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Uncontrolled lobbying has our democracy at risk

Among the many ills that make the political system work against the public good, lobbying is at or near the top – it usually goes hand-in-hand with political donations (aka bribes) – and there is little will among those in power to halt the anti-democratic actions.

Working against the public good is the goal of pretty much all corporate lobbying, in fact.

 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 group notes 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.

That’s true to this very day. Just this week, Democracy Watch announced Tuesday that it has filed court cases challenging the federal Commissioner of Lobbying’s rulings on the complaint it filed in July 2017 about lobbyists Ben Bergen and Dana O’Born of the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI).

The Lobbying Commissioner ruled last March, after a delay of almost three years, that the pair did not violate the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, which prohibits assisting a politician in any significant way and then lobbying their office or officials afterwards, even though they co-managed Chrystia Freeland’s 2015 election campaign, continued to work in senior roles with her riding association post-election, and then were hired in senior positions at CCI and lobbied Freeland’s then-Parliamentary Secretary David Lametti, her office staff, and senior officials in her department including deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and special assistants, Democracy Watch argues.

The group is also challenging two other rulings by commissioner Nancy Bélanger, and has called on her to recuse herself in the current complaints because she was handpicked by the prime minister.

“The federal lobbying ethics code prohibits anyone from lobbying a Cabinet minister or their officials for four years after helping them get elected or assisting them in some other significant way, and so Lobbying Commissioner Bélanger should have found Minister Freeland’s former election campaign managers and riding association senior officials guilty of violating the code given the Council of Canadian Innovators that they head up lobbied many senior officials in minister Freeland’s former department, including her former Parliamentary Secretary David Lametti,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. “By letting the CCI lobbyists off the hook, and issuing other similarly weak rulings recently letting off other unethical lobbyists, Lobbying Commissioner Bélanger is continuing the negligent enforcement record of her predecessor Karen Shepherd who let off 84 per cent of the lobbyists she found violating the law during her decade as commissioner.”

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.

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, 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 because 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.

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