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 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
There are four main categories of interest groups in New Zealand:
Economic interest groups lobby to gain economic advantage for their members. Those representing businesses also often seek to limit government regulation of their particular industry.
In the 19th century groups were often formed to push for the provision of infrastructure such as roads and railways. These groups comprised business and civic leaders from a particular town, who would lobby politicians to route communication links through their district to promote growth. Such groups were the precursors of early-20th-century progress leagues and, later, civic trusts (economic and promotion agencies for particular towns or areas).
Trade unions are the oldest economic groups. Although interest groups often remain politically neutral, the trade-union movement was aligned with the left and helped create the Labour Party in 1916. Compulsory union membership from 1936 and New Zealand’s collective wage-bargaining system meant unions became politically powerful. For example, they successfully lobbied the first Labour government to introduce universal, non-means-tested pensions in 1938. But their influence declined rapidly following the abolition of compulsory unionism in the early 1990s – membership fell from 44% of the workforce in 1985 to about 10% in 2008.
Given the strong support for the National Party among rural voters, Federated Farmers (a farmers’ interest group) has been viewed as something of a training ground for aspiring candidates for political office. National’s longest-serving prime minister, Keith Holyoake, was Nelson president of the Farmers’ Union (a precursor to Federated Farmers) between 1932 and 1941.
Federated Farmers represents a number of farmers’ and producers’ groups, including dairy, meat, wool, apiary and grain. It was formed in 1945 from a merger of the Farmers’ Union and the Sheepowners’ Federation – founded in 1899 and 1910 respectively. Federated Farmers addresses a range of issues that have an impact on farming communities, such as council rates, waste management and telecommunications. It has been aligned with successive National governments.
Worried by public support for prohibition, publicans, brewers and retailers formed the National Council of the Licensed Trade in 1918 to promote their interests. The council lobbied the government to protect the liquor industry, and successfully campaigned against the prohibition option in the 1919 referendum.
As general secretary of the National Council of the Licensed Trade in the 1930s, Percy Coyle knew every parliamentarian. He forged warm friendships with leading officials and cabinet ministers and made campaign donations. Coyle also ‘kept tabs’ on press-gallery journalists and every Christmas gifted a 136-litre keg of beer to them.
In the 2010s, no one interest group represented the whole industry. Different groups acted for particular sectors, such as the Hospitality Association, which represented restaurants, hotels, taverns and cafés. When a 2010 Law Commission report recommended drinking reforms, including lowering the drinking age and raising alcohol excise taxes, the groups lobbied the government for less radical measures.
Business New Zealand (formed in 2001 by a merger of the Employers’ Federation and Manufacturers’ Federation) represents a number of regional business organisations at the national level. Business New Zealand conducts analysis and advocacy on a range of issues that concern employers, including tax rates, compliance costs, the minimum wage, employment law changes, and health and safety.
The New Zealand Business Roundtable was created in 1976 and represented approximately 50 chief executives and directors of some of the country’s largest companies. It was one of the most influential interest groups between 1984 and 1993, when successive governments introduced a broad agenda of free-market reform. In 2012 it merged with the more centrist New Zealand Institute to form the New Zealand Inititative.
Some companies are so large that they employ their own lobbyists. In 2006 Telecom allegedly spent $30 million trying to persuade the government to protect its broadband monopoly from competition – a process called ‘unbundling’. Although Telecom ultimately failed to stop unbundling, former MP Richard Prebble described the company as the best lobbyists in Wellington.
There are many other economic interest groups. The Road Transport Forum was formed in 1997 to promote the road transport industry. Its success is demonstrated by the fact that in 2011 over 90% of all New Zealand domestic freight went by road.
Formed in 1895, the Insurance Council of New Zealand had 28 member companies in 2020. It has helped to make the local insurance market one of the least regulated in the world. The New Zealand Food and Grocery Council lobbies on food legislation and other issues affecting grocery manufacturers and suppliers.
Cause interest groups lobby governments to favour their particular cause or issue. Some are set up for a particular purpose and then fade away or reinvent themselves, while others continue to promote their original concerns.
Formed in 1885, the aim of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was to reduce the harm of alcohol in society and extend women’s civil rights. It believed it would achieve its objectives only if women had the vote and could exercise political power. WCTU supporters engaged in vigorous lobbying, wrote letters to newspapers and signed petitions. The strategy worked and women voted for the first time in the 1893 general election. The movement’s campaign to ban alcohol reached its zenith when prohibition almost won the 1919 licensing referendum.
