The Harper government took office on a promise to clean up the "revolving door'" between the worlds of government and lobbying. There's just one problem: The lobbying watchdog won't tell the lobbyists what the rules are.
With an election expected as early as this spring, many of the hundreds of government-relations experts who earn their living in Ottawa say Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd is unwilling to explain how much they will be able to contribute to a campaign - or even to party coffers - without creating a conflict of interest.
The larger lobbying firms tend to employ a mixture of people with Liberal or Conservative roots who, historically, have played major roles at election time.
The Conservative government's new Lobbying Act, which came into effect in July of 2008, does not spell out what types of campaign activities can be performed by registered lobbyists. That means it is up to Ms. Shepherd, the country's first commissioner of lobbying, who was appointed in June of 2009, to determine whether the lobbyists are in compliance.
But she refuses to do so until a complaint lands on her desk.
Ms. Shepherd was invited to the annual general meeting of the Government Relations Institute of Canada a couple of months ago to answer questions from the lobbyists who were anxious about the state of uncertainty.
Michael Robinson, a member of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, who has held many senior volunteer positions within the Liberal Party, asked whether he could help the party in a future campaign.
"I said, 'I have in past election campaigns, and may in the future, be asked to play such diverse roles as to organize and prepare the leader for debates, negotiate with the networks, be the national campaign fundraising chair, or organize the constituency campaign of my local MP. I need to know which of those things am I allowed to do and not be in conflict with the lobby registration guidelines,'" Mr. Robinson said.
"And she said 'I can't tell you.' She said, 'I can only tell you after the fact if somebody lodges a complaint.' It's very frustrating."
Other lobbyists say they have not been able to find out whether they will be able to post campaign signs, make political donations, or work on the local campaign in their own ridings.
Several say they were told by Ms. Shepherd's office that there would be no obvious conflict of interest if they were to work for the New Democrats because the NDP has no chance of forming government, but any work for the Liberals or the Conservatives could, potentially, create problems.
Ms. Shepherd declined to be interviewed for this story. Her office replaced the Lobbyists Registrar, which the government said lacked the necessary independence and powers to police lobbyists.
Her spokeswoman, Natalie Hall, said in an e-mail that the commissioner has "determined there are too many permutations and combinations of possible situations for her to determine in advance if a particular scenario is problematic or not."