Some democratic scepticism about regulating lobbyists
April 19, 2016
There has been a fair bit of comment in the media (both social and mainstream) lately about the role of lobbyists in government. The impetus this time around is apparently the decision of Australian lobbying firm, Barton Deakin, to open an office in Wellington.
I don’t want to talk about the specifics of that example, but I think it is worth looking at why we think lobbyists are a problem. Apparently there is a fear that they create some sort of special or privileged access to politicians that the rest of us simply don’t get.
I really struggle with that idea. First, it’s really hard to see how anyone could get special access in the current political environment where politicians are incredible open to talking to anyone and everyone. The current National-led government in particular is one of the most accessible in recent history. From what I’ve seen, lobbyists are actually having a hard time of it at the moment because businesses, interest groups and individuals just don’t need them to get access to decision-makers. It's not like House of Cards where a few shady but sophisticated people have "leverage" over politicians - trust me, politics and political engagment is not nearly that exciting in real life.
Second, assuming there is some sort of benefit to hiring a lobbyist, is it really such a bad thing? Improved engagement with government would usually be considered to be beneficial to a functioning democracy if we thought about it carefully. Personally, I support anyone – big or small – that tries to get a better handle on public power, how it can be exercised and how you influence that decision. The more people we have doing that, the better our political decisions are likely to be.
I wonder if the real concern here is that we sometimes don’t like the sorts of people we think use certain lobbyists, or we don’t agree with their particular views. In response to that I would just say that you can't realistically support your pet cause without letting everyone else have their say on it, or whatever else they are interested in. That’s what a democracy is – a whole bunch of different views on different issues competing for attention.
If there is a problem here – and the case really hasn’t been made as yet – then the solution is not to prevent prevent or restrict lobbying. That has an impact on the democratic process that I don't think we should tolerate. Instead, we should promote wider engagement in the political process from all interested parties. We need to recognise that when people we disagree with get a chance to put their views, we actually benefit from it. It gives us the chance to hold those having their say to account directly by putting our own views forward in response. Being informed of the issues, demanding good character from those that exercise their democratic voice, and holding yourself to the same high standards – that’s called citizenship. That’s something we could all be a little better at, and if lobbyists help us do that so much the better.