Lobbying commissioner proposes new rules — but critics aren't happy

Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Belanger speaks during an interview in her office in Ottawa on June 12, 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Belanger speaks during an interview in her office in Ottawa on June 12, 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's lobbying commissioner is proposing a new set of guidelines on how lobbyists should conduct themselves when engaging with public officials. Some critics say the changes would gut the guidelines, while others say they go too far.

The proposed changes would set monetary limits on what lobbyists should offer officials in the way of gifts and food. They would also reduce the length of the "cooling-off" period — the period of time after a person leaves a politician's employ when they're not supposed to lobby that politician.

Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger told the House ethics committee earlier this month that she hopes these proposed guidelines provide "clarity" for lobbyists.

"Right now, the rules are simply not clear. And because they're not clear, it is very difficult to regulate, investigate and provide advice," she said.

Previous guidelines suggested that lobbyists should avoid offering gifts that officials are "not allowed to accept."

Bélanger is proposing that lobbyists should not offer gifts worth more than $40, with an $80 annual cap. The same guideline would apply separately to food and drinks.

The proposed guidelines would also set the cooling-off period at one to two years.

The current guidelines state that the waiting period is a "full election cycle," which can be as long as five years, said Bélanger.

Bélanger's proposals come as the federal government faces questions about outsourcing contracts and a number of ethical breaches.

Bélanger noted in her testimony that she received "passionate but widely divergent feedback" on her proposed changes.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, told the ethics committee last week that the proposed guidelines on political work aren't strong enough.

"The commissioner is gutting that rule entirely," he said.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The commissioner divides political work into two tiers. The higher tier includes managing electoral campaigns, organizing fundraisers and coordinating political research. The lower tier includes door-knocking, handing out campaign material and soliciting donations.

The guidelines propose a two-year waiting period for the higher tier and a one-year period for the lower tier.

Conacher pointed out that the proposed rule for the lower tier only applies to those who have "extensive interaction with a candidate," or work for the candidate "on a full-time or near full-time basis."

Conacher said the rule could allow for a lobbyists to work part-time and raise money for a candidate, but not be subjected to a cooling off period. He said he believes it would "systemically allow for rampant unethical lobbying."

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But other witnesses appearing before the ethics committee argued that the rules addressing political work go too far and shouldn't include small-scale volunteer activities like canvassing.

Scott Thurlow, a lawyer and legal adviser to lobbyists, said the proposed guidelines would violate freedom of expression and political participation rights protected by the charter, though he did suggest some limitations are necessary.

"If we were talking about the campaign manager, absolutely, there's an elevated role involved," he said. "But the proposed code, it gets everybody."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Megan Buttle, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, echoed Thurlow's argument. She called the application of a cooling-off period to low-level volunteers a "dramatic overreach."

"Unpaid volunteers … should not be subject to cooling off periods that potentially impact their livelihoods " she said. "Lobbyists, or those who may be lobbyists in the future, by their very nature are engaged in the political process."

Bélanger said she considered the Charter of Rights carefully when making her recommendations, but ultimately settled on a limited waiting period to ensure lobbying is done ethically.

Siobhán Vipond, vice president of the Canadian Labour Congress, raised concerns about the cap on hospitality. She pointed out that organizations like hers hold multiple receptions with officials every year.

"Are we supposed to tell the minister of finance they can't have a coffee or bagel at the next meeting because they already reached their hospitality limit?" she said, adding that the burden should be on politicians to monitor such activities as governed by the parliamentary ethics code.

Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, said he's in favour of the limitations because smaller organizations like his are unable to hold as many receptions as larger organizations.

"We appreciate 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 come into effect, but Bélanger said she hoped to have them in place by the end of March.