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  • Writer's pictureZahra Shahtahmasebi

A brief history of lobbying in Aotearoa New Zealand

Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

Lobbying as a concept seems to be one shrouded in mystery, conjuring images of people with ulterior motives having hushed conversations with politicians in shadowy Parliament halls.

A term from the US, created from the way people cornered politicians in the lobbies of Washington hotels, lobbying has become a key way of creating political change in many countries all over the world.

For us here in Aotearoa, lobbying is an integral part of our democratic culture for the way it allows us to engage with members of parliament and government officials on matters that affect us.

And the truth is, lobbying isn’t just for the professionals – anyone can be a lobbyist, with the Ministry of Justice defining the term as someone aiming to influence political decision-making and government policies.

So if you have ever signed a petition, or written a letter to your local MP on an issue you care about, you were practicing the skill of lobbying.

In 1893, Aotearoa New Zealand became the first country where women achieved the right to vote. This law change was the result of countless years of campaigning – public lectures, speeches, and petitions - led by the likes of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union NZ (WCTUNZ) and suffragists like Kate Sheppard.

Not only is this now a key moment in Aotearoa New Zealand’s modern history, it is one of our earliest examples of lobbying, with the actions of the WCTUNZ and Sheppard showing just how powerful a tool it can be.

A cartoon of the moment Sir John Hall unrolled the petition for women's enfranchisement in Parliament, which was over 300 yards (over 270 metres) long. Photo: Auckland Public Library

The OECD says lobbying is broad and complex, and accompanies this statement with a long list of what can be considered lobbying activities.

Publishing research reports, starting campaigns and petitions, making submissions, gifting donations to political parties, scientists or academics, or using the media, including social media channels, to get the issue out there and encourage the public to put pressure on decision-makers are just some of these.

In Aotearoa, professional lobbyists go by a range of titles, including public relations consultant, strategic advisor, corporate advisor and government relations manager. They can come from a range of backgrounds, including law, or former positions in government, and work with clients to facilitate access to governmental processes to try and affect change.

Other groups, including industry associations, charities, community groups and individuals will either engage with the professional firms, or lobby themselves using in-house resources.

In Aotearoa, early lobby groups known as progress leagues, established in the mid-1800s, were key in pushing politicians to improve road and railway infrastructure, including building direct routes through their districts to stimulate economic growth.

It could be argued that one of the most effective results of considered advocacy was created in 1840. Aotearoa’s founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which includes three main principles of partnership, protection and participation, continues to form foundational advocacy pou for Māori rights today. In 1975, Te Tiriti paved the way for new law, the Treaty of Waitangi Act, to be passed and this act established the Waitangi Tribunal which deals with any claims relating to treaty breaches, while supporting better unity between Māori and the Crown.

As such, lobbying continues to be an important tool for the way it creates conversations in our society. By giving voice to a range of issues, we raise public understanding and awareness, as well as alerting decision-makers that there are problems in the system that need to be dealt with.

The OECD has set out four key principles when it comes to lobbying. The first is fair access to make sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard and preventing excessive influence from more powerful groups.

Transparency and integrity are the OECD’s second and third principles, creating public trust by making sure people know who is who, what their motivations are, and disclosing conflicts of interest.

The fourth and final principle is accountability – which means holding both lobbyists and public officials to account for their actions or lack thereof.

As a result, some countries have implemented measures to regulate their lobbying industry and to uphold these four principles. The US, Canada and Australia all have a code of conduct and lobbyists must be registered.

Previous attempts by the Green Party of Aotearoa to implement something similar were overturned in 2012, with concerns that a register and a code could limit freedom of expression.

Then Green List MP Holly Walker speaks at the First reading of the Lobbying Disclosure Bill, which she sponsored in 2012. Photo: Parliament TV.

Here in Aotearoa, we benefit from the fact we are a small country which allows significant access to ministers.

However, with lobbyists coming in all shapes and sizes, from individuals and community groups to well-funded professionals and large organisations all advocating for their causes, not all lobbying is made equal.

Challenges come when limited resources marginalise people from accessing politicians and government officials, preventing them from having their say. When having more money or resources tends to result in greater influence, this can sow seeds of distrust around the motivations of both the lobby group and the government.

The Ministry of Justice says an inbalance in access to decisions-makers, as well as lack of transparency are very key issues when it comes to lobbying.

The ultimate goal of lobbying is achieving “the right balance”. This means enabling genuine advocacy that benefits society while maintaining transparency, so the public can be sure they know who is doing the lobbying and what for.

Zahra Shahtahmasebi is a rising young journalist currently working in the not-for-profit space. Based in Tāmaki Makaurau, she predominantly writes on health, and politics with personal interest in women’s health. She was awarded the nib Health Journalism Scholarship - junior at the Voyager Award in 2021 and was runner up for the Le Mana Pacific Award in 2023.


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