Sunday , September 23 2018
Informed Influential Indispensable |

Show me the Money – Penny Macdonald

Comment  Having been involved both directly and on the periphery of many trade negotiations over the past couple of decades, it is always intriguing to ferret around in the background to ascertain who is seeking to influence the process.? Who are the well-funded, ever present lobbyists with distinct commercial positions and a desire to advance their agenda at any cost?? Who are these people with the wherewithal to constantly criss-cross the world leaving a carbon footprint the size of Europe in a bid to thwart those who are antithetical to their sometimes covert objectives?

Who are these NGOs and anti-trade icons?

That?s right.? So called Civil Society ? a misnomer only appreciated by those who have had the misfortune to sit through numerous ?stakeholder? discussions and to observe from the side-lines uncivil efforts to bust into conference venues while trying to kick policemen in the crotch.? It?s sort of free-trade versus fierce-tirades.

When the numbers are crunched it?s clear that big money is being invested in trying to stop goods, services and intellectual property from moving around the world in a managed fashion.? This money bankrolls efforts to persuade us all that business is necessarily bad because it?s about economic profit and that trade is wicked because it will detrimentally impact the global underclass.? I guess they forgot to ask the people with jobs resulting from foreign investment (actually, any investment) and those living under the auspices of leadership regimes that have been busted open by a desire to compete in the global economy.? That same money is also being used to convince us all that the self-appointed champions of an undisclosed constituency will not cease or desist until the scourge of international commerce is safely contained within the confines of a re-education camp.

Yet, for the most part, the companies and business associations involved in processes like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are extremely clear about their concerns and ambitions when it comes to trade policy.? Very few do not post and/or publicly release their perspectives and without exception (at least in my experience) they are more than keen to discuss their views with anyone remotely interested.? Indeed I?d go so far as to say they are usually flattered that anyone bothered to inquire.

To be fair, the ?asks? are not all that complicated.? Underneath the technical policy speak and acronyms are views generally along the lines of: we want to have rules and regulations that facilitate and protect our ability to do business domestically and overseas; we want to avoid unnecessary costs and the unintended consequences of gratuitous bureaucracy; we want to make money from our innovation and application; and we want to develop our business to profit our customers, our shareholders, our workers and our economies.? Anyone shaking in fear yet?

The challenge for many of these entities is that they simply don?t have the resources to follow a process like TPP around the world.? In this day and age, most companies prioritise making and marketing things and keeping people employed over esoteric policy debates which can take years to evolve.? Government Relations teams everywhere have been eviscerated as a consequence of the global financial crisis.? That?s why representatives like chambers of commerce and business associations are so important because they fly the flag for people who may not be able to afford the time and commitment to do it themselves.

NGOs don?t appear to have the same challenges.? They pop up everywhere.? They are not elected (except when they elect themselves) and their mandate is drawn from ? well who knows?? They purport to be the voice of the people but are ambiguous about which ones.? They claim to have a clear mandate.? Where they found it or bought it is rarely clarified.? So it seems useful to ask: where is the money coming from?

Some of it comes from you and me.? For example, Jane Kelsey got a few hundred thousand to put together in print yet another biased, anti-government, ivory-tower account of the world according to her.? Let?s thank the Government financed Marsden Fund for that while simultaneously mourning the fact that a tree (more like a branch) died in the course of publishing one of the most academically bankrupt tomes of our time.? Despite the hyperbole that greeted it, I have yet to find any credible trade person who has read the whole thing.

To be fair, Jane?s Marsden grant seems vaguely more relevant than the one awarded to the chap who was paid tens of thousands to investigate answer the pressing question of ?Are old males still good males and can females tell the difference?? ? but I digress.

The anti-business organisations argue that they want to ?hold business to account.?? I say ?hold up your business accounts.?? Company finances are set out in excruciating detail in annual reports.? I have yet to find an NGO that is so open.

There has been loads of recent discussion about lobbying with questions being asked about transparency and disclosure.? Having worked in the US in this arena, I observed a process whereby those seeking to influence government policy were required to note for whom they were working, to whom they were speaking, what the issues were and how much money was being paid.? The system was very clear and the results quantifiable.? What intrigued me, working predominantly for business interests, was how balanced the business/NGO spend was on many issues.? I?m convinced that?s why left-wing protagonists are trying to amend the New Zealand lobbying disclosure Bill to exempt unions and the like.? We might actually learn how the money flows are working and get a true account of the web of influence.

It?s always difficult to initiate or participate in debates when one side has set themselves up as a moral champion and the other side keeps getting distracted by the need to make a living.? That said, it?s important that the debate does become more rounded and that the principle so called ?transparency? that civil society has incorporated into its critical mantra regarding processes like the Trans-Pacific Partnership is integrated into their operating practices.? The concept of corporate social responsibility might be an anathema to them but it shouldn?t be all that scary to disclose who is really behind the noise and what it is that they want to achieve.

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