Interest groups are formed to promote the interests or concerns of their members. They are primarily concerned with influencing public policy. Because a key function is to exert pressure on political decision-makers, interest groups are sometimes referred to as ‘pressure’ or ‘lobby’ groups. They are distinct from political parties in that they do not run candidates for public office. As well as targeting politicians, interest groups attempt to influence a wide range of public bodies, including government departments, state-owned enterprises and other Crown entities, and local government.
‘Lobbyist’ is an American term which derives from the practice of buttonholing politicians in the lobbies of Washington hotels. In New Zealand lobbyists go by a range of titles, including public relations consultant, strategic advisor, corporate advisor and ‘government relations’ manager.
As New Zealand’s population grew and a more socially and politically diverse culture emerged, the number of interest groups increased. While the largest groups are well-resourced, with national offices and professional staff, most are sustained by small groups of unpaid volunteers whose primary motivation is their shared commitment to the group’s cause – anything from law and order to the environment. The internet and social-networking sites, the multiplication of radio and television news outlets, and the transition to proportional parliamentary representation made it easier for interest groups to have their voices heard.
With the growing diversification of New Zealand society both culturally and politically, the number and influence of interest groups is likely to continue to increase.
Interest group functions
Interest groups carry out three basic functions: advocacy, policy formulation and membership support.
Advocacy includes scrutinising proposed legislation, making submissions to Parliament’s select committees, lobbying government ministers and their advisors, and seeking to influence public opinion.
Interest groups may resort to direct action by way of petitions, public submissions, demonstrations, pickets, and advertising and media campaigns. They may attempt to influence election outcomes, either by funding or endorsing a parliamentary candidate or party, or by deploying personnel to assist a candidate’s campaign.
Policy-making draws on the expertise of others outside the government. Well-resourced interest groups may be much better informed on particular policy issues than MPs, especially if they employ professionally trained policy advisors, researchers and consultants.
Groups may provide members with material benefits and rewards, information and advice, and (sometimes with the help of social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter) access to the views of other members.
In the 2000s lobbyists sometimes offered corporate box seats at sports games to those they were attempting to influence. ‘Corporate boxes are not all about the rugby. They are places where the movers and shakers gather to flap their lips about issues of the day,’ wrote a journalist in 2011, in reference to ministers and members of their staff being offered corporate boxes by a bank seeking to retain a government contract.1
As the political capital, Wellington is the centre of the lobbying industry. For most of the 20th century many businesses had their head offices in Wellington so they could influence the regulation of their industry. Deregulation of the economy from the mid-1980s lessened the need to be in Wellington, and most head offices moved to Auckland or overseas.
Some interest groups employ professional lobbyists such as lawyer Mai Chen as needed. Others buttonhole ministers and officials in airport lounges such as Air New Zealand’s Koru Club. In 2006, former MP Richard Prebble suggested that this practice was so common that lobbyists ‘should be called korus’.2
Types of interest group
There are four main categories of interest groups in New Zealand:
- economic, such as trade unions and business groups
- cause, such as environmental and morals or values groups
- consumer, such as consumer rights and welfare groups
- community and recreational, such as aged and sporting groups.