Ottawa’s power brokers take a hit -

Ottawa’s power brokers take a hit

New rules target partisan lobbyists’ ‘improper influence’


The 3,664 lobbyists duly registered, as required by law, to try to influence the federal government are hardly a model of professional solidarity. In-house government relations specialists for blue-chip corporations often clash with idealistic advocates for non-profit groups. The lobbyists-for-hire who trade on their partisan connections divide along Conservative and Liberal lines. Lately, though, this typically fractious community of clout, clustered around Parliament Hill, is united—by anxiety over a new official interpretation of the federal “Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct,” which they say might unfairly ban them from approaching politicians they’ve legitimately supported in past elections and leadership campaigns. If they’re right, the age-old linkage between partisanship and influence might have been unexpectedly ruptured.

The uproar is over a guidance bulletin, issued early last month by Karen Shepherd, the government’s commissioner of lobbying, on what constitutes an illegal conflict of interest between a public office holder and a lobbyist. Shepherd said potential cases of “improper influence” will continue to be judged individually, but she sweepingly warned that from now on, “political activities” might create such conflicts. Asked by Maclean’s exactly what activities in support of political candidates might mean a lobbyist would then be prevented from actually lobbying those politicians once they’re in power, her office listed “fundraising, communications, logistics, speech writing, etc.” In other words, just about anything.

The problem is that Shepherd declines to spell out exactly when such partisan work might disqualify lobbying later on. “This is so vague,” said Michael Robinson, a lobbyist with influential Earnscliffe Strategy Group and long-time Liberal strategist, “as to make it impossible for somebody to conduct their behaviour in a way that they’re confident they won’t cross a line.” Tories are no more sure of what’s being outlawed. “What I think this interpretation has essentially done is say, ‘There is no black and white, there is only grey,’ ” said Goldy Hyder, the senior Conservative who heads the powerhouse Hill & Knowlton consulting group’s Ottawa office.

This isn’t the first attempt to put some distance between lobbyists and public office holders. Starting last year, for example, the Conservatives imposed a controversial rule banning former cabinet ministers, their staffers and other senior public servants from lobbying the government for five years after leaving their jobs. But the sort of volunteer partisan work many lobbyists routinely take on—raising money for a cabinet minister’s re-election, say, or helping a party out with campaign strategy—wasn’t previously thought to disqualify future lobbying.

Democracy Watch, a persistent government-ethics advocacy group, launched a court case to try to change that. The group fought a long legal battle over a 1999 fundraising dinner organized by a Liberal lobbyist for a Liberal cabinet minister. Last March, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that indeed created a conflict of interest. “Where the lobbyist’s effectiveness depends upon the decision maker’s personal sense of obligation to the lobbyist,” the court said, “the line between legitimate lobbying and illegitimate lobbying has been crossed.”

Ever since the ruling, lobbyists had been waiting for Shepherd to clearly draw that line. Some had expected her to focus on banning party insiders from lobbying politicians for whom they have raised money. But her guidance bulletin last month was far broader, and more vague. She did nothing to clear matters up when she participated recently in a panel discussion on the Hill. The session, organized by the usually low-key Canadian Study of Parliament Group, turned fiery when lobbyists in the room demanded clarity. Shepherd wasn’t offering any. “In the world of lobbying and the activities that you all perform,” she said, “something may be acceptable in one circumstance and not in another.”

She suggested lobbyists consider how an ordinary citizen might judge their linkages with politicians they support and later lobby. “If you were to put a sign on your lawn,” she said, “and you were lobbying the government, no matter at what level, would most Canadians see that as a conflict of interest? If you were fundraising for a political party and lobbying, whatever, would most people see that as a conflict of interest?”
Was she hinting that lawn signs are okay but fundraising isn’t? Lobbyists who attended the panel discussion weren’t sure. “The test of what Canadians think doesn’t give me much comfort,” said Kim Doran, a veteran Liberal organizer and lobbyist with Tactix Government Consulting. “I’d like to know what the test is from the commissioner of lobbying, because that’s who I report to.”

Democracy Watch coordinator Duff Conacher, however, said Shepherd was right to refuse to be pinned down and instead “set out a general standard.” A whole class of political insiders has been left guessing when they might be violating that standard—and worrying that if they guess wrong, they might end up being the test case that defines their profession’s new legal limits.


Ottawa’s power brokers take a hit

  1. The only people that lobbyists should be lobbying are the general public. By lobbying politicians directly they are circumventing democracy.

