Lawyer, Policy Wonk, Author, TV Talking Head

Twitter: chrisschafer

Reforming the Federal Lobbying Act

Posted In:  ArticlesMedia    

National Citizens Review In the aftermath of the federal sponsorship scandal that brought the Conservative Party to power, ¬∑ Minister Stephen Harper staked his leadership on the Federal Accountability Act. This legislation was drafted–t61mplement specific measures to strengthen accountability in government. A key part of this legislation was the new Lobbying Act. which came into force in July 2008.

Now, just over two years later, in the wake of a recent scandal involving alleged unregistered lobbying by a former Conservative Member of Parliament, the federal government has introduced changes to enhance transparency under its federal lobbying law. However, it failed to exercise leadership by not considering or simply ignoring a whole host of additional reforms that would have served to enhance the transparency of lobbying on Parliament Hill.

The Lobbying Act. which regulates the conduct of lobbyists at the federal level of government. is an important piece of legislation because it has as its goal. the promotion of public trust in the integrity of government decision-making. The trust that Canadians put in their elected representatives to make decisions in the public interest is vital to the operation of a free and democratic society. Unfortunately, there is often no shortage of news stories identifying weaknesses in the rules that regulate lobbyists in our nation’s capital. The recent so-called “Jaffer Affair”, where it was alleged that former Conservative Member of Parliament Rahim Jaffer, along with his business partner, lobbied former caucus colleagues for millions of dollars in federal financing for a variety of projects while failing to register as lobbyists, has reignited widespread concern about the influence lobbyists enjoy over our elected repre. sentative and the transparency of their activities.

In attempting to put this scandal to rest, the federal government has proposed legislative changes. The government wants to include all Members of Parliament, Senators, and staff of Opposition Leaders as “Designated Public Office Holders” (DPOHs) . Registered lobbyists only have to publicly report oral and arranged communications (i.e a face-to -face meeting arranged in advance) on a monthly basis with DPOHs, currently limited by statutory definition to include Ministers, senior political aides, and high-ranking bureaucrats. This change will require lobbyists to report on their meetings with all parliamentarians.

In introducing these changes, Treasury Board Secretary Stockwell Day stated that. “We want to ensure that we have an open and transparent process (for lobbying)”. By placing the emphasis on transparency, the government is clearly seeking an end to the charges of back room deal making which the Jaffer Affair and subsequent parliamentary inquiry brought to light. However, in addressing the fallout from the Jaffer Affair, the federal government left a number of transparency enhancing reforms out of its legislative amendment.

For starters, the government could have created a legislative reverse onus on DPOHs (soon to be all Parliamentarians under the government’s proposed legislative change) to require them to publicly report monthly oral and arranged communications with lobbyists to the federal lobbying commissioner, which would effectively allow for a cross reference of meetings. At the same time, the reporting structure could have also been changed so that the person who actually meets¬†with the DPOH is publicly listed in the online lob-byist registration system, rather than the CEO of the corporation in the instance of registered in-house lobbyists (lobbyists employed by a company).

In addition, not all types of communications have to be publicly reported. As noted above, only oral and arranged communication with a DPOH need be reported. As such, the exchange of emails and letters, the sending of PINs (messages exchanged between Blackberry devices) and unarranged meetings between lobbyists and politicians will remain unreported. Moreover, the government did not address the rule that in-house lobbyists only have to register if government relations within their company take up 20 percent or more of their time. Thus, zero transparency exists for those companies that lobby the government but fall under the legislative threshold of 20 percent.

In the end, while senseless over-regulation of lobbying is in no one’s interests, legislative changes to enhance transparency are important because greater transparency creates a sense of public legitimacy in the activities of those who lobby politicians. This can only serve to enhance the accountability and integrity of our democratic institutions and those who occupy them.