Members of Parliament have stepped in to delay a new code of conduct for lobbyists after receiving a wide range of complaints.
Some of the changes are being criticized as a major softening related to situations in which lobbyists campaign for politicians, while some lobbyists are objecting to proposed new restrictions on the many evening cocktail events hosted by organizations on Parliament Hill.
Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger posted the updated code of conduct on her website late last week without issuing a news release. The document said the new rules would be published this month in the Canada Gazette and are targeted for a January launch.
Various groups had raised strong concerns about an earlier draft, but the final version contained relatively few changes.
MPs on the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics have stepped in asking Ms. Bélanger to hold off. During a closed-door session Wednesday evening, MPs approved a motion calling on Ms. Bélanger to appear before them “at the earliest opportunity” and that the updated code of conduct “not be further pursued until their appearance before the committee.”
Conservative MP and committee chair John Brassard said the committee likely won’t have time to schedule hearings on the code until February, which effectively delays the commissioner’s proposed timeline.
“There’s been some significant concern that’s come in over the last three or four days from stakeholders who want a thorough review of what’s being proposed,” he said.
NDP MP Matthew Green, who moved the motion, said changes related to cooling off periods, gifts and hospitality are substantial enough that they should not be adopted without a closer review by MPs.
“We have a responsibility to create higher thresholds of accountability and transparency, to have clear definitions, so that the general public isn’t faced with any doubt about why governments are making the decisions they’re making and who they’re making them for,” he said.
Current rules prevent lobbyists from lobbying an elected official if they had worked on a political campaign for that person. The ban currently imposes a four-year cooling off period.
The revised code lowers the cooling off period to either one year or two years, depending on the significance of the role the lobbyist played on a campaign. High-profile campaign work triggers a 24-month ban, while “other political work” leads to a one-year cooling off period.
One point of contention is that the rules define other political work as work that is “performed on a full-time or near-full-time basis for a candidate, official or political party.”
Duff Conacher, the co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch, said in his opinion this creates a loophole in which a lobbyist could provide a large benefit to a politician through activities such as fundraising as long as it didn’t take a lot of time.
“In 10 minutes, a person with a lot of wealthy friends can raise thousands,” he said. “She’s gutting the rules to allow for unethical lobbying.”
One of the most contentious elements of the new code is revised language related to gifts and hospitality. The current rules, approved in 2015, do not specifically reference hospitality. The proposed new rules set limits of $40 a person, and an annual limit of $80.
The text states: “Never offer – directly or indirectly – hospitality to an official that you lobby or expect to lobby, other than low-value food or beverage for consumption during a in-person meeting, lobby day, event or reception.”
Organizations that lobby MPs regularly host evening cocktail events on Parliament Hill. An earlier draft had proposed a $30 limit.
Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske said $40 is still too low. The CLC was among several unions and other organizations to submit written concerns with the hospitality rules.
“I mean, $40 isn’t a whole lot when you’re hosting a big reception,” she said in an interview. “How do you quantify how many meatballs and how many glasses of wine that might be? … It seems quite extreme and really cumbersome.”
In a statement, Ms. Bélanger said she looks forward to discussing the code with MPs.
“I firmly believe that the updates to the code set appropriate and ethical standards for lobbyists that support free and open access to government,” she said.
Megan Buttle, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, which represents lobbyists, said the organization appreciates that the latest version did raise the allowable value for hospitality. She described the commissioner’s planned timeline as “a little fast,” saying her members would like more time to review the code.
Generally, she said the organization is supportive of the code’s new language related to political activity.
“It’s recognizing that we can be volunteers and care deeply about politics, and be part of those elections as volunteers, without the expectation or understanding that they curry favour,” she said, in relation to simple volunteerism.