Lobbying commissioner proposes new rules – but critics are not happy
Canada’s Lobbying Commissioner proposes a new set of guidelines for how lobbyists should behave when dealing with public officials. Some critics say the changes would devalue the guidelines, while others say they go too far.
The proposed changes would put monetary limits on what lobbyists should offer officials in the form of gifts and food. They would also shorten the length of the “cooling-off” period – the length of time after a person leaves a politician’s job if they are not supposed to influence that politician.
Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger told the House Ethics Committee earlier this month that she hoped these proposed guidelines would bring “clarity” to lobbyists.
“Right now, the rules are just not clear. And because they’re not clear, it’s very difficult to regulate, study and advise on them,” she said.
Previous guidelines suggested lobbyists should avoid offering gifts that officials “are not allowed to accept.”
Bélanger suggests that lobbyists should not offer gifts worth more than $40, with an annual cap of $80. The same policy would apply separately to food and beverages.
The proposed guidelines would also set the reflection period at one to two years.
Current guidelines say the wait is a “full election cycle” that can be up to five years, Bélanger said.
Bélanger’s proposals come as the federal government faces questions about outsourcing deals and a slew of ethical violations.
Bélanger noted in her statement that she received “passionate but very mixed feedback” on her proposed changes.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch, told the Ethics Committee last week that the proposed guidelines for political work are not strong enough.
“The commissioner completely guts that rule,” he said.
Conacher pointed out that the proposed law does not prevent a person from lobbying an official while working for him, as the rules state that the cooling off period would begin “the day after the political work is completed.”
Conacher also suggested that the guidelines would not specifically prevent an individual from raising funds for a politician or party while working for a candidate. He said he believed it would “systemically allow for rampant unethical lobbying”.
The Commissioner divides the political work into two levels. The higher level involves managing election campaigns, organizing fundraisers, and coordinating policy research. The lower level involves knocking on doors and distributing campaign materials.
The guidelines suggest a two-year waiting period for the higher tier and a one-year waiting period for the lower tier.
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But other witnesses who appeared before the ethics committee argued that the rules for political work went too far and shouldn’t include small volunteer activities like campaigning.
Scott Thurlow, an attorney and legal adviser to lobbyists, said the proposed guidelines would violate charter-protected freedom of expression and political participation rights, although he suggested some limitations.
“If we’re talking about the campaign manager, there’s absolutely an elevated role,” he said. “But everyone gets the proposed code.”
Megan Buttle, President of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, echoed Thurlow’s argument. She called the application of a cooling-off period for low-level volunteers a “dramatic overstatement”.
“Unpaid volunteers … should not be subject to a cooling off period that may affect their livelihood,” she said. “Lobbyists, or those who may become so in the future, are inherently involved in the political process.”
Bélanger said she carefully considered the Charter of Rights when making her recommendations, but ultimately decided on a limited wait to ensure lobbying was done ethically.
Siobhán Vipond, vice president of Canada’s Labor Congress, raised concerns about the hospitality cap. She pointed out that organizations like hers hold several receptions with officials each year.
“Should we tell the Treasury Secretary that they can’t have a coffee or a bagel at the next meeting because they’ve already reached their hospitality limit?” she said, adding that the onus should be on politicians to monitor such activities that date from parliamentary code of ethics.
Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, said he supports the restrictions because smaller organizations like his are unable to hold as many receptions as larger organizations.
“We value clear, modest spending limits,” he said. “They help level the playing field for organizations like ours.”
The committee will continue to review the proposed changes before they go into effect, but Bélanger said she hopes to have them in place by the end of March.