With many people already troubled by foreign interference in Canadian elections, it will come as no relief that the federal lobbying commissioner is proposing rule changes that will make it easier for people who work on election campaigns to lobby the MPs they help get into office.
The timing is purely coincidental, but it’s still lousy. This is no time to be casting more doubt on the integrity of Canada’s democracy.
The rules in question target people who work on election campaigns and also happen to work for organizations that lobby the federal government, anything from the Canadian Labour Congress to the Chicken Farmers of Canada.
Fundraising for candidates and volunteering to work on their campaigns are at the heart of the democratic process in Canada’s riding-based electoral system. But when successful, they can create a sense of obligation between the candidate and those who helped them get elected, lobbyists included.
Which is why the current Lobbying Code of Conduct prohibits people who have done “higher risk” political work on a campaign from lobbying their elected candidate for “a full election cycle,” generally considered to be four years.
That makes sense to any reasonable person. If you hold a fundraiser for a candidate, or serve as their volunteer campaign chairperson or official agent, or work for their party in any capacity, then the public would cast a suspicious eye on your turning up at the newly elected or re-elected MP’s office a month after the vote to lobby them or their staff.
The current four-year rule removes all possibility of a perception of favouritism and does its job of preserving the public’s trust – the reason lobbying rules exist.
But if lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger has her way, the so-called cooling-off period after an election would be reduced to two years for people who have done “strategic, high-profile or important political work for a candidate, official or political party.”
It would drop to just one year for “political work either involving frequent and/or extensive interaction with a candidate or official, or performed on a full-time or near-full-time basis for a candidate, official or political party.”
Even outside the current anxieties around the Chinese government’s efforts to meddle in federal elections, these changes would raise eyebrows.
They could allow someone who works closely with a candidate during a campaign, or who organizes a fundraiser that pulls in thousands of dollars, to lobby that same person – perhaps now a minister – just a year later.
Ms. Bélanger says her proposal stems from concerns raised during a consultation period last year that the four-year cooling-off period “could infringe a lobbyist’s Charter rights related to participating in the democratic process.”
Indeed, two associations representing public affairs and government relations professionals called the limits on political work “a prima facie violation of Section 2 and Section 3 of the Charter.”
But that is not a contention that has been tested in Canadian courts. Other stakeholders who were consulted suggested the cooling-off period should be increased to as many as 10 years. And one group, Democracy Watch, argues that, based on previous rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada, a four-year cooling-off period is Charter compliant.
Ms. Bélanger shouldn’t pre-emptively weaken lobbying guidelines based on a supposition – one touted by lobbyists themselves – that there might be a Charter violation at play.
It should be noted that the cooling-off rules don’t apply to someone who puts up a lawn sign, attends a fundraiser or other campaign event, makes a personal donation to a party or becomes a party member. That’s good; participation in the democratic process should be encouraged and given as much latitude as possible by regulators and courts.
But the past month has shown how fragile the public’s trust in the electoral process can be, and how important it is to protect it.
If there is the risk of a perception that people who work on campaigns have special access to the candidates they help elect to office, then it is perfectly reasonable for the government to put limits in place to preserve faith in the system.
And if someone is going to decide that the four-year cooling-off period is too restrictive, it should be the courts, not the lobbying commissioner.