Politicians, purported watchdogs eager to allow unethical lobbying

The latest effort to weaken controls on lobbying are just another example of what happens when politicians get to write the rules for themselves. The federal Commissioner of Lobbying is proposing changes that would not only allow lobbyists to secretly fundraise and campaign for politicians and parti

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Mar 30, 23

4 min read

The latest effort to weaken controls on lobbying are just another example of what happens when politicians get to write the rules for themselves.

The federal Commissioner of Lobbying is proposing changes that would not only allow lobbyists to secretly fundraise and campaign for politicians and parties, but also reduce or eliminate the current four-year delay on moving from party insider to lobbyist.

Worse still, the moves are being made behind closed doors, with Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Bélanger divulging little about how and why she’s arrived at a decision to loosen restrictions.

Making the situation is even more egregious is the fact that representatives from all parties on the House of Commons Ethics Committee, except for the NDP, have approved the proposed changes to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.

Democracy Watch argues the move would essentially  open the door to lobbyists providing unlimited assistance in campaigning – providing the likes of people to knock on doors, for instance – and bolster fundraising efforts.

As a “bonus,” politicians are also pushing for the current $80-limit on gifts and offers of hospitality from any one source to be bumped up $200. They also want unfettered access to travel junkets for themselves, family and associates.

“It’s shocking that MPs on the Ethics Committee would call for loopholes to allow lobbyists to buy them off, essentially bribe them, with fundraising, favours, trips, gifts and wining and dining worth thousands of dollars each year,” says Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher. “The changes that the Ethics Committee wants are deeply unethical and will allow for corrupt favour-trading between lobbyists and politicians.”

The group is calling on Bélanger and/or the politicians themselves to reverse course. Conacher’s not holding out much hope for the commissioner, who insists on pushing ahead for reasons unknown. Secrecy is the order of the day as she tries to push ahead with “legalized bribery.”

Conacher notes Bélanger is relying on the opinion from one law firm – the details of which she’s kept secret – to argue the four-year prohibition on former politicians and others leaving politics to become lobbyists violates the Charter. To counter that, 11 lawyers from four law firms and in private practice or other roles, and 21 law and political science professors from 14 universities in eight provinces penned an open letter calling on the Ethics Committee to reject the commissioner’s proposed changes.

Bélanger’s arguments don’t make sense, he stresses, noting the opposing positions by other experts.

“We brought [them] together to say ‘No, you’re wrong.’ In fact, what would violate the Charter would be allowing lobbyists to fundraise and then lobby right afterwards. So, based on one law firm’s secret opinion, she is gutting the ethics rules for lobbyists.”

Rather bizarrely, the commissioner has been pushing controls on gifts and hospitality spending, but doesn’t see as unethical taking unlimited assistance from lobbyists.

“Your lobbyists can raise an unlimited amount of money for you, and campaign for you up to nearly full-time, organize events and fundraising events or distribute your materials as a party in between elections or raise money during the election. There’s no problem with that at all,” said Conacher of the commission’s stances. “It’s just bizarre, because if $80 in gifts for hospitality annually causes an appearance of conflict of interest, so does raising an unlimited amount of money.”

Pushing for better lobbying and ethics rules has always been a tough slog. Even getting the rules enforced has been an issue. When lobbying regulations were first introduced in 1997, Democracy Watch spent years in court trying to get the rules applied.

“You can’t do anything for or give anything to a public office holder that would cause the appearance of a conflict of interest. That rule came into force in 1997. The ethics commissioner and what was then registrar of lobbyists, which then became the commission of lobbying, refused to enforce it until ordered to do so by a unanimous Federal Court of Appeal ruling in 2009,” says Conacher of the legal multi-year legal battle.

Democracy Watch is currently battling corruption on a number of fronts. It’s in the courts right now taking the Lobbying Commission to task for letting off lobbyists who violate the rules. It’s got the Ethics Commission in court, as well as the Ontario Integrity Commissioner.

“We’re not calling for a ban on lobbying , but for a ban on unethical lobbying.”

Right now, there’s plenty of that going on.

Lobbying can, of course, serve a positive role in a democracy, allowing public-interest groups to gain the government’s ear. That’s the theory. In practice, however, the system is easy to subvert, and that’s just what happened.

Lobbying is an expensive undertaking, and smaller organizations don’t have the money to get their voices heard. Instead, all of the influence goes to those who can afford to pay, mostly large corporations. What they’re lobbying for is not a better country for you and me.

A useful first stage in undoing the unethical lobbying industry would involve making the entire system transparent. If the process was entirely out in the open, at least we’d know who was lobbying the government … and we’d have an idea what they were trying to sell, typically against the public interest. Right now, we don’t have a good idea of the scale of that bad influence.

We don’t know how much lobbying is going on because it’s secret.

More transparency has been too much to expect, despite pledges from the current government in particular. The best we can probably hope for given politicians’ self-interest in the current unethical arrangement is a little improvement at a time.

Countering unethical practices is what keeps Democracy Watch very busy indeed.

Right now, Conacher is most concerned about sliding back given Bélanger’s antics.

“The code came into effect in ’97. This is literally a 25-year step backwards.”

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Steve Kannon

A community newspaper journalist for three decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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