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Secret, unethical lobbying will still be legal if federal Conservatives don’t do more

Set out below is an op-ed by Democracy Watch Board Member Duff Conacher which was published in on October 2, 2012 and the Hill Times on October 8, 2012

Bruce Carson, former senior advisor to Prime Minister Harper, is in court charged with the crime of taking payment from a client while promising he could win a decision from the federal government (known as influence peddling).

So why did prosecutors decide not to prosecute Carson for failing to register and disclose his lobbying activities under the federal Lobbying Act?  Likely because Carson, and his client, have both claimed that he was not paid to lobby, only for advice.  Only people who are paid to lobby are required to register under the Act.

Treasury Board minister Tony Clement recently announced the changes the federal Conservatives plan to make to the Lobbying Act, and both he and all MPs on the House of Commons committee that recommended changes to the Act ignored the loophole exploited by Carson (the same loophole Rahim Jaffer exploited).

As long as unpaid lobbyists are not required to register, no lobbyist will ever be prosecuted for violating the Lobbying Act because all they have to do when caught lobbying without registering is claim, as Carson and Jaffer did, that they were not paid for the lobbying they did.

Also as long as this loophole is left open, there will be no five-year ban on federal Cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, their senior staff and senior government officials lobbying the federal government after they leave their position.

All of them will continue to be allowed to lobby the government the day after they leave, in secret without registering, as long as they are not paid to do the lobbying and are careful whom they lobby. And because they are not required to register this lobbying, they are also not required to follow the ethics rules in the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.

As well, both the House Committee and Minister Clement ignored the loopholes that allow for secret lobbying if a lobbyist is lobbying about the enforcement, interpretation or application of laws and regulations (which is a huge area of lobbying, especially for big businesses), and that allow for secret emails, texts, phone calls and even meetings between lobbyists and Cabinet ministers and senior government officials as long as the minister or official initiates the communication or meeting (which they do whenever they want to have secret, unethical relations with a lobbyist — only oral, pre-arranged communications initiated by the lobbyist are currently required to be disclosed).

In other words, even if the Conservatives make the changes proposed by the House Committee and Tony Clement, secret, unethical lobbying by the most powerful former politicians, staff and government officials, and by many other lobbyists, will still be legal.

The Conservatives promised during the 2006 election to end secret lobbying of the federal government.  They continue to break that promise.

As well, the seven provinces that have a lobbying disclosure law have the same loopholes in their laws that allow for secret, unethical lobbying, and the three provinces and two territories that do not have a lobbying law obviously also allow secret, unethical lobbying.

Only the City of Toronto’s by-law requires unpaid lobbyists to register and disclose their lobbying activities (although the by-law has other loopholes such as not requiring non-profit organizations to register).

Given that secrecy in government is a recipe for corruption, waste and abuse of the public, Canadians deserve better from all their governments.  All lobbying must be disclosed, no matter who is lobbying, for how long, on whatever issue, and whether or not they are paid.

If this is not required across the country, all Canadians should continue to expect to see more cases like Bruce Carson and Rahim Jaffer, as government decision-making processes continue to be corrupted by secret, unethical lobbying.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign