Last year, SenateSHJ’s Government Relations team was invited to contribute a chapter to Public Affairs: A Global Perspective*, an academic work comparing approaches to public affairs around the world.
The chapter, Public Affairs in New Zealand: An Intimate Setting examines the singular and characteristic differences of New Zealand’s political landscape – the open and accessible nature of our political system, and the ability of individuals and organisations to engage decision-makers in the corridors of power.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister (1990-1997) Rt Hon Jim Bolger reflected to us recently on meeting constituents in his King Country electorate during his tenure as Prime Minister. He observed that his overseas counterparts might have asked where his security was.
In a similar vein, former Prime Minister (1999-2008) Rt Hon Helen Clark famously listed her phone number in the national directory during her term in office.
These anecdotes highlight the most idiosyncratic feature of public affairs in New Zealand – the level of public access to our elected representatives is almost unheard of amongst the countries we most often compare ourselves to.
Coupled with this is a multi-party system that is representative of a diverse range of civil and political interests, and an open and transparent political system with many avenues through which the ordinary citizen, organisations and businesses can participate in the policy process. Interaction with the regulatory process is easy and New Zealand is regarded as free from corruption – largely as a function of our size, the quality of government and the openness of our society.
The specialist public affairs profession has a small footprint on New Zealand’s political landscape. It is not well developed by international standards and in many cases is an adjunct or extension of public relations and/or legal services. There is no specific regulation governing the public affairs industry and only a small pool of professionals working exclusively in public affairs.
In a system that is open and accessed by many, the value of public affairs is the ability to improve the effectiveness of the interaction with politicians and the machinery of government. Specialist public affairs can help make one voice heard amongst many to better engage with and inform the decision-making process.
As the economy becomes more open and competitive the demands on public affairs professionals are growing as knowledge of policy and process becomes as or more important than personal contacts. There is also, as in many parts of the world, a growing demand for openness and transparency and there was a recent attempt in New Zealand to regulate the area of public affairs activity regarded as lobbying and portrayed as the buying of political influence.
This chapter looks at New Zealand’s open, accessible and representative political system, where the public affairs profession sits in this picture, and characteristics of the profession that are distinct to New Zealand. The chapter explains public affairs best practice in this context and draws some conclusions about the future of the profession in New Zealand.
*Urbane Publications, Stuart Thomson