Robin MacLachlan is the face of a new breed in Ottawa: NDP corporate lobbyist.
The former NDP staffer works the phones on behalf of 11 clients – including large companies such as Cisco Systems, Nalcor Energy and Nestlé Canada Inc. – and increasingly pops up on political talk shows as an NDP supporter.
He prefers to say he’s in the “government relations” business.
“The word lobbyist has taken on a bit of a pejorative character to it, so for that I may get the odd joke from my social democratic friends, but it’s all in good humour,” said Mr. MacLachlan, 30, who worked for successive Ottawa Centre NDP MPs Ed Broadbent and Paul Dewar.
“Advocacy is a very important part of democracy … and my friends understand that I’m contributing to that process,” he said.
Among the Ottawa lobbying shops that surround Parliament Hill, Mr. MacLachlan is a rarity. Most firms long ago decided they had their bases covered by loading up on a mix of Conservatives and Liberals.
The sudden rise of the NDP to form a large official-opposition caucus threw a wrench into that thinking. The lobbying world is only starting to adjust.
An analysis of lobbyist registry records by The Globe and Mail reveals that nearly seven months after the NDP won 103 seats in the May 2 federal election, the party remains largely ignored by lobbyists. For instance, several Conservatives and the lone Liberal on the House of Commons finance committee have had dozens of registered meetings with lobbyists since a September, 2010, rule required lobbyists to register these contacts under certain conditions. The Conservative chair, James Rajotte, had 117 registered contacts, while Liberal committee member Scott Brison has had 93. In contrast, the committee’s NDP vice-chair, rookie MP Hoang Mai, has had only four.
No NDP MPs are among the top 10 most lobbied.
Corporate clients will always be more interested in landing meetings with government ministers and public servants, but opposition MPs are also important targets because they can bring national attention to issues.
NDP finance critic Peter Julian – who appears in the lobbyist registry 36 times – argues the difference is because NDP MPs make an effort to speak to outside groups that are not registered lobbyists. He also maintains that people who work for the NDP as MPs or Hill staffers are less interested in crossing the street to join corporate lobbying firms.
“It’s not a career path as much as public service that drives us,” said Mr. Julian, who in an earlier life was an activist organizing protests against trade deals as executive director of the Council of Canadians.
Veteran lobbyist Tim Powers, who works with Mr. MacLachlan at the Summa Strategies government-relations firm and regularly appears in the media as a Conservative supporter, challenged Mr. Julian’s view. He says an increasing number of New Democrats are approaching him about a potential job.
“I don’t think Peter necessarily is aware of what many of his people might be thinking,” Mr. Powers said. “This is a brains business. It’s a strategy business. It’s not a meeting facilitation business. … I can tell you there are lots of others like us who would love to hire some of those smart people who work on the Hill for the NDP.”
It’s quite a shift for a party with an activist base, socialist roots and an MP who once referred to Ottawa as being “infested with corporate lobbyists.”
NDP MP Pat Martin, the sharp-tongued MP who criticized Ottawa’s lobbying culture, said the interest from lobbying firms shows the NDP is now in “the big leagues.”
“They’re going to have to update their rolodex because there’s some new kids in town,” he said. “Lots of them.”