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Loophole-filled, weakly enforced lobbying and ethics laws a sad joke

The following op-ed by Democracy Watch Co-founder Duff Conacher was published in slightly edited form in the Hill Times on January 19, 2022.

The federal Lobbying Act and Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, and federal ethics rules in the Conflict of Interest Act, MPs’ and Senators’ ethics codes, and public servants’ code, continue to be a collective sad joke because of huge loopholes, fatal flaws, and weak, secretive enforcement by the Ethics Commissioner, Lobbying Commissioner, deputy ministers and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

These commissioners are handpicked by the Cabinet through secretive processes that the Federal Court of Appeal has ruled are biased. The appointment process for these and all other federal democratic good government watchdogs, including judges, needs to be made much more independent of Cabinet to remove the taint of self-interested partisanship that undermines public confidence.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that government ethics-related laws and codes must set high transparency and integrity standards, and be strictly and strongly enforced, or Canada will not be a democracy. More than 25 years later, we are still far from meeting the Supreme Court’s standard.

The loophole-filled, flawed federal rules: 1. allow for secret, unethical lobbying, mainly by big business lobbyists; 2. allow Cabinet ministers, their staff, top government officials, MPs and senators all to participate in decisions that they and their family members can profit or benefit from in secret, and; 3. do not even cover staff of MPs and senators.

Only one of the loopholes is usually mentioned in articles about the Lobbying Act – the rule that allows an employee of a business to lobby in secret without registering as long as they don’t lobby more than 20 percent of their work time. The House Ethics Committee unanimously called for that loophole to be closed 10 years ago, and again last June.

But there are other huge loopholes the Committee continues to ignore. Businesses often lobby enforcement agencies about the enforcement of a law or regulation – none of that lobbying is required to be disclosed. Many businesses also lobby for tax credits but in a highly questionable enforcement policy the Commissioner of Lobbying ruled that the credits are not a “financial benefit” (even though they clearly are) and, therefore, that lobbying also does not have to be disclosed.

No one is required to register and disclose their lobbying if they are not paid for it. Hired-gun “consultant” lobbyists can easily have their contract say their clients will pay them for advice, and then lobby for them in secret for free. This loophole also allows unpaid board members and retired executives of businesses and other organizations to lobby in secret.

Another loophole is that anyone can secretly lobby senior officials in any federal political party and they can pass on your demands to their party’s politicians.

Even if a person is required to register their lobbying, only oral, pre-arranged communications that they initiate with office holders are required to be disclosed. Emails, letters, and any communications initiated by the office holder (other than about a government financial benefit) can be kept secret.

If you can exploit a loophole so you are not required to register your lobbying, then the ethics rules in the Lobbyists’ Code don’t apply to you and you can do favours for politicians you are lobbying or will lobby, like fundraising and campaigning for them.

Even if you are a registered lobbyist, the Code together with a loophole in the MP and senator ethics codes legalize lobbyists giving MPs the gift of unlimited sponsored travel, and other loopholes allow all federal politicians to accept gifts from friends, even if they are lobbyists.

The Lobbying Commissioner is currently proposing to weaken other Code rules to allow for even more unethical lobbying.

The loopholes also allow federal politicians and officials to leave office and start lobbying federal politicians and government officials the next day, in secret and unregistered. The so-called “five-year ban” in the Lobbying Act only applies to registered lobbyists.

And while there is a cooling-off period in the ethics law for Cabinet ministers and top government officials after they leave office, it is also so full of loopholes that they can start working right away with most lobby groups. The stronger rules that prohibit giving advice based on secret information obtained in office, or taking improper advantage of your former office, have essentially been ignored by the Ethics Commissioner.

The much-too-high political donation and third-party spending limits in the Canada Elections Act, are additional layers in this smelly layer cake of unethical federal political decision-making. They allow people who can afford it to buy influence by donating up to $3,350 annually to each party and its riding associations, and wealthy individuals and lobby groups to spend more than $500,000 supporting parties during election campaigns, up to $1 million in the couple of months before that, and an unlimited amount between elections. Banks, which are regulated by the federal government, are also allowed to buy influence by making unlimited loans to parties and candidates.

Finally, the Ethics Commissioner and Lobbying Commissioner are allowed to make secret rulings, both have let many people off for clear violations of the rules and, even if you are found guilty, the only penalty in most cases is a public report. The commissioners should be required to rule publicly on every situation they examine, and to impose significant fines on all violators.

Add it all up and it’s essentially a legalized bribery system of unethical, biased favour-trading – pay to play, cash for access and influence. This is not to say that every federal political decision-making process is undermined by politicians and officials returning favours – only that every process is vulnerable to being tainted, in secret, by serious conflicts of interests.

The key question is, will a critical mass of MPs in the current minority government situation work together to pass a bill to clean up this unethical mess, finally?

To join the call for key changes, go to the Stop Secret, Unethical Lobbying Campaign and Government Ethics Campaign and Money in Politics Campaign