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Tighter ethics rules put chill on lobbyists’ dinners with politicians

Simon Doyle.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Simon Doyle is a reporter based in Ottawa who specializes in lobbying and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @sdoyle333.

It's been a tradition for lobbyists: Companies buy a table at a dinner event in Ottawa – such as the popular annual Politics and the Pen gala in March – and invite esteemed politicians and government staff to join them.

For many lobbyists and their clients, that's the case no more.

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Since a ruling this year by the federal ethics commissioner, lobbyists are changing their practices. They're operating in a new environment where any kind of gift is seen as off the table under the ethics rulebooks, including tickets to hockey games, dinners or even picking up the lunch tab.

"We recommend to our clients that they give nothing," said Joe Jordan, a lobbyist and senior consultant with the Capital Hill Group in Ottawa. His firm previously had a box to Ottawa Senators hockey games, for which it could offer seats to parliamentarians and public office holders, but now the firm offers nothing.

"We had a client that had an event and they were going to give out a little squeezy ball. We ixnayed that," Mr. Jordan said.

What's the issue?

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson's Bonner Report, released in February, has made waves in the lobbying community. The report found that, in 2013, Michael Bonner, a senior policy adviser to then-employment minister Jason Kenney, broke the Conflict of Interest Act's rules on gifts by accepting invitations from lobby groups to attend paid receptions or galas.

Mr. Bonner had accepted invitations from Vale Canada Ltd. to attend the National Arts Centre Gala; from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada to attend the Annual Aerospace Reception and Dinner; and the Forest Products Association of Canada to attend the annual Alumni Dinner of the Parliamentary Internship Programme.

Ms. Dawson said in her report that the lobby groups were stakeholders to Employment and Social Development Canada and the paid events could influence him in his official responsibilities.

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Who's affected?

The Bonner case has changed the way lobbyists are viewing the rules.

Previously, if public office holders like parliamentarians, ministerial staff, or senior public servants were discussing stakeholder business, they were carrying out their regular duties, and that could be done over a dinner or a charity golf tournament – paid for by the company or lobby group.

"You're trying to develop relationships. That was a tool that might or might not advance the relationship. It's pretty clear that's off the table now," Mr. Jordan said.

André Albinati, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, an association of lobbyists and public affairs professionals, said the Bonner Report has created confusion within the lobbying community and is concerning to its members.

"They want to follow the rules," he said. "When complicated interpretations come out that greatly confuse what people understood to be the rules, that's an issue."

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What are the risks?

Public servants, ministerial staff, cabinet ministers, MPs and senators are now being more careful. They have to abide by the rules or risk having their names dragged through the mud in a report by the ethics commissioner's office.

For lobbyists, companies and organizations, the reputational damage can be far worse. Being "named and shamed" in such a report can affect consultants' standing with clients and companies' relations with government.

Lobbyists are advising their clients or in-house executives to pay attention to the gift-giving rules and interpretations of a rulebook called the Lobbyists Code of Conduct, a guide enforced by federal Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd.

"These are gifts," Ms. Shepherd said at an event in Ottawa Tuesday hosted by The Hill Times, where she and Ms. Dawson agreed that tickets to galas and similar events are inappropriate gifts. "We're looking at these rules so that Canadians can have confidence in the decisions being taken by government."

Ms. Shepherd said she has had conversations with ethics regulators in the United States, and authorities are coming to agree that covering meals are not appropriate. "Everybody seems to be coming down on the same thing: Yes, it's acceptable to have meetings over a dinner, but [it's a] pay-your-own-way kind of thing," Ms. Shepherd said.

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What's next?

For now, more public office holders will be paying their own way.

Charities have expressed concerns that the ruling will cast a chill on corporate purchases of tables at charitable events in Ottawa. Some events have started offering a lower, public-office-holder rate so that parliamentarians or government staff can cover the real cost of their ticket, removing the charitable donation portion.

"The fact of the matter is, you can't hide under the skirts of a charity to do your lobbying, by giving a gift to a public office holder," Ms. Dawson said.

Lobbyists said they and their clients will comply with the rules, but that some details remain unclear.

There's been a lot of talk of no longer paying for lunches or dinners, but little talk about breakfasts, Mr. Jordan said. "It's funny they don't mention breakfast. I think they'll become popular."

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