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Bill Ralston: Stop kidding yourself, the Govt isn't falling for spin doctors

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

The notion that the Government is being led astray by lobbyists insults its intelligence.

Paranoid parts of the media have been trying to paint a dark picture of a scheming group of commercial influence peddlers secretly pulling the strings of a puppet Labour Government. Recent news stories have taken aim at government-relations firm Thompson Lewis and its relationship with Jacinda Ardern and her ministers.

The argument boils down to the fact that three of the company’s principals have worked in the offices of various prime ministers. GJ Thompson worked with Helen Clark and temporarily as chief of staff when this Labour-led Government came to power; David Lewis worked in Clark’s office; and Wayne Eagleson was chief of staff to John Key and then Bill English. These are three men who know their way through the tortuous labyrinth of power and government in Wellington.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Their company is described as “a specialist corporate affairs consultancy offering government relations, stakeholder management, strategic communications, media relations and crisis management advice”. I would have thought the background of the three outfitted them well for their stated purpose, although they might need to concentrate on the last of those stated talents if the media feeding frenzy really kicks in.

However, their proximity to power is alarming some political journalists. One news site recently ran a story that opened with the words, “People in the lobbying industry have raised concerns” about “close links” between one of the company’s principals and Ardern, and goes on to quote the worries of “industry insiders”, other lobbyists and government-relations experts.

Could it be that commercial rivals have raised those “concerns” because they are losing clients to Thompson Lewis?

That article ended by opining on the question of “transparency [to avoid] unwanted accusations of corruption”, which, in my opinion, is a brave if somewhat dangerous foray into the territory of potential defamation. Stories in other media were similar, if less brash.

At the core of the attacks on Thompson Lewis is the fact that GJ Thompson is a personal friend of the Prime Minister. Her office issued a standard assurance that the pair “never discuss his clients or his business”, but confirmed she seeks out Thompson as a “sounding board from time to time”.

This may sound somewhat ominous until you realise politicians use countless Kiwis as “sounding boards”.

I occasionally acted as one of those “sounding boards” for three previous prime ministers, although I have to admit there was little evidence that they listened to the well-meaning advice I gave them.

A recent story by RNZ highlighted the vast herds of business people, interest groups and lobbyists such as Thompson Lewis that have had meetings with ministers about a huge number of issues. They were described as “an elite group”.

Frankly, elite or not, virtually anyone can get a meeting with a Cabinet minister. It is the business of politics.

Whether they can bend the Government to their will with those meetings is another matter entirely.

The recent stories attacking Thompson Lewis are saying that the public cannot trust the Government to make a correct decision, because it is being nobbled by cunning government-relations operatives.

This seems to show a remarkable lack of faith in the ability of the Prime Minister, her ministers, their Beehive advisers and the public service to detect when they are being fed PR spin.

In my experience of covering Parliament, the inhabitants of the Beehive have well-developed bullshit detectors and, if nothing else, they are acutely aware of the terminal effect in the polls should they be caught doing backroom deals.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.