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Unethical lobbying has our democracy at risk

Lobbying, we’re told, greased the wheels in the $15.1-billion deal that would see Calgary-based Nexen Inc. bought up by state-owned Chinese company. The intensive lobbying was not done because this is in the public’s best interest.

That’s true of pretty much all corporate lobbying. Things aren’t as bad in Canada as they are in the U.S., but that’s not saying much. Canada has stricter regulations against corporate lobbying than is the case in the U.S., where Congress long ago sold out to the highest bidders.

Just like the farce of integrity and accountability, Canadian laws governing lobbyists are rife with loopholes and ambiguities designed to keep the practice going while giving some lip service to regulating the industry. Successive governments have failed to make more than minor incremental improvements.

Ottawa-based Democracy Watch has identified three glaring loopholes in the Lobbying Act that essentially pave the way for secret and unethical practices.

First off, secret lobbying will still be legal if the lobbyist is not paid for their lobbying: a consultant lobbyist can easily arrange for clients to pay them for other services while lobbying for free, and former cabinet ministers and senior government officials collecting rich pensions can afford to lobby for free, and they are the people who most need to be stopped from lobbying because of the undue and unethical influence they can have on their former colleagues.

Secret lobbying is still legal if a lobbyist is discussing the enforcement, interpretation or application of laws and regulations, which is a huge area of lobbying, especially for big businesses.

Secret emails, texts, phone calls and even meetings between lobbyists and cabinet ministers and senior government officials are still legal as long as the minister or official initiates the communication or meeting, which they will do whenever they want to have secret, unethical relations with a lobbyist – only oral, pre-arranged communications initiated by the lobbyist are required to be disclosed.

“The system is really simple for people to avoid,” says Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers, noting there are plenty of loopholes that allow lobbying to be done without any regulatory oversight.

“Lobbying is being done in secret, and done in a way that the public wouldn’t agree with if they knew about it.”

What’s more, that’s precisely the way politicians want it to be. They have no interest in stopping the gravy train that fills their pockets and their election war chests. The proof can be seen in decades of indifference. Successive governments have pledged to clean up the system, but we’ve had little action.

“We have a lot of talk and not a lot of substance to show for it,” says Sommers.

Even what rules do exist are routinely flouted, bypassed and ignored.

Since 2004, even without doing random audits and inspections, the Commissioner of Lobbying has caught 32 lobbyists violating the Lobbying Act, but none of them has been prosecuted because of these and other loopholes in the law. These law-breaking lobbyists have also never been identified and are likely still lobbying the government, notes a Democracy Watch study.

As well, the Commissioner of Lobbying has failed to fully investigate and issue public rulings about more than 55 other situations where allegations were made that a lobbyist violated the Act or the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.

It’s a “dangerously undemocratic” situation, Sommers argues.

“Secret, unethical lobbying needs to be ended and the loopholes need to be closed.”

The cure would be to tighten regulations and to put in place an enforcement system that’s proactive, in which the commissioner is free from government influence and officials must prosecute each case.

That, however, is not likely to happen as long as there’s a revolving door between lobbying firms and Parliament Hill. Nor while there’s so much money at stake. From Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber to this week’s announcement Derek Vanstone, currently Stephen Harper’s deputy chief of staff, will become Air Canada’s vice-president of corporate strategy and government affairs, the song remains the same.

Lobbying can, of course, serve a positive role in a democracy, allowing public-interest groups to gain the government’s ear. That’s the theory. In practice, however, the system is easy to subvert, and that’s just what happened.

Lobbying is an expensive undertaking, says Sommers, and smaller organizations don’t have the money to get their voices heard. Instead, all of the influence goes to those who can afford to pay, mostly large corporations. What they’re lobbying for is not a better country for you and me.

A useful first stage in undoing the unethical lobbying industry would involve making the entire system transparent. If the process was entirely out in the open, at least we’d know who was lobbying the government … and we’d have an idea what they were trying to sell, typically against the public interest. Right now, we don’t have a good idea of the scale of that bad influence.

“We don’t know how much lobbying is going on – it’s secret.”

Even that kind of transparency, despite pledges from the current government in particular, has been too much to expect. The best we can probably hope for given politicians’ self-interest in the current unethical arrangement is a little improvement at a time, such as we’ve seen over the last couple of decades.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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