Lobbying firms earning hundreds of thousands from contracts with government agencies

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RNZ’s investigative collection – Mate, Comrade, Brother – exposes the extraordinary attain political lobbyists have achieved behind the again of our democracy.
Photograph: RNZ

Universities, authorities businesses and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) – every with their very own groups of spin docs – are spending a whole lot of hundreds of dollars of public cash on lobbying corporations.

The work contains SOEs paying lobbying corporations to assemble political intelligence on MPs and ministers – offering them with details about their attributes, vulnerabilities and private and work lives.

Paperwork obtained by RNZ present Pharmac is suggested easy methods to keep away from media – together with leaving choose committee rooms instantly “trying pretty hurried” – and instructed which journalists are more likely to be pleasant or hostile.

RNZ filed greater than 70 Official Data Act requests and obtained hundreds of emails, textual content messages and even encrypted Sign communications, giving a uncommon glimpse into the scale, affect and commerce craft of the lobbying business.

Not like most different developed nations, New Zealand’s lobbying business is unregulated. There is no such thing as a lobbying register, lobbyists do not must reveal their shoppers, there is no such thing as a code of conduct and no restrictions on how briskly they transfer between prime authorities jobs and the personal sector.

$2000 a day in a disaster

Lobbying agency Thompson Lewis, whose staff contains two former prime ministerial chiefs of workers and a former prime minister’s press secretary, is a number one participant, making a whole lot of hundreds from public businesses.

RNZ obtained invoices from Thompson Lewis to Transpower, which makes intensive use of the lobbying agency, regardless of having its personal company affairs staff and dealing with no business competitors to run the nationwide grid.

In March 2020 Transpower agreed to pay Thompson Lewis as much as $50,000 a 12 months, primarily based on a retainer of $6000 a month, and for disaster initiatives practically $2000 a day.

One of many disaster initiatives included a communications assessment after energy cuts in August 2021 left 34,000 prospects with out electrical energy on one of many coldest nights of the 12 months.

Within the assessment Thompson Lewis lobbyist Wayne Eagleson, a former chief of workers to Prime Minister John Key, suggested Transpower easy methods to restrict media protection from Official Data Act requests.

“To the extent doable, launch all OIA responses on the identical day as the discharge of the reviews/responses to the media, so we get every little thing out that we presumably can fairly than drip feeding materials.”

Eagleson advises Transpower to “shift the narrative” to spotlight that these had been points that wanted to be addressed by the entire business and never simply Transpower. The media, he tells the SOE, lacks sophistication.

“They do not essentially perceive the respective roles of the varied business gamers. They have a tendency to look for easy explanations even the place a state of affairs could also be extra nuanced,” he instructed them. “Whereas we are able to decide what data we give them, we won’t management the headline.”

MP profiles

The paperwork present Thompson Lewis additionally gives Transpower with political intelligence on MPs thought of key gamers within the vitality sector.

A Thompson Lewis profile on Nationwide MP Barbara Kuriger contains private particulars resembling her husband’s identify, what number of youngsters they’ve in addition to her background and aspirations.

A piece on her private traits describes her as “likeable and straight up” and “not recognized throughout the Nationwide get together as being overly ideological”. It says she “listens effectively” and is a “strong if not at all times inspiring speaker.”

The SOE additionally acquired a file on its Minister David Clark, together with his spouse’s identify and the variety of youngsters they’ve.

The profile says he studied medication at Otago College “however not making the grade, educated to turn out to be a Presbyterian Minister”.

The profile is lower than glowing about his political profession saying “after a cup of espresso with Grant Robertson he took up a job as advisor to David Parker” to work on coverage growth.

It says he’s “likeable, sincere, very good” however “discovered it tough to make choices as a minister and was allergic to battle”.

“He had a foul 2020 after being sacked for a few foolish choices in the course of the lockdown however the broader difficulty was that as Well being Minister he was at residence in Dunedin, fairly than within the Beehive steering the disaster response, as a result of he wasn’t wanted. He wasn’t capable of make the powerful calls and refused to see most key gamers within the well being sector.”

Different SOEs are additionally paying for political profiles of MPs. In 2020 Landcorp paid greater than $1000 for a ebook produced by lobbying agency Saunders Unsworth detailing the character traits and background of MPs. The SOE will not launch the ebook, claiming it’s commercially delicate.

Pharmac’s picture administration

The federal government drug shopping for company Pharmac made intensive use of Wellington agency Draper Cormack Group.

In its OIA response to RNZ, Pharmac claimed it “doesn’t interact in lobbying” however since March 2021 had used Draper Cormack and a public relations firm to attempt to improve its public belief.

Pharmac launched greater than 300 pages of communications with Draper Cormack however wouldn’t say how a lot it spent with the agency.

The paperwork embody outcomes from the Kantar Public Sector Fame Index 2022 rating Pharmac third lowest out of 58 businesses.

Phamac says it will get principally unfavorable media protection and must “discover methods to get extra optimistic protection about our work”.

The paperwork embody a Draper Cormack media plan which advises Pharmac that there are two sorts of tales: “excellent news and battle” and that “outrage drives consideration and clicks”.

If reacting to media questions, it advises Pharmarc to “Stall: “What questions do you may have?” and to think about whether or not “an announcement is healthier than an interview”.

The technique makes use of Trump and Brexit to inform Pharmac that hope is essentially the most highly effective driver. “Donald Trump was the candidate of hope for sufficient individuals. Brexit was the place of hope. Hope drives stronger responses and alter.”

The paperwork present how the lobbying agency shapes the messages Pharmac delivers to the general public.