Scenery preservation societies were formed in the 1880s to maintain town belts and urban reserves, and then began lobbying for the preservation of native forests in general. This led to the Scenery Preservation Act 1903, a landmark measure in protecting New Zealand’s heritage.
Kāpiti Island was reserved as a native bird sanctuary in 1897 – but the name was a misnomer. The place was overrun with introduced animals that killed native species. The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and others organised the destruction of these invaders. Goats were eradicated from the island in 1928, followed by cats, deer, sheep, cattle, pigs and dogs. Possums were gone by 1986, and rats a decade later. Native species have thrived, providing an impression of forest life before humans arrived in Aotearoa.
In 1923, angered by the destruction of Kāpiti Island’s natural ecosystem, Val Sanderson founded what became the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (later Forest and Bird). Since then the society has lobbied governments to protect endangered animal species and wild places. In 2011 its management team included lawyers, a marketing manager and a professional lobbyist. It had 50 branches, and 70,000 members and supporters.
Groups representing a wide range of causes and constituencies were formed during the 20th century, from the White New Zealand League (which opposed Asian immigration) in the 1920s to the Public Committee for Abolition of Capital Punishment in the 1950s.
Environmentalist Craig Potton collected signatures for the Save Manapōuri petition as a schoolboy and ‘fledgling hippie’. He remembers that not only activists supported the campaign; ordinary New Zealanders were just as passionate about saving the lake. He thinks one of the campaign’s biggest achievements was to make conservation mainstream.
In the 1960s and 1970s new groups were set up, focusing on environmentalism, Māori rights and feminism. The Save Manapōuri group was formed in 1969 to stop the water level of Lake Manapōuri being raised to produce hydroelectricity. A petition opposing the measure was signed by 10% of the population, and in 1972 the new Labour government quashed the proposal.
Māori activist group Ngā Tamatoa emerged in the early 1970s and successfully lobbied Parliament for the Māori language to be taught in schools. The Women’s Electoral Lobby was founded in 1975 to encourage women’s participation in public life. It was so successful that it folded in 2004.
Moral conservatives opposed the more permissive attitudes towards sexuality and reproduction that emerged in the 1960s. Founded in 1970, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) sought, but failed, to stop legal abortions. In the same year Patricia Bartlett formed the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS), which made her one of the country’s most prominent and controversial lobbyists. The society unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament to declare nudity and sex scenes in film and on stage obscene.
Patricia Bartlett was dogged in her fight to ensure society kept high moral standards. In 1985 she spotted under-age children at a screening of an R13 film (The Terminator) and called the police. The kids were let off with a warning.
Family First was founded in 2006 to promote families and marriage. It came to prominence through its opposition to the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill – popularly known as the anti-smacking bill – removing the right of parents to use ‘reasonable force’ to discipline their children. Other groups opposing the bill included Focus on the Family, Family Integrity and Parents Inc. The bill became law in 2007.
Public debate over law and order in the early 2000s produced a number of new voices. Formed in 2001, the Sensible Sentencing Trust lobbied for longer sentences for those who had carried out violent crimes, and for victims of crime to have greater input into court proceedings before sentencing. Conversely, Rethinking Crime and Punishment was set up in 2006 to lobby for more rehabilitative and positive prison practice.
Consumer interest groups work to improve the rights and welfare of consumers.
Perhaps the best-known consumers’ protection agency is Consumer New Zealand, founded in 1959 and formerly known as the New Zealand Consumers’ Institute. Consumer New Zealand is primarily concerned with research into consumer goods and services. Its costs are funded, not by membership fees or sponsorship, but by subscriptions to its various publications, notably Consumer magazine.
HOBANZ was set up in 2006 to provide advice and support to owners of leaky and defective homes. It lobbies for warm, dry, safe and healthy houses. In 2011 it was developing an accreditation programme to give home owners a list of trusted building service providers and raise industry standards.
Horrified by the harm fireworks caused to children and animals, Beverley Pentland toured New Zealand campaigning for greater restrictions on their sale and use. Beginning in the 1970s, she visited hundreds of schools and community groups and became known as ‘the fireworks lady’. She died shortly before legislation restricting fireworks sales was passed in 1985.
Some consumer groups are linked with particular industries.
DEUN was an umbrella group of community and welfare organisations with common interests in the energy sector. It lobbied for affordable and sustainable energy supplies and a fairer pricing policy. In 2011 it asserted that domestic consumers provided 44% of electricity sector revenue while only using 33% of the supply.
