The volume of federal lobbying activity nearly doubled during the Trudeau government’s first year in power and new statistics show the number of meetings between lobbyists and government officials has kept on climbing.
Federal Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger released her annual report Tuesday, which warns that her office of 27 staff is struggling to keep up with the growing workload.
The report shows that the number of registered meetings between lobbyists and officials jumped from about 12,550 in 2015-16, to 22,103 the next year and that figure has since climbed to 27,522 for the fiscal year that ended March 31.
In an interview, Ms. Bélanger said it isn’t entirely clear what’s behind the trend. Potential causes are the fact that the 2015 election produced a new government with a wide range of bills and policies that caught the attention of various interest groups. Another factor is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to only appoint Senators who sit as independents, meaning lobbyists must reach out to each one individually to make their case. The statistics show that lobbying contacts with Senators are on the rise.
“We haven’t done a full-blown analysis,” she said.
The statistics show political staff working for cabinet ministers are the most common target of lobbyists, followed by MPs, senior public servants, cabinet ministers and Senators.
The commissioner said her office has also made efforts to work with lobbyists and government officials to explain all of the situations that require registration and reporting, which may have boosted compliance.
The report notes that the commissioner’s budget has been frozen at $4.5-million since 2008, which is hindering the office’s ability to investigate complaints and update its searchable website.
The requirement for lobbyists to not only register with the commissioner but to also publicly disclose their meetings with federal officials, such as public servants or politicians, was brought in as part of the Conservative government’s 2006 Federal Accountability Act.
The registry of meetings is frequently used by journalists to report on efforts by groups to change government policy, such as The Globe and Mail’s coverage of SNC-Lavalin’s campaign to have Ottawa stay a criminal prosecution of the company in favour of a negotiated settlement.
Lobbyists are required to report on meetings that are “oral and arranged.” Ms. Bélanger is planning to update her guidance documents in the fall to better define what is meant by “arranged.”
For instance, lobbyists and their clients are sometimes spotted hanging around hotel lobbies when the Prime Minister hosts a cabinet or caucus retreat outside of Ottawa.
The lobbyists and their clients then mingle with politicians and the interactions are not always disclosed to the commissioner.
“I will certainly be looking at that issue and clarifying it because in my view, if everyone’s there because of an arranged conference, the actual meeting may not have been arranged, but certainly people knew who would be there and I would consider that to be arranged, for transparency purposes,” she said.
Ms. Bélanger said she would also like a change to the current practice where only the senior reporting official – such as a company’s chief executive officer – is required to be listed in the registry of meetings.
“Right now, it is actually misleading. Because you would think the CEO was in the room, when in fact he’s just the person responsible to ensure that the meeting is in the registry,” she said. “I think it would be important to know who was in the room.”