Ouch, Vernon Small lashes Labour for their lobbying

Vernon Small is tribal Labour. So tribal he even attends concerts in?the?vineyards of Martinborough with his friends in?the?Labour party.

So, when he criticises Labour for being upset about being busted for entertaining drug lobbyists, at about the same time as they start attacking the government over drug provisions with Pharmac, then you know they have an optics problem.

Early in the year it hit the mark with its?tertiary education policy, a modest $256m new spend for the next term?that had multi-generational appeal and helped dispel claims it had cleared the policy decks and left them bare.

But it has also become mired in issues it has judged are populist but which come with a big downside.

The most obvious was leader Andrew Little’s “captain’s call” to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership in line with activists’ views but to the great discomfort of many in his?caucus.

More recently there has been?its nuanced?stance on funding melanoma drug Keytruda, which?substitutes politicians’?judgement?for experts in an arms-length agency.

Opening that door merely invites in?the lobbyists.

Not surprisingly, that sat uneasily with some longstanding Labour insiders?who expressed that privately to the media.

Someone is leaking…not looking at anyone called David though…not looking at all.

Labour’s reaction to Fairfax reports?of a?private dinner leader Andrew Little hosted with Medicines NZ (the lobby group?set up and peopled with senior figures from the pharmaceutical industry)?and of disquiet in the party, was?visceral.

The dinner?was, apparently, normal and not something the media should make a big deal about. Just more dirty tricks spread by journalists?at the behest of the Right and the Government, which was making up the dissent – despite the evidence in reporters’ in-boxes.

There were no independent witnesses present so we are only left with?Medicines NZ’s general manager?Graeme Jarvis’ memory?- which jells with Little’s description?- that no specific drug was discussed at the meeting. As Jarvis put it, the reps were?there?representing the industry – not their individual companies or?their products -?to talk about innovative medicines, access for the people to new drugs?and getting the Pharmac Budget “right”.

But in light of the current?furore over the funding of drugs for late stage melanoma suffers – Keytruda being the brand name that is most often mentioned – it is a perfectly legitimate question to expose these private dinners and ask the pertinent questions. Did they?influence?Labour policy, especially when that industry internationally has pushed hard for changes to the Pharmac model?

Oh, so the evidence was emailed to journalists…interesting. Labour has made a habit of criticising meetings with anyone they don’t like. They regularly make mountains out of molehills. It started sometime back with Jenny Shipley and a couple of dinners which Labour used to create an appearance of corruption. They used the same tactics over a morning tea stop on the way to the airport for Judith Collins.

So, for them to now be upset with the media for making the same play on them is a bit hypocritical.

If Labour and other parties?don’t?want their private?dinners with powerful lobby groups to be news they could always pre-emptively release details when they are held, rather than?complain defensively that they are perfectly?normal?when they are revealed to the public.

They could also spare us the high and mighty appeals to democracy and the importance of MPs being open to hear the views of all?voters including big business – as National did over its?cash-for-access Cabinet Club dinners.

The National affairs?may have been pay-for-ticket affairs,?and therefore more upfront – and?blatant.

And the?Opposition was not backward in bagging?National over them.?But if you want to know why Labour?is meeting any big business group then you should also follow the money. Cash donations are?something Labour desperately needs, as its annual accounts show all too starkly.

The way political fund raising?usually runs is that the powerful and?moneyed are invited to meet the leader or a senior MP to?chew the fat. Sometime later a party representative – usually the president – will call the business group, discuss how the meeting went and put the hard word on for a contribution to party coffers. That way the leader is inoculated from any suggestion of a conflict of interest – of being influenced by party donations to change policy. In reality it is a canard. Although the leader or MP may not know how much money, if any, the business has forked out they will be in no doubt (unless they are incredibly naive – and none are) that the business is a target for fund raising and could well have?coughed.

There is nothing illegal in that, but it is?something?the public have the right to know. (Of course as soon as the?meeting is made public, any donation becomes that much more problematic for the party.)

Labour are so desperate for money they are begging Mike Williams to return as bag man.

Labour aren’t even the world champions at hypocrisy…that title rests with the Greens, but this time, through the actions of one of their own, they’ve been caught flat-footed and dodgy looking. That could, though, perhaps be perceived as an improvement on stupid and dopey looking, which Andrew Little has down pat.


– Fairfax