The lobbying watchdog says lobbying of ministers, MPs and federal officials is going unchecked and unnoticed under the current rules, and a more robust regime is needed to impose “transparency by default.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Nancy Bélanger said an update of the Lobbying Act is long overdue to close loopholes allowing unregistered lobbying of the federal government, including at the counters in Ottawa coffee shops.
Lobbyists who bump into MPs or civil servants and talk about policy, bills or other issues covered by the rules should have to record the interaction in the Registry of Lobbyists, says Ms. Bélanger, the Commissioner of Lobbying. Currently, only prescheduled meetings are required to be reported, not informal mixing on Parliament Hill in cafés, bars and restaurants, and chance encounters on the way to meetings.
“We need to have every oral communication disclosed, irrespective of whether it’s arranged and irrespective of who arranged it,” she said.
Ms. Bélanger has just got off the plane from Paris, where she addressed more than 3,000 people at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development about Canada’s lobbying rules. She said Canada’s regime, which dates back 30 years, is regarded as a model by many countries. But, despite being “far advanced,” Canada’s Lobbying Act, last looked at in 2012, needs urgent updating, not least to close what she said were apparent loopholes.
Scribbled in the margins of her well-thumbed copy of the Lobbying Act are notes on potential improvements to make interactions with policy-makers more transparent.
One of proposed changes she would like Parliament to consider is for advocacy groups that register as lobbyists to disclose where most of their funding comes from. Ms. Bélanger also wants lobbyists to give more details about what they were talking about in meetings with senior civil servants, ministers, senators or MPs.
“I think we need to link the communication to exactly what was discussed,” she said.
The complex rules now make enforcement of all forms of lobbying difficult, she said. They need to be simplified so lobbying is reported by default. As a priority, thresholds that allow lobbying to go unreported should be scrapped.
Under the current act, “designated” public officials, including ministerial staff, are banned for five years from lobbying if they leave their jobs and go to work for an organization, or a consultancy. But if they take a post at a corporation, they can lobby if doing so is not a significant part of their duties, equivalent to about 20 per cent of their time during a month, or about 30 hours of work.
The Lobbying Commissioner thinks there should be one “stringent rule” – a prohibition on communicating with your former colleagues on issues including policy, legislation and grants for five years regardless of where you work.
“I do not understand the logic … that if you go work for a corporation, you can do a few phone calls but if you work for an organization, you can’t,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
She said in Ottawa there is a “lot of lobbying occurring that we don’t know about” and verifying who has carried out 30 hours of lobbying is difficult to enforce.
“If you think about this 20-per-cent rule, that is about 30 hours of lobbying. That is a lot of lobbying – a lot of phone calls that goes unchecked, unknown,” she said. “If everyone had to disclose that they’re communicating with public office holders then the enforcement issue would not be an issue.”
The Lobbying Commissioner says British Columbia’s regime has much to recommend it. For example, in B.C., lobbying on contracts is not excluded from reporting requirements, like in Ottawa.
Ms. Bélanger wants more flexibility in the penalties for breaking the lobbying rules, with a sliding scale of sanctions. Now, a lobbyist who an investigation finds has flouted the rules either faces no penalties or must be reported to the RCMP.
She thinks the sanctions should fit the offence and, for lesser transgressions such as late reporting, she should be able to impose fines or the duty to attend sessions to be educated on the rules.
Ms. Bélanger has just updated the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct – rules that cover hospitality and a prohibition on lobbying after significant political activities or fundraising.
Lawyers and academics have criticized her for watering down rules on cooling-off periods for lobbyists who have worked on political campaigns. They warn that her changes would permit people to fundraise for politicians and work on their campaigns, and then lobby them soon afterward.
She reduced a four-year cooling-off period to one year or two years, depending on the significance of the role the lobbyist played. The revised code also gives the commissioner discretion to reduce the cooling-off period further in certain cases, for example for someone who worked briefly in a senior campaign role but left before the campaign ended.
Ms. Bélanger said she made the recommendations after receiving an independent legal opinion that the current four-year limit could breach Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
She says she does not regret the backlash her recommendations provoked, saying that as a lawyer she was concerned the former lobbying code may have been vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“It was worth it. I really, really believe in what we’ve done here,” she said. “I think it will be a model and I think it will add the long overdue clarity, not just in response to political work but all the rules.”
She also tightened up the rules on how much lobbyists could spend on entertaining government figures, reducing the spending per person to $40 per event. A lobbyist may now spend up to $200 on an official or MP per year in hospitality or gifts under the revised code of conduct.
The reduced spending limits provoked criticism from lobbyists who thought they were unreasonably low.