25 May 2019

Ministerial diaries: Who influences those in power?

8:21 pm on 25 May 2019

An elite group of business and iwi leaders, union officials and lobbyists are frequently bending the ear of the Labour-led government, ministerial diaries released this week show.

Parliament and Beehive

Photo: RNZ

RNZ's analysis of the diaries reveals health and economic issues, the Christchurch mosque attacks, Pike River and the Nga Puhi Treaty settlement are dominating the first-term agenda of the coalition government.

Public officials naturally dominate the minister's diaries, but this week's release also lays bare the access some groups and individuals have to the Labour-led administration.

Read more analysis of the diaries here.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has had far and away the most meeting time; specifically with his own minister, David Clark.

Since Dr Bloomfield was appointed in June 2018, he has met with Mr Clark on average twice a week. In that time the health sector has faced strikes by nurses and junior doctors, rotten buildings at Middlemore Hospital and the implosion of the Waikato District Health Board, among other crises.

Mr Clark told RNZ: "When we came into government our health services were showing clear signs of strain following nine years of underfunding... We have an ambitious programme of work to address and … that requires me to work closely with the Director-General."

Acting Director-General Maree Roberts said the frequency of meetings would be no surprise to health sector workers or the public. The health budger is $18.2 billion, or a fifth of all government spending.

Ministers usually meet with the executives running their ministries once a week. Welfare minister Carmel Sepuloni was typical, with her office saying, "When Brendan [Boyle] was chief executive he would attend every week and now that Debbie [Power] is, she attends every week, along with the entire senior leadership team at MSD."

Finance minister Grant Robertson has scheduled talks with Treasury boss Gabriel Makhlouf once every 10 days on average.

Business and unions compete for access

NZ Council of Trade Union (NZ CTU) President - Richard Wagstaff,

CTU president Richard Wagstaff Photo: Supplied

Aside from public officials, Federated Farmers and a variety of unions stand out as a regular focus of ministers' time, while a few prominent chief executives are noteworthy for the face-time they get.

In particular, Todd Properties' Evan Davies has had 18 ministerial appointments, while Auckland Airport's Adrian Littlewood and Air New Zealand's Christopher Luxon have each met with ministers 13 times.

Air New Zealand is part-owned by the government and meetings or events involving the airline feature 50 times in ministers' diaries.

New Zealand's unionists have even greater access to the ministers in this Labour-led government, however, with 77 appointments in ministers' diaries. The dominant figure, unsurprisingly, is Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff, who has met with ministers 30 times.

Federated Farmers stands out as the other most influential advocacy group, featuring in 46 ministerial appointments. Agriculture and biosecurity minister Damien O'Connor and Conservation minister Eugenie Sage are their main targets, but 13 ministers have met with them or attended their events.

Grey Power is the other stand-out, with 23 diary appointments. Notably, New Zealand First's Tracey Martin accounts for 12 of those.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope.

Business New Zealand CEO Kirk Hope Photo: RNZ / Supplied

Lobbyists are, predictably, less noted in diaries; many of their interactions are likely to be informal.

But the diaries reveal an elite group, topped by Business New Zealand's Kirk Hope (26).

Other prominent names in keyword searches include lobbying firms Saunders Unsworth and Iron Duke, run by Mr Hope's predecessor at Business New Zealand, Phil O'Reilly.

ANZ's Andrew Gaukrodger and BNZ's Angie Mentis; former press secretary for Helen Clark, David Lewis; and Auckland Chamber of Commerce boss Michael Barnett also stand out, but their appointments are in the single digits.

Pike River dominates Little's agenda

RNZ analysis has shown Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and housing minister Phil Twyford have the most appointments, while Employment Minister Willie Jackson and Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters have the fewest.

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Andrew Little makes an announcement flanked by Pike River family members Anna Osborne, Sonya Rockhouse and Bernie Monk. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Justice, Treaty negotiations and Pike River Minister Andrew Little ranked fourth in the number of meetings and his diary shows a focus on re-entering the Pike River Mine.

Pike River family members Anna Osborne, Bernie Monk and Sonya Rockhouse stand out as having unusually high access, with meetings or phone calls every two to three weeks. Mr Little has had a meeting with the Pike River Recovery Agency about once every 10 days.

