Rumblings about transparency

For people interested in greater transparency, the last seven days have been filled with little rumbles that could turn into earthquakes.

The biggest deal was an announcement by the Green Party over the weekend that its MPs would stop accepting corporate hospitality, and its ministers would soon publish the diaries that detail who they have been meeting.

Both are extremely welcome announcements, especially the latter, because it helps us start to get to grips with the extent of lobbying in New Zealand. People are allowed to lobby politicians, of course, but problems arise when some people can afford much more lobbying, and therefore much more influence, than others. So it needs to be out in the open, and the Greens announcement is a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, though, I think a bigger shakeup is needed, and New Zealand should emulate Ireland’s online register of lobbying. This requires all lobbyists to disclose, every quarter, their meetings with ministers, MPs and senior civil servants, and the issue discussed.

New Zealand also has a major problem with the ‘revolving door’ of people leaving Parliament to work for lobbying firms, most recently the Prime Minister’s temporary chief of staff. Information that should be used only for the general public good gets appropriated for private ends, and there is a high chance that officials will bias decisions towards companies in the hopes of getting lucrative employment later on. As I’ve previously suggested, New Zealand should follow Canada and have a five-year ‘cooling off’ period for everyone leaving government.

Also in the last week, we have seen Parliament announce that citizens can now start and organise petitions online – a welcome reform that was underway under the previous government, but also something very basic in the 21st century. I think the petition system is fundamentally inadequate, because nothing is guaranteed to happen – not even a proper response to the issues raised – even if the number of signatures is high.

As I set out in my report last year, Bridges Both Ways, I would like there to be a website where anyone can suggest a law to go before Parliament, and if it gets enough signatures (50,000, say) it gets treated like a Member’s Bill and has to be debated and voted on – even if it is ultimately rejected – in Parliament. But again, some small rumbles of this kind are hopefully a prelude to a bigger shakeup.

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