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Lobbying Backgrounder

Backgrounder on federal Commissioner of Lobbying’s attempt to gut key ethics rules in the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct

(Democracy Watch: June 2022)

Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Bélanger first proposed to reduce the cooling-off period during which a lobbyist would not be allowed to lobby from 5 years down to 1 to 2 years in her December 2021 draft of the new proposed Code.

Big businesses and unions pushed for even shorter cooling-off periods, and Commissioner Bélanger rolled over like a lapdog and given them what they want by adding to proposed Rule 6 in the new draft Code (May 2022 version) the possibility that she can reduce the cooling-off period.

Commissioner Bélanger gave no hint in her initial consultation in December 2020 on possible Lobbyists’ Code changes that she was planning to gut these key rules in the Code to roll back ethics standards for federal lobbyists 25 years in ways that will, once again, allow for rampant unethical lobbying.

Democracy Watch filed a submission in December 2020, and a second submission in February 2022, and a third submission in June 2022, all calling for key changes to strengthen key Lobbyists’ Code rules, and enforcement, and the second submission also called on the Commissioner to stop proposing to gut key ethics rules in the Code.

By changing the rules, Commissioner Bélanger is also trying to negate the effect of an upcoming Federal Court ruling on two cases Democracy Watch filed in August 2020. The cases challenge the Commissioner’s rulings that let lobbyists Ben Bergen and Dana O’Born of the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI) off even though they co-chaired Chrystia Freeland’s 2015 election campaign, and served in her riding association, and then lobbied her office. The ruling will determine whether the Commissioner failed to enforce the current Code rules.

“Commissioner Bélanger not only has an equally bad record as past lobbying lapdogs, she is now proposing to change some of the rules she enforces to try to avoid being found guilty of failing to enforce those rules,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “The lobbying law needs to be changed to close huge loopholes that allow for secret, unethical lobbying, and to require effective enforcement by the Commissioner.”

Commissioner Bélanger has also backed off from requiring lobbyists to be honest always. In her December 2021 draft of the proposed new Code, Rule 2 clearly prohibited lobbyists making false claims to office holders and the public. In her latest draft, Rule 2 is much less clear.

“It is unfortunately not surprising that Commissioner Bélanger is trying to gut key federal ethics rules for lobbyists, given that she was handpicked by the Trudeau Cabinet through a secretive, dishonest process that the Federal Court of Appeal ruled was biased,” said Conacher.

Since 1997 when the Lobbyists’ Code became federal law, it has been illegal for a registered lobbyist to do anything for, or give anything to, a federal politician, political staff person, government official or employee that would create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, including fundraising or campaigning for a politician or party and then lobbying them soon afterwards. Huge loopholes in the federal Lobbying Act unfortunately allow for secret, unregistered lobbying that is not covered by the Code’s rules.

Former Commissioner of Lobbying Karen Shepherd, forced by a unanimous Federal Court of Appeal ruling won by Democracy Watch in 2009, set a five-year cooling-off period under the Code that prohibited lobbying after fundraising or campaigning for a politician or party (Click here to see archive doc re: the Commissioner’s five-year rule, in “The risk diminishes with time” subsection).

Five years is still much too short, as the appearance of a conflict of interest continues for much longer, but it at least prohibits registered lobbyists from lobbying politicians they had helped until after the next election. The Lobbying Act also prohibits former office holders from being a registered lobbyist for five years after they leave office (Click here to see the five-year rule in section 10.11 of the Act).

Now, in her proposed new Code made public a few weeks ago, Commissioner Bélanger is gutting that rule and proposing new rules that will allow lobbyists to lobby politicians and parties soon after they fundraise or campaign for them – right after or one or two years later, depending on how much they fundraise or help the politician or party, and possibly an even shorter cooling-off period if the Commissioner grants a reduction. Click here to see the Commissioner’s proposed new Code Rule 6 and, in the Appendix, the “Political Work” section which sets out specific rules related to Rule 6’s no time, and one- and two-year prohibitions.

Commissioner Bélanger’s proposed new Rule 6 blatantly contradicts the proposed new Objectives and Expectations sections, and proposed Rules 5, 7.1 and 7.2, in the new Code, all of which strictly prohibit lobbying when there is even an appearance of a conflict of interest. New Rule 6 also blatantly contradicts proposed new Rules 3 and 4 that prohibit lobbyists giving gifts or hospitality worth more than $30 annually. New Rule 6 also blatantly the 5-year prohibition in the Lobbying Act on lobbying by ministers, their staff and MPs after they leave their position.