    • So if government is considering legislation or regulation that would put you out of business, should you not let them know?

      Politicians and civil servants in Ottawa have no idea what I do, how I do it, and how their actions will affect my business. The only way they can know is if I, or someone I pay, tells them.


  2. Lobbyists ARE part of the general public.

    The only real advantage they have is an understanding of how political decisions work. Contacts, however deep, can only take you so far. You still have to have brains.

    All Canadians would be surprised to know how many serious policy mistakes are avoided through the work of lobbyists. This is not a case of us being better off without them.

    And yes. I used ot be one.

    • "Lobbyists ARE part of the general public."

      Only when they vote. If they are still the "general public" when influencing policy, then when do I get my turn?

      "All Canadians would be surprised to know how many serious policy mistakes are avoided through the work of lobbyists. This is not a case of us being better off without them."

      I see. So your clients are spending thousands and thousands of dollars just to make sure policy mistakes are avoided. They are really altruists at heart. Or are they ensuring that these corrected "mistakes" favour their own interests? In other words, your clients are looking to position themselves favourably with respect to any new policy, and any "mistake" that might threaten that position is lobbied against by lobbyists. At the end of the day we get corrupted legislation that serves only special interest groups.

      • Honestly, I don't know what you think our industry is. Politicians are lobbied by 'ordinary' Canadians every day.

        I'm an ordinary Canadian. I don't wear custom made suits, have a huge expense account, or pick up the phone to call my friend the Minister.

        I – like most people in my business – turn down work I didn't agree in. And most of us tell clients that we can't help them institute bad policies, only help fix oversights or cast light on other points of view.

        It' not black magic. It's not unethical.

        Is IS hard work. It take patience and skill. And it's a legitimate service.

        We do our work with honour and (usually) in the spirit of making Canada better. You only hear about the exceptions.

      • Companies tend not to lobby government for altruistic reasons. But many of us also work for non-profits and other agencies who DO lobby for altruistic reasons.

        But there are many times where government officials are working on a bill or regulations that have negative unintended consequences that they may not have thought of… not just for the company but for the economy… job losing consequences.

        Sometimes the fix is as easy as pointing it out, but other times you need to explain it, show the proof, and suggest changes. Those are specialized skills that not everyone has and not every company has in house. Lobbyists fill that role. I get paid for that, but it's no different than being any other kind of consultant or professional.

        Over my 10 years as a lobbyist I registered to talk to government officials exactly twice. All the rest of the times, I taught my clients how to do it themselves, which always works better.

  3. What is the word I'm looking for… 'oligarchy'. That's it. That better describes our system of government.

    Sadly, I think most of us are being duped by the proclamations of 'democracy'. Let's accept the truth. And maybe do something about it?

    • I think the technical term is "elite accommodation". With some exceptions, elected officials are well-off or supported by someone who is. Joe Average doesn't have the means to run a successful campaign in ordinary circumstances. So we get to decide which group of elites we accommodate. (Rude pun noted but not intended.)

      An unclear law could lead to it being tested in the federal courts, who I frankly trust more on this issue than elected politicians.

  4. "oligarchy"? Nope, Canada's a democratically elected dictatorship. That's the Parliamentary system. The US is a Republic. And I really have no idea which is better – both systems work quite well – and are much better than any alternatives.

    And yes, I do think lobbyists have a place in the scheme of politics. Anyway, there's always the quid-pro-quo loophole to get around your "rules" or, as it was actually worded, guidance.

    • Dictatorship?!

      One thing for sure is that the strongest lobby groups tend to get their way.

    • So our system is better than any other alternatives eh? Why, because Winston Churchill said so? How many alternatives have we explored since entering our new age on enlightenment? Anarcho-syndicalism seemed to be working pretty well in Spain before ruthless military suppression. The only thing democracy is actually good at is stagnation. I'm not really complaining about that, mind you, since it generally occludes runaway disasters in policy (ultimately in favor of slow rot). It may be a moot point anyway since the bottom line is that no matter what you call your government, the golden rule generally prevails; he who has the gold makes the rules.

  5. They are playing hide the ace! Just before this they hired a Pfizer VP as part of the arm of research grants!

    The politicians say they don't want lobbyists talking to them, but its ok to become part of the non governmental organizations. Lets allow the corporations to decide the agenda, and what issues get funding (potentially making money for the co. they work for).

    It's worse that the profit is involved with the organization, not that they talk to politicians; I'd say. Although it would be good to have better controls on lobbyists.

  6. Lobbying is democracy.