In a single instance, Pharmac chief government Sarah Fitt asks her inside media advisor for assist, after getting annoyed with media questions on why it took 25 years to subsidise EpiPens.

“I went with ‘(it is) been on the checklist, now reached an settlement, received the price range and many others’ however want one thing a bit snappier esp for sufferers listening,” Fitt writes in an e-mail.

Pharmac’s senior communications advisor Jane Wright referred to as within the lobbyists. “Are you able to assist us provide you with a contemporary one liner in response to “why does it take so lengthy?” – our previous messages will not be slicing it!”

David Cormack, of Draper Cormack, suggested them to fudge it. “There is not actually an awesome reply, so this can be a little bit of a non-answer: We might love to have the ability to fund each medication for each situation however sadly that is not life like. The price range improve we received this 12 months is the most important in our historical past and allowed us to fund medicines which have been sitting decrease down our checklist of priorities.”

When Pharmac acquired an OIA request asking about spending on communications and media contractors, Draper Cormack was desirous to intervene.

“There are two OIA requests on this doc which can be delicate AF – OIA on comms workers/contractors and particularly on comms technique for assessment,” David Cormack wrote in a June 2022 e-mail. “Can I assist with these earlier than they go?”

Draper Cormack additionally plans to enhance Pharmac’s repute by “proactive tales” together with a “gentle media piece” on Sarah Fitt to function “in softer media, resembling Ladies’s Weekly”.

A “mind dump of proactive story concepts” contains one on contraceptive numbers. “Are NZers hornier at a specific time of 12 months?”

The technique additionally sees Pharmac give sure journalists advance copies of vital releases, together with its response to the federal government assessment of Pharmac by an impartial panel.

Pharmac’s response to the interim assessment was given to journalists from Stuff and Newshub on 6 September final 12 months, a day earlier than it was despatched to all media.

Judgements are additionally made about which journalists are more likely to be pleasant and hostile.

When Pharmac lastly moved to fund Spinraza, a therapy for the lethal muscle losing illness SMA, Draper Cormack noticed it as alternative to show round unfavorable perceptions.

“Advocates have been calling for Spinraza to be funded, and have overtly criticised Pharmac for not making a funding determination. Rachel Smalley and her organisation The Medication Hole have targeted particularly on Spinraza, individuals with SMA, and the therapies Pharmac had not but funded,” the lobbying agency wrote to Pharmac.

“Whereas Rachel Smalley isn’t the one media persona with a severe bent in opposition to Pharmac’s strategy to serving to these with SMA, she is among the loudest voices on this dialogue.”

It stated that a lot of the media protection was “very negatively slanted in opposition to Pharmac, with robust implication of incompetence, an absence of caring on Pharmac’s behalf, and an absence of equity within the system”.

Beginning the method to fund Spinraza may change that, the foyer agency stated. “We’ve a robust alternative to reset the dialogue round SMA, acquire beneficial media protection round this difficulty, and acquire floor within the dialogue round whether or not Pharmac is equitable/honest.”

The paperwork additionally present Pharmac’s PR workers making calls on the place it believes journalists’ sympathies lie.

In November 2022, when TVNZ’s Breakfast programme wished to interview Fitt, Pharmac’s senior communications advisor Jane Wright claimed that host Indira Stewart might not be neutral.

“I do know that Indira is a large Fiona Tolich fan so seemingly already prejudiced,” she writes in reference to SMA advocate Fiona Tolich.

In June 2022 the lobbying agency ready a staged exit for Pharmac to keep away from media questions at a choose committee listening to at Parliament, as questions mounted about why it hadn’t but funded the Cystic Fibrosis drug Trikafta.

“What we need to keep away from: Sarah [Fitt] being chased by cameras, being hassled in regards to the assessment. Steve [Maharey, chair of Pharmac] leaving the room after questions in regards to the Assessment/’heads rolling’. Each of those headlines are very damaging.”

The plan was for Pharmac’s Jane Wright and Draper Cormack’s Tasmin Prichard to inform the media that the CEO has to go away straight after the committee.

“Jane and Tasmin arrive first, prep (the) media saying, ‘Sarah has received to go instantly after the committee listening to, when you have questions on Trikafta, we are able to have media responses again to you as we speak’.”

The lobbyists say the CEO and chairman ought to “arrive very near start-time,” presumably so the media do not have an opportunity to ask questions.

“After the listening to, Sarah and Steve (are) to go away (the) listening to room instantly … both after answering one or two questions, if they need, or not – trying pretty hurried!”

Universities paying lobbyists

New Zealand’s universities, regardless of having their very own communications departments, additionally pay lobbying corporations to do their bidding with the federal government.

Since January 2020 Waikato College has paid a $6900 month-to-month retainer to Capital GR, spending about $262,000 to February this 12 months.

Massey College makes use of former Cupboard Minister Clayton Cosgrove and has paid his firm practically $64,000 since 2020.

AUT used lobbying agency Sherson Willis for “communications recommendation” between June and October in 2020 at a value of $16,220. Most of this associated to disaster administration recommendation when the college confronted sexual harassment complaints in opposition to one among its senior workers members.

Sherson Willis helped draft solutions to questions put by Stuff journalist Alison Mau, who broke the story, and in addition helped draft a criticism about Stuff’s protection of the incident.

AUT additionally spent $15,266 for “communications recommendation” from Thompson Lewis between January and March in 2021.

Auckland College paid $10,000 to Sherson Willis in 2021 however refused to launch its communications with the lobbying agency underneath the OIA arguing they had been too delicate.

Lobbying firms earning hundreds of thousands from contracts with government agencies

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