The federal Commissioner of Lobbying is proposing changes to the industry’s code of conduct, including shortening the “cooling-off” period for lobbyists who have worked on political campaigns.
Commissioner Nancy Bélanger’s proposals would also establish a monetary limit on gifts and somewhat broaden the scope of close connections whom lobbyists are forbidden to lobby.
With a final round of consultations ending Wednesday, Ms. Bélanger spoke with The Globe and Mail about her proposed changes, which have drawn criticism from lobbyist groups and government accountability advocates alike.
“I’m extremely committed to getting this code right,” she said. “Completely realizing that there’ll be some that believe that I’m not going far enough and others that will think that I go too far.”
Guy Giorno, a lawyer focused on lobbying and public-sector conflict of interest, said the commissioner currently provides several guidelines, in addition to the code itself, whereas the proposed code would spell the details out in one place – and make it more clear.
Duff Conacher, a co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, has criticized many of the proposed changes, accusing Ms. Bélanger of “gutting” the code in ways that would allow for “corrupt favour-trading” in federal politics.
Mr. Conacher takes particular issue with the proposed changes to cooling-off periods, which refer to the time between when a lobbyist works for a politician and when they are allowed to lobby that politician. If a lobbyist was involved in high-level political activities, the current code requires a time out of a full election cycle, which can be as long as four years. The proposed code would require just two years.
It also calls for a one-year cooling-off period for certain lower-level political activities if the lobbyist had “frequent” contact with the candidate or official or worked almost full-time for them. Mr. Giorno said this timeline is also shorter than the current guidelines, which require a full election cycle for similar types of involvement, though he noted that the current framing is unclear.
“It is more forgiving for lobbyists. Right now, the choice is the full period or nothing … now there’s a choice of a reduced period,” he said.
The cooling-off period for high-level political work was once five years, but Ms. Bélanger reduced it to the length of an election cycle in 2019. Mr. Conacher argues that high-level work should come with a 10-year time out and that lower-level work should merit five years.
“Tell me one person who would think that Trudeau and his cabinet ministers … don’t feel that they still owe the people who helped them win that  election,” he said.
Ms. Bélanger defended the shortened timeline, saying that five years seemed “disproportionate” and that the one- or two-year limit will “reasonably reduce that sense of obligation” a politician would feel toward a lobbyist.
A provision in the proposed code would allow for a further reduction of the cooling-off periods at Ms. Bélanger’s discretion. Mr. Conacher has called for this to be removed.
As of Monday, more than 15,000 people had signed a Democracy Watch petition calling for the strengthening of lobbying rules.
Responding to an earlier draft of the code, a number of stakeholders criticized the commissioner’s broad inclusion of working relationships within the definition of “close relationships” – people whom lobbyists cannot lobby. The proposed code now uses more restrictive language, referring only to “prominent or longstanding” professional relationships.
Several groups also took issue with proposed spending limits on gifts and hospitality: $30 for gifts and $30 for food and drink – per politician per year. They noted that it would be difficult to cater a reception for $30 a person.
Before the pandemic, industry groups held receptions for parliamentarians and other guests almost every night of the week in Ottawa. The events are now re-emerging; for instance, earlier this month, the Grain Farmers of Ontario and other groups hosted a sampling of Canadian whiskies.
The proposed code would eliminate an existing rule that says lobbyists must not do anything that would create a “real or apparent conflict of interest” for an elected official, though it does note that they must not lobby an official who could be reasonably seen to have a “sense of obligation” toward them.
“‘Sense of obligation’ has never been defined by any court and it allows the lobbying commissioner to start at zero and define it however she wants,” Mr. Conacher said.
Ms. Bélanger said “sense of obligation” is actually a broader standard.
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