Founded as the Telecommunication Users Association of New Zealand in 1995, TUANZ represents both major telecommunications users and small business and residential users. In 2020 it had about 170 members. It has been at the forefront of introducing greater regulation of, and competition in, the telecommunications industry to benefit consumers.
As part of their role as consumer watchdogs, consumer groups speak out on a wide range of social policy issues, including health, education and welfare.
ASH was started in 1982 by health professionals concerned about the death and disease caused by tobacco. It has successfully lobbied against tobacco sponsorship of sport and smoking in public indoor spaces. ASH’s ultimate aim is to make New Zealand tobacco-free.
In lifting the ban on unhealthy food in school tuck shops, Minister of Education Anne Tolley suggested junk food was not always an unhealthy option. ‘For the kid who’s been doing two hours of rugby practice and needs that instant hit of carbohydrates, a pie might not be a bad thing.’1 In a response that highlighted the emotional intensity of the debate, a nutritionist said a pie was in fact low in carbohydrates and one of the worst things to eat after vigorous exercise.
FOE was founded in 2001 to stop and reverse the steep rise of obesity and type-2 diabetes – of which obesity is the main cause. FOE lobbied for restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy food and promoted tax changes to make healthy food more affordable. In 2008 the Labour-led government banned unhealthy food from school tuck shops. The succeeding National-led government reversed the measure, insisting it was not up to the state to dictate what children ate.
Formed in 2009, Alcohol Action’s primary purpose was to disseminate research findings with a view to influencing government policy on unhealthy drinking. Its supporters were encouraged to make donations and lobby government ministers and MPs, including by making written submissions to Parliament’s select committees on the dangers of alcohol abuse.
CPAG was founded in 1994 to lobby for the right of every New Zealand child to security, food, shelter, education and health care. Members included academics, teachers and community workers. The group conducted research, examined how policies affected children, and made submissions to the government.
There are many community and recreational interest groups in New Zealand.
While some community groups have a mainly regional focus, others are organised around a network of largely autonomous cells or branches. Grey Power, a powerful interest group that lobbies for the welfare and wellbeing of those aged over 50, is regionally based. On the other hand, each local Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) is independent, but maintains loyalty to the objectives and resolutions of the RSA’s national council.
Local Māori leaders have assumed greater responsibility for advocating on behalf of iwi and hapū, especially with respect to achieving self-determination and a larger share of the resources of the state. The Iwi Chairs Forum set up in 2005 included leaders from 50 iwi (representing two-thirds of Māori). An iwi leadership group drawn from the forum met regularly with MPs and officials on matters concerning Māori.
The New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association has long lobbied against the government’s use of 1080 poison to kill pests such as possums on conservation land, because 1080 also kills game. When protesters scattered 1080 look-alike pellets in Christchurch’s Hagley Park in 2008, the association sharply contrasted the media’s alarmed response with its muted reporting of government 1080 bait drops in public water-supply areas.
Reflecting New Zealand’s high levels of participation in outdoor recreation and sport, most recreational organisations not only provide a range of services to their members, but also seek to influence government policy. Sports bodies have lobbied ministers and MPs on topics including access to national parks and privately owned land, firearm licensing laws, visits by sports teams to ‘unfriendly’ or ‘unstable’ regimes, state funding provisions and priorities, and commercial sponsorship arrangements, most controversially with tobacco and alcohol companies.
Undoubtedly the most influential sports organisation in the country is New Zealand Rugby (formerly the New Zealand Rugby Football Union). During the apartheid era in South Africa, the union was publicly criticised for trying to convince the government that politics should not influence sporting contacts with South Africa. Those opposed to such contacts set up interest groups such as the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) in 1964 and Halt All Racist Tours (HART) in 1969.
Other bodies that frequently engage with government policy include the Federated Mountain Clubs (parent body of over 80 tramping and mountain-climbing clubs), the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council (which represents the interests of non-commercial marine fishers) and the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association (which tries to ensure that hunters organise and manage recreational hunting.)
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Mulgan, Richard. Democracy and power in New Zealand: a study of New Zealand politics. 2nd ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Tenbensel, Tim. ‘Interest groups.’ In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. South Melbourne; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2010: 606–617.
Vowles, Jack. ‘Business, unions and the state: organising economic interests in New Zealand.’ In New Zealand politics in perspective, edited by Hyam Gold. 3rd ed. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1992: 342–364.