A lobbying firm headed up by the Prime Minister's chief of staff Andrew Kirton worked for liquor companies in their fight for major changes to a container return scheme that has now been ditched by the government.
Kirton worked for the New Zealand arm of trans-Tasman lobbying firm Anacta, resigning just one day before he was announced as chief of staff for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on 1 February.
Documents obtained under the Official Information Act by RNZ show Anacta was lobbying the government on behalf of Asahi and Lion, who feared the scheme would hurt their businesses.
In May 2021 Lion wrote to Environment Minister David Parker saying it supported "sustainable waste solutions" and could accept a container return scheme (CRS) but not the one proposed.
"Our least favoured approach would be a poorly designed, unnecessarily expensive and inefficient CRS, which is largely what came out of the 2019-2020 council-led design group process and recommendations."
The beer giant told Parker that the scheme was "a matter of substantial material interest for Lion New Zealand's business".
Documents obtained by RNZ show Kirton emailed officials in Parker's office in May 2022 setting up meetings for Asahi.
"Wondering if you had time this Wednesday for a quick beer," he asked the officials. "Asahi are in town from Auckland/Sydney this week and I'm setting up a couple of intro meetings with folk from the Beehive."
Asahi and Lion, along with industry groups representing spirits, brewing and liquor store interests, signed a June 2022 letter to Parker opposing the government's plan.
"Introducing a CRS as currently described will add significant costs to the cost of living for consumers and the cost of operating for businesses. A balance needs to be struck between maximising recovery and recycling while minimising the financial burden on households and businesses."
A July 2022 email from Kirton's Anacta lobbying firm, on behalf of Lion, Asahi and Coca-Cola, told Parker they could now support a CRS but with major changes, including halving the deposit rate.
Container return schemes encourage consumers to return containers for recycling by including a refundable deposit in the purchase price. The deposit is refunded when the container is returned.
The beverage companies said the proposed deposit rate of 20 cents could reduce their sales by up to 20% and increase the price of their products by a similar margin.
"We are very concerned that this would have significant impacts on small and large businesses and the wider economy."
Hipkins said last week the government would defer work on the scheme - one of a raft of policies sacrificed in a strategy the government claims will allow it to focus on the cost of living.
"It will add a small cost to the average household and we don't want to be imposing additional costs on families at this time," Hipkins said.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister did not address direct questions from RNZ about whether his chief of staff had declared a conflict of interest relating to his lobbying work for alcohol companies.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said Kirton "completed a conflict of interest process in line with established Ministerial Services practice" when he took up the job, a day after resigning from his lobbying firm.
The spokesman said Cabinet decided to defer the container return scheme this year after feedback from a range of submitters.
"It was Minister Parker who proposed the deferral of the scheme due to its cost of living implication. Mr Kirton played no role in that process," he said. "He was also not involved in the Cabinet decision around re-prioritisation."
RNZ asked whether Kirton told the Prime Minister which clients he had lobbied for and what conflicts of interests he had declared but those questions were not addressed.
Other plans for alcohol reform were also scrapped in the government's policy reset last week. Moves to consider a ban on alcohol companies sponsoring sport - as recommended by a ministerial review in 2014 but heavily opposed by the liquor lobby - are off the table for now, as is a review of alcohol pricing.
No 'cool off' period
Unlike most developed countries, lobbying is unregulated in New Zealand. There is no public lobbying register and no obligation for lobbying firms to disclose their clients, meaning the companies they work for are largely kept secret from the public.
New Zealand is also in a small group of developed countries where there are no 'cool off' periods, to limit the revolving door of people moving between government and lobbying jobs.
Kirton was Jacinda Ardern's campaign manager at the 2017 election and Labour's General Secretary from 2016 to 2018, before leaving to work as a lobbyist for Anacta and then emerging as chief of staff for Hipkins.
The liquor lobby
An RNZ investigation into the lobbying industry reveals several of the major firms have liquor industry clients.
Anacta's relationship with Lion extended to the two firms co-hosting politicians to an event in June last year, analysing the Australian election results. Kirton invited senior politicians, including the Prime Minister, to the function, which was held at Lion's office in central Auckland.
Thompson Lewis, whose lobbyists include two former Prime Ministerial chiefs of staff and a former Prime Minister's press secretary, lobbies for the Brewers Association.
Text messages obtained by RNZ show a lobbyist for Thompson Lewis texting advisors in the office of senior Cabinet Minister Megan Woods inviting them to a beer festival in August 2022.
"Hi guys - GJ and I do a bit of work with Dylan from the Brewer's Association," the lobbyist says, referring to his colleague Gordon Jon Thompson, a former chief of staff for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
"I'm just checking on this invite to Beervana for Friday 19th August? You coming along?" One of the staffers replies that he's too busy and declines.
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The documents also show supermarket giant Countdown is using lobbyists as it faces government plans to stop the liquor industry using legal action to delay Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs).
LAPs were introduced a decade ago to allow communities to determine when and how alcohol should be sold but the liquor industry has consistently appealed them in the courts.
In Auckland a provisional LAP has been in the appeal process for seven years, costing ratepayers more than $1 million in legal fees. In Wellington and Christchurch councils have abandoned their efforts to put harm reduction plans in place after facing legal opposition from supermarkets and other players in the alcohol industry.
In October 2022 Justice Minister Kiri Allan announced the government would amend the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 to remove the ability to appeal LAPs. Text messages between Kiri Allan and Mark Unsworth, of Wellington firm Saunders Unsworth, in the days following the announcement, show the access and close relationships some lobbyists have with ministers.
"Listening to your client on RNZ just now - bit mischievous saying I am meddling with the JR (judicial review) process," Allan tells the lobbyist. "Tut tut!! For what it's worth some pretty big liquor outlets have been in touch supporting the reforms so be good to get a steer on where your client sits. I would have thought they would have supported these amendments."
Unsworth replies that the real culprits are the supermarkets.
"Nearly all the legal delays on the LAPs have been from the supermarkets - not traditional alcohol industry which gets the blame - and most of them have related to opening hours. I went to about 20 LAP hearings around the country when they were first introduced - some councils did a superb job - some were shite."
But the supermarkets have their own lobbyists fighting their corner. The documents show Capital Government Relations co-owner Neale Jones, another former chief of staff for Labour leaders Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern, is lobbying for Countdown on the LAP issue.
Jones emailed an official in the Justice Minister's office in November 2022, looking for tips on who was best to talk to about his client's concerns. "I do some work for Countdown and have a meeting coming up to brief them on the announced changes to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act. I'm keen to understand where they are best to engage to understand the proposed changes and work through the details."
Jones wanted advice on contacts in the Ministry of Justice or whether he should directly target the minister.
"Given it is going straight to legislation, is this now very much in the hands of the minister?"
Jones would not be interviewed about the OIA disclosures, saying that would breach client confidentiality.