- Categories: Parliamentary Reform
Let's prevent our own lobbying scandal
Britain's cash-for-access episode is proof that NZ must tighten parliamentary rules and introduce a code of ethics.
A political scandal in Britain, where five politicians have been caught selling their services to fake lobbyists, begs the question - could a cash-for-access scandal ever happen here?
It seems unimaginable that one of our MPs would ask questions in the House, obtain access to ministers or host events in Parliament, in return for cash or other backhanders from lobbyists.
But this is exactly what has happened in the British Parliament (and recently in the European Parliament). Three lords, an ex-Minister of the Environment and a Conservative MP have all been caught on camera apparently agreeing to take cash from journalists posing as lobbyists, in exchange for asking questions in the House, hosting parliamentary functions, getting access to ministers, and offering other parliamentary services.
One MP, Patrick Mercer, was paid thousands of pounds by a bogus lobbying firm that was seeking the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth. He tabled questions to ministers about Fiji, and a motion calling for an end to Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth.
He set up an all-party parliamentary group on Fiji, which 18 MPs signed up to. He assured the under-cover lobbyists he would have no difficulty bribing MPs to join the group by offering them free trips to Fiji, or getting his client to see people such as key ministers.
Another MP, Lord Jack Cunningham, agreed to become the parliamentary advocate of a fictional solar energy company, for £144,000 ($287,000) a year. "Knocking on doors, introductions and getting to see the people, including if necessary the ministers - this is part of the package," he told the journalists.
These latest lobbying scandals show the ease with which lobbyists appear to be able to buy the influence of politicians. They are a huge embarrassment to the British Government, and are tarnishing the reputation of the British Parliament. Ironically, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, warned in 2011 that "lobbying is the next scandal waiting to happen. It's an issue that has tainted politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far too cosy relationship between politics, business and money." He said he wanted to "shine the light of transparency" on lobbying, "so that politics comes clean about who is buying power and influence".
He has been slow to act. But now, in response to the scandal, he has pledged to bring in a lobbying law that will allow greater scrutiny of parliamentarians' contacts with lobbyists. It will require any company paid to influence political decisions to sign up to a lobbyists' register, and declare their list of clients.
In Britain, it is illegal for MPs to engage in paid advocacy for outside groups, or accept cash for parliamentary advice or services, under a code of ethics that governs MPs' behaviour in Parliament.
We don't have any similar prohibition or code of ethics in our Parliament. This means that if one of our MPs accepted money for asking questions in the House, or getting access to key ministers, they may not be technically breaching parliamentary rules or ethics.
Our MPs do have to make an annual return of their pecuniary interests. But they only have to declare a "financial interest" in parliamentary business if it involves the passage of a law. If it related to asking a question in the House, it would be optional, under our standing orders, for an MP to declare a financial interest.
Labour MP Ross Robertson has been pushing for a formal code of ethics in our Parliament since 2001, so far without success, as the two main political parties have opposed it. Four years ago smaller parties released a voluntary code which stipulated, among other things, that MPs should not solicit or receive any fee, payment, retainer, reward or gift in return for promoting or voting on any bill, motion or question put to Parliament or its committees. But the two main parties refused to support it.
I think it's high time our Parliament introduced a formal code of ethics for MPs that governs their behaviour in Parliament. Most other parliaments already have one. We also need disclosure legislation that would make lobbying open to scrutiny, so that the public would be able to know who is influencing government decisions.
Green MP Holly Walker has introduced a private member's bill along these lines. But she has received little support from other parties.
The reality is that corporate lobbyists exert an ever-increasing, though largely hidden, influence over our Parliament, and we are not immune to parliamentary scandals or improper behaviour here.
Rather than wait for a cash-for-access scandal to happen, we should act now to tighten up our rules, introduce a code of ethics, and prohibit MPs from engaging in consultancy work while they are a Member of Parliament.