Prime Minister Chris Hipkins responds to revelations chief of staff led lobbying firm

Credit: Original article can be found here

The alleged man behind mass drug shipment appears in court, the Government’s plans to slash driving in Auckland and Donald Trump anticipates arrest in the latest New Zealand Herald headlines. Video / NZ Herald

By RNZ

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says there is a need for “transparency and vigilance” around lobbyists and their relationships with politicians.

His comments come in light of an RNZ investigation by Guyon Espiner which revealed his chief of staff, Andrew Kirton, was previously part of a lobbying firm which worked for alcohol companies which pushed back against a proposed container return scheme.

Kirton resigned from that role on January 31, one day before taking the job as Hipkins’ chief of staff.

Advertisement

Advertise with NZME.

Just last week, six weeks after Kirton started in the Prime Minister’s office, the Government announced it would delay the container return scheme.

However, Hipkins told Morning Report the scheme had already been “offered up for reprioritisation” by Environment Minister David Parker, before Kirton started working in the Beehive.

“In terms of the decision around reprioritisation, that went through Cabinet more recently, but it was on the list for reprioritisation before Andrew Kirton started working for me.”

On the issue of lobbyists taking on roles with politicians or vice versa, he said it was important that people were clear about their shift and “that they dispense of any ongoing commitments or obligations or previous work before they take up any roles”.

Advertisement

Advertise with NZME.

“I’m absolutely certain that Andrew Kirton has done that. Part of his taking on the job was that he had to dispense of any remaining kind of commitments he had to any of the clients he had worked with previously and I’m confident he has done that.”

While there was “a need for transparency and vigilance” around lobbyists, he said it had proved challenging to deal with in Parliament before.

“I’m not saying we’ve got it completely right now. We’ve looked at a bill, for example, early on out of the Key government, that would’ve had more transparency around lobbying. One of the difficulties there is how you actually draw the distinction between people’s lobbying and people’s regular day to day employment.

“We’ve released ministerial diaries so people can see who ministers are meeting with. That certainly is one of the reasons why we get more questions about this because it makes it clear who ministers are meeting with and when.”

Chris Hipkins stands by the decision to hire Andrew Kirton. Photo / Dean Purcell
Chris Hipkins stands by the decision to hire Andrew Kirton. Photo / Dean Purcell

However, Espiner told Morning Report the idea of transparency was open for debate.

“I mean they talk about the diaries being available on the ministerial website – yeah they are, but you meet with a lobbyist, you’ve got no idea as a member of the public who they’re actually working for.

“It took these 70-plus OIA requests to find out who these clients are [for the investigative RNZ series]. So you might know they’re meeting with someone who works in a lobbying firm, you’ve got zero idea what clients they are actually working for.

“A lot of these people are also in media roles, giving media commentary, and the public at large have who idea who these clients are. Then it emerges that the Prime Minister’s own chief of staff has lobbied for these alcohol companies, and we’ve got no idea of knowing that unless we’d done these OIAs.”

On the other hand, Hipkins believed lobbying companies brought in people like former politicians so “they feel that they are better able to [have] input into the decision-making process” by having a greater understanding of how the government works.

“If you look at the points about where they are making an input, it’s often about how to be effective in doing things anyone can do, anyone can make a submission to a select committee.”

Advertisement

Advertise with NZME.

Speaking about the stand-down periods between shifting between jobs in lobbying and politics, he said he “wouldn’t completely rule out doing some more in this space in the future”, but it had not been a high priority for him.

Most developed countries have a stand-down period for such role moves, but New Zealand is part of a small group that doesn’t.

“The OECD did a study of 41 countries and in that study nine of them, and New Zealand was one of them, that didn’t have this [stand-down period],” Espiner said.

“In Canada, it’s five years, in Australia, it’s 18 months. Most of these developed countries – the US has it as well, as does Germany and Spain – have a cool-off period so you’re not taking hot information, if you like, across with you, and that according to the OECD is one of the major conflict of interest situations that you get.”