I was actually going to write about this last year, which was when I first became aware of what is, I suspect, a largely unknown loophole in the Federal Accountability Act, but what with one thing and another – governments collapsing, coalitions forming, parliaments dissolving, Liberal leadership races ending – I didn’t get around to it at the time, and pretty much forgot about it until this morning, when (thanks to National NewsWatch), I came across this article over at straight.com, which reports that CanWest supremo Leonard Asper was apparently in close communication with various key cabinet ministers and regulatory officials last fall:
In the month of November, CanWest Global Communications Corp. CEO Leonard Asper communicated with Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore and then-Industry Minister James Prentice, as well as the chairman and the secretary general of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
The communications are revealed on the Web page of the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada. Under the law, Asper is not required to divulge details about the nature of the communications, apart from listing a broad category.
Here’s the thing: Even though Leonard Asper is, indeed, listed in the filings for the meetings in question, that doesn’t actually mean that Asper himself was in the minister’s office, or on the other end of the telephone.
Unlike a consultant lobbyist, who has to file monthly communications reports under his or her own name, even they’re just a junior associate at a larger firm, all reports by in-house and corporate lobbyists are filed under the name of the responsible officer, regardless of whether he or she was present when the communication took place.
Asper’s most recent lobby registration lists six lobbyists “employed by the corporation”, any of whom could have been responsible for initiating contact with Moore, Prentice and Von Finckenstein on the dates in question. But if Asper had instead hired, say, Hill and Knowlton to lobby on his behalf, each and every lobbyist involved would have to file a separate registration, and individual reports for any and all communications with designated public office holders in which they, personally, took part.
It may seem like a minor difference, but it is a double standard – and a somewhat inexplicable one, really, since the whole reason behind the enhanced disclosure requirements brought in by the Federal Accountability Act was to make lobbying more transparent. Why should communications between public officials and in-house lobbyists be provided more protection from prying eyes than those with consultant lobbyists? And even if corporate lobby efforts should be shielded from the same intensity of public scrutiny, shouldn’t the Lobbyist Registrar make more of an effort to make sure that the people who make a habit of combing through the communications database – reporters, researchers, members of the public – are aware of the different degrees of disclosure requirements?
The only reason I know about it now is because I made exactly the same mistake when writing about what appeared to be a series of meetings between then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley and Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne during the last election. Much later, I found out mostly by accident that these “communications” were, for the most part, a series of short phone calls between various lower-level staffers on both sides, trying to set up a meeting between the company and the minister. Unfortunately, because of the way the ORL handles these disclosures, there’s no way to tell the difference between a tete-a-tete between a corporate titan and a cabinet minister and a scheduling call between their respective administrative assistants, which doesn’t seem to be in line with that new spirit of openness that ushered in the FAA in the first place.
I’m not sure if the government is to blame for this blind spot in the transparency rules – it smacks of the sort of tweaking that would take place at the regulatory level, although I’m not sure why the consultant lobby sector wouldn’t have raised more of a ruckus at the time – but it’s definitely something to put on the to-do list for the first five year review of the FAA, which – as far as ITQ is concerned – may end up coming four years too late.