The potential for a change in government in B.C. this spring means the industry that seeks to influence Victoria’s decision-makers must adapt. Lobbyists who have for 12 years offered to open doors within the BC Liberal government are seeking to persuade clients that they can speak New Democrat.
But change is also blowing in from another direction. The Wild West days of lobbying in B.C. are coming to a close. Three years after the province set up a registry so that the public can keep tabs on their activities, lobbyists are now faced with the prospect of more regulation.
The sheriff in this drama is registrar of lobbyists Elizabeth Denham. This week we learned her office is investigating the vice-president of the BC Liberal Party, Bill Belsey, for failing to register as a lobbyist before contacting provincial government officials.
Ms. Denham has a dozen similar cases under investigation.
“The majority of lobbyists are behaving ethically,” Ms. Denham said in an interview this week. But, as in any line of work, there are the outliers who are most likely to make headlines when their efforts come to light.
The perception of lobbying in B.C. is defined in part by the BC Rail affair, still being untangled more than seven years after a police raid on the legislature. The case involves lobbyists who provided benefits to senior government aides in return for confidential government information related to the sale of BC Rail.
More often, the conflicts arise because the rules of engagement are not clear. Liberal insider Patrick Kinsella was accused of failing to register as a lobbyist, and then refused to co-operate with a probe into his actions. Ken Dobell, former deputy minister to the premier, was granted an absolute discharge by the courts after admitting he had breached the lobbyist rules by failing to register.
The law was beefed up in 2009, but Ms. Denham says more changes are needed to restore public confidence. Many of her recommendations are so obvious it is hard to believe they are not already in place.
Ms. Denham thinks lobbyists should be required to tell public officeholders that they are lobbying and on whose behalf, and to ensure the information they provide is accurate. When lobbyists register their work with her office, they should declare whether they or the agency they represent has donated to the MLA or cabinet minister they are attempting to influence.
She’d also like to have rules around what gifts or benefits a lobbyist can offer anyone who holds public office, and restrictions so that former cabinet ministers and other high-ranking public officeholders cannot lobby for two years after they leave office.
Finally, Ms. Denham wants a code of conduct governing the contact between lobbyists and government.
“What this community needs,” she said, “is to pull back the curtain and have this discussion in public.”
But her report, released last week, has been met with silence from the province. Justice Minister Shirley Bond is still thinking about it. The NDP is also not leaping to any judgment, although critic Doug Routley agrees the law needs to be updated and regards many of the recommendations as common sense.
The industry isn’t waiting for government to do its damage control. Adam Johnson, a principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group – one of the marquee lobbying firms in B.C. – is leading the effort to form an industry association that would help the sector shift to more professional standards.
“It has been a bit of a Wild West, anyone could say they are a lobbyist,” he said in an interview. The sector is more mature now, but the public tends to see the worst examples. “We have to deal with perceptions,” Mr. Johnson said. “We have to show we are open and accountable.”
By next summer, he hopes there will be a B.C. chapter of the Public Affairs Association of Canada. Membership would be voluntary, but he still would like a mandatory code of conduct. Because toothless regulation isn’t going to build the industry’s credibility. “I don’t want to be a validator for the outliers.”