Politics

Questions over relationship between PM and lobbyist

People in the lobbying industry have raised concerns about the close links between Gordonjon Thompson and Jacinda Ardern. Laura Walters asks whether there is enough separation between his role as a confidante to the PM and director of a lobbying firm.

The Prime Minister’s ongoing relationship with a high-powered lobbyist has raised questions about separation between those in power, and those who stand to gain.

Gordonjon (GJ) Thompson has a shared history with Jacinda Ardern and was her chief of staff when she set up her Government.

Thompson and Ardern have known each other since he worked as a press secretary for Helen Clark, at the same time Ardern worked for the former Prime Minister. They forged a close relationship while he was chief of staff for Labour opposition leaders and Ardern was a junior MP.

Thompson left his role as director of lobbying firm Thompson Lewis to be the Prime Minister’s interim chief of staff for about five months while she set up the Government. Those in the industry say he is open about the influential role he played in helping pick cabinet ministers and their staff.

Following his stint as chief of staff, he returned to run the Auckland-based lobbying firm.

Questions were raised at the time, given there was no self-imposed “cooling off period”, Thompson remained a director of the company while working in the Prime Minister’s office, and didn’t change his cellphone number when moving between the roles.

A recent NZ Herald comment piece by political editor Audrey Young, which described Thompson as one of Ardern’s “inner circle”, has seen these questions again brought to the fore.

“Mr Thompson does not offer any professional advice to the Prime Minister, however like many of her long-term acquaintances, the Prime Minister seeks out Mr Thompson as a sounding board from time to time."

The fact Thompson Lewis is acting for Huawei – a sensitive client, which is currently working to secure meetings with ministers in a bid to change the fate of its 5G technology in New Zealand - has added to those concerns.

Thompson declined to comment on his relationship with the Prime Minister.

However, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister confirmed the pair continued to be personal acquaintances – as they had been for 14 years.

“Mr Thompson does not offer any professional advice to the Prime Minister, however like many of her long-term acquaintances, the Prime Minister seeks out Mr Thompson as a sounding board from time to time,” the spokesperson said.

There was no regularity to their contact, and the pair had a rule they never discussed Thompson’s clients or his business.

“The Prime Minister and Mr Thompson apply their rule strictly to never discuss his clients or his business,” the spokesperson said.

For instance, it’s understood the Prime Minister did not know Huawei was a client of Thompson Lewis until her office was approached by Newsroom.

Sensitive clients

Thompson Lewis has had Huawei as a client since last year, and the company’s business is mainly managed by Sifa Taumoepeau.

Huawei NZ deputy managing director Andrew Bowater said Huawei had used a range of companies to provide strategic advice related to a range of stakeholders and issues since the company launched its New Zealand operation in 2005.

“The advice we receive is strategic and not related to seeking meetings with Ministers or MPs,” Bowater said, adding that having worked in politics previously and later in government relations, he handled any efforts to secure meetings himself.

Generally, the appeal of lobbying forms is their insider knowledge into how government operates, who makes decisions, what they are thinking, and the ability to create a wider political strategy.

If businesses, or interest groups, want to secure a meeting with a minister or MP in New Zealand, they can usually do so on their own due to the country's size and high-level of access to politicians.

Concerns raised

Industry insiders who spoke to Newsroom said this was a highly unusual situation.

Thompson had never broken any rules because, unlike some other countries, New Zealand does not have stand-down, or cooling off, periods for lobbyists.

There is also no lobbyist register, or requirement to disclose clients.

And while there has been a push by Leader of the House Chris Hipkins to publish ministerial diaries, unscheduled meetings or casual conversations that includes some business talk are not covered by the diary disclosure.

This was described by one lobbyist as a “blindspot”.

New Zealand’s rules are less stringent than other countries, but many of the industry insiders felt corruption was rare or non-existent, and said any dodgy business would be spotted and called out due to the size of the industry.

“All you have is your reputation.”

But one government relations expert said the relationship between Ardern and Thompson was “totally unprecedented”.

Former chief of staff Neale Jones made a similar move, leaving his role in the Beehive soon after the 2017 election, to take up the role of director of left-wing Australian lobby firm Hawker Britton.

But unlike Thompson, Jones did not appear to have the same ongoing, personal relationship with the Prime Minister.

There were also questions raised about the relationship between John Key’s former chief of staff Wayne Eagleson and lobbyist Mark Unsworth. Eagleson is now also a director at Thompson Lewis.

The general feeling from those who spoke to Newsroom – none of whom wanted to be named – was that there was little to worry about, but there was no way to prove everything was above board due to the lack of regulation.

One lobbyist said if lines were to be blurred, it would be in a relationship like the one between Thompson and the Prime Minister.

Another lobbyist source said “industry best-practice wouldn’t have it that way”, in reference to the ongoing relationship, and Thompson’s movements between the Beehive and his Auckland office.

Neale Jones (left) also left Jacinda Ardern's office to immediately become a lobbyist, however, it is understood his relationship with the Prime Minister is not as personal or longstanding as Thompson's. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

However, those that knew him trusted him and his ability to keep his business separate from his relationship with Jacinda Ardern, which made the unusual arrangement possible, the source said.

Lobbyists were careful to separate social and business situations, as well as not discuss any client matters in social situations.

A third industry source said it was important not to burn through that political capital.

“All you have is your reputation.”

Any blurring of lines, or loss of reputation, could cost a government relations expert their career.

This meant there was a strong aspect of self-policing.

However, those who spoke to Newsroom all questioned whether that was enough, especially when it came to transparency and avoiding unwanted accusations of corruption.

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