16 Oct 2022

Ex-media minister’s hasty move to lobbying

From Mediawatch, 2:59 pm on 16 October 2022

Kris Faafoi masterminded the public media merger that’s now in train, before quitting politics to spend more time with his family. Now he wants to spend more time with government again on behalf of commercial clients.

Critics complained about a 'revolving door' between lobbying and government, but the media is part of the equation too.

Labour Minister Kris Faafoi has announced he is leaving politics

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Back in June, the prime minister announced that the minister who fired up the plans for a new public media entity was leaving her government  - and politics  - with her blessing.

“He's done a huge amount of work in the public broadcasting space at a time when we have wanted to see greater investment. That agenda continues and has already been set,” she said of Faafoi. 

But there was plenty to do at that point on the RNZ / TVNZ merger - and there still is under his successor Willie Jackson. 

Back then, Faafoi told reporters he wanted to spend more time with his young children, and had "drawn a line in the sand” on that before the 2020 election.  

But last week the New Zealand Herald's George Block discovered the website of a new lobbying firm called Dialogue 22, listing Faafoi as chief executive and backed by the advertising entrepreneur Greg Partington. 

Faafoi is far from the first ex-minister to go through the so-called revolving door linking lobbying and government, but he's probably the fastest to get through to the other side. 

Minister to lobbyist  - too soon? the Herald editorial’s headline asked last Thursday, 

“An MP handsomely paid while they're briefed on the intimate affairs of the state, only for them to jump across the table to lobby on behalf of paying interests is asking much of the New Zealand taxpayer,” said the Herald, answering its own question. 

Last week researcher and inequality campaigner Max Rashbrooke told RNZ monetising political experience and government connections like this was not just unseemly, it would actually be illegal in other countries.

“He knows everything about what was discussed (by cabinet) - what ministers think, what the advice to ministers was, what decisions are likely in future and what the prime minister thinks about a whole range of issues. This is highly confidential public information that is supposed to be used for the public good,” Rashbrooke said. 

On Morning Report, the prime minister did not accept this made possible the retailing of confidential information (or public information not yet disclosed to the public) for private gain. 

“Every New Zealander knows our intentions and policy from our manifesto . . . ” she told presenter Guyon Espiner. 

“Come on. Are you really making a comparison between a member of the public and a cabinet minister . . . ?” he asked.

“No, I'm actually trying to answer your question but you're not pausing long enough for me to answer,” she replied. 

Ironically, not pausing long enough before setting up Dialogue 22 was one of the main reasons Faafoi’s move was creating dialogue in the media. 

In the Dominion Post on Thursday, longtime telecoms lobbyist Ernie Newman said Faafoi set a new, much lower bar, by moving into the influence game so quickly that “the rest of his cabinet colleagues are still occupying the seats of power.”  

It’s raining lobbyists

The New Zealand Herald's editorial - and cartoonist Emmerson - give their view of Kris Faafoi's rapid switch from minister to lobbyist-for-hire.

The New Zealand Herald's editorial - and cartoonist Emmerson - give their view of Kris Faafoi's rapid switch from minister to lobbyist-for-hire. Photo: NZ Herald

“When someone in such a high office pushes such boundaries, it can lead to a dangerous slippery slope,” he added. 

There's no shortage of those in Wellington right now, after a winter of record breaking rainfall, and on Morning Report last week, Espiner pointed out many others are trying to make it rain in the lobbying business too.

“We've got something of an epidemic of it. Tory Whanau, who's just won the mayoralty in Wellington left the job of Green Party chief of staff to form a lobbying company. Neale Jones was the chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern until 2017 (when) he left to join a lobbying company with Wayne Eagleson, who was the chief of staff for John Key. He's now with Thomson Lewis, which employs Gordon John Thompson, who actually went from chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and back again,” he said. 

But he was also aware that it is not just two-way traffic between politics and government - and professional lobbying and consultancy. 

“The media ... use these people as political commentators very widely. Many of the commentators you hear in New Zealand are political lobbyists. Some of them are quite interesting to listen to, but we do use them a lot,” he said. 

The media air their insights in spite of any conflicts of interest they might have, which they take on trust will be declared and managed. 

Faafoi has now completed the trifecta. 

Before he joined Labour in 2010, he reported on politics in parliament for TVNZ - one of the reasons he was eventually chosen as broadcasting and communications minister in 2018.

Now he has made himself a lobbyist just four months after quitting that job. 

The website for Dialogue 22 says: “We take your issues, shape your narrative and get your story where it needs to be.”

Just this month, commercial media companies have urged a parliamentary select committee to roll back the new public media entity, which Faafoi himself kickstarted. 

Mediawatch asked Faafoi if he or Dialogue 22 would represent a media company wanting to knock back the public media entity plan. 

He declined to be interviewed.