The Ngāpuhi settlement has also dominated his time, with 30 visits from iwi leaders such as Sonny Tau, Pita Tipene and Rudy Taylor. He meets more or less weekly with the Office of Treaty Settlements.

Outside the Ngāpuhi settlement meetings, Ngāi Tahu is the iwi that gets the most ministerial face time (28) followed by Tainui (16).

Limit to transparency

The new diary disclosure rules mean the public can scrutinise ministers' scheduled appointments for the first time - but the promised transparency has its limits.

The material released excludes personal, party politics, parliamentary and constituency work and the Prime Minister this week confirmed the government has no plans to expand on the diary access.

The diary release was part of the "transparency" promised in the Labour-Greens coalition agreement and covers the first 19 months of this government.

Yet as Green Party leader James Shaw has pointed out, he can run into officials, lobbyists and others when out buying a sandwich and such informal meetings - including conversations over drinks or in sporting boxes - remain out of public sight.

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Housing minister Phil Twyford (left), with former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman Photo: RNZ

Ministers spend about half of their diaried time in meetings, 13 percent on Cabinet and related work and 13 percent doing media interviews. The main focus of their appointments have been the economy, Māori issues, justice and education, in that order.

Two officials stand out for their access to a wide range of ministers.

Predictably, one is Peter Hughes, who has been State Services Commissioner since May 2016. He acts as the boss of most public sector chief executives and has had 42 meetings with ministers of this government.

The other is former chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman: ministerial diaries record 42 meetings with 16 different ministers.

"If you're doing the job well, lots of ministers want to meet with you," Sir Peter said. "I chose to work primarily by supporting the executive. It's more about evidence and scientific thinking more than a particular technical issue."

He pointed to meetings about meth houses, reducing emissions from agriculture, and a defence review that included biosecurity and climate change issues.

His replacement, Juliet Gerrard, has continued his approach, clocking up 13 meetings since her appointment in June last year.

USA tops local diplomacy

America and Britain still sit at the centre of our governments' foreign policy thinking, judging by ministers' appointments.

Scott Brown, US Ambassador to New Zealand at his Lower Hutt home.

US ambassador Scott Brown has deliberately sought meetings with all government ministers Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Much of US ambassador Scott Brown's face-time will be counted as personal or political and so not included in the diaries, but he still recorded the most official meetings of any single ambassador, with 15. He has met with 13 different ministers and said he had deliberately sought that access.

"I am proud of the long, broad US-NZ friendship, which is underpinned by respect and common understanding - where we agree and where we sometimes don't," he said.

"I decided one of the ways I would keep this tradition going was to call on every single MP. And we've had a lot to talk about! New Zealand is an important partner and [we] work together in a lot of areas from trade to regional security, from NASA internships to Antarctica."

Brown added he had met with almost all 120 MPs - not just ministers - and was grateful for the time afforded him.

Notably, Mr Brown has had twice as many appointments as his Chinese counterpart, Wu Xi. The diaries reveal nine meetings with Australian ambassadors.

The two British ambassadors to have served in this parliamentary term - Jonathan Sinclair and Laura Clarke - featured in 17 ministerial appointments.

Sir Michael Cullen, Tax Working Group chair

Mr Fix-It: Sir Michael Cullen has met with ministers 14 times. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Unsurprisingly, given the Christchurch mosque attacks, Christchurch's Lianne Dalziel was the mayor who garnered the most attention.

The Christchurch rebuild and her prior role as a Labour minister may have helped her - even before the attacks she had wide access to Cabinet (mostly via local MP Megan Woods), with 62 meetings in the past 19 months. Next was Wellington's Justin Lester.

Finally, three of the government's favourite go-to men for reviews or other government projects featured prominently.

Former Kiwibank CEO Sir Brian Roche (23), company director and insolvency expert Michael Stiassny (20) and former Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen (14) all seem to have ready access to ministers' time.

RNZ's analysis has been done using a database created from the documents published online by ministers' offices. It relies on entries made in the ministers' diaries and ministers themselves deciding these are the appointments carried out in their capacity as minister. While it is an extensive sample, it is not exhaustive.