s got a pretty open style, but he’ll make final judgements in the end. He’s not an authoritarian.What you see is what you get.
Chris: If there wasn’t a lobbying process, our democracy would be laden down with—
Barrie: —it would be much the poorer! This way, you can cut to the chase faster.You can present a proposition to them and they can say, yeah that’s a yes or a no or a maybe.
This is just part of the democratic process.That’s how lobbying should be seen, just as an essential part of a working democracy.