The Ontario government is allowing businesses to do “secret lobbying” by inviting them to ask for temporary law changes during COVID-19, Democracy Watch says.
The Progressive Conservative government, which was elected on promises to reduce red tape, announced Tuesday it would open an online portal where businesses could ask for regulation or rule changes to help them weather the pandemic. Democracy Watch, a non-profit which advocates for government accountability, said that portal is an invitation to use a loophole in Ontario’s lobbying rules, which is especially worrying given the government’s temporary rollbacks of some environmental protections.
“I am very concerned,” co-founder Duff Conacher said. “The Ford government has already used the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to cut some key environment-protection laws, and will likely try to cut other key big-business accountability and responsibility laws and enforcement actions to allow for more polluting, abuse of workers and communities and gouging and abuse of consumers than is already happening."
Under Ontario’s lobbying rules, you do not need to register or disclose lobbying activity if you receive a written invitation to do so.
Last month, as COVID-19 worsened, the Ontario government also suspended portions of its environmental-oversight rules, saying they could hinder its response to the pandemic. Government ministries do not have to consult the public or consider environmental values as they make decisions until 30 days after Ontario’s state of emergency ends, which critics said was an unnecessary overreach.
The portal on the Ontario government’s website invites businesses to “help us support you during COVID-19.” After filling out a short form, companies can request any kind of regulation or rule change they deem necessary.
Though the page says it’s aimed at helping businesses work remotely, assist the health-care system or retool to manufacture supplies needed to fight the pandemic, the form also welcomes submissions from companies in a wide variety of sectors, from beauty products and alternative energy to mining and home renovation.
Ian Allen, a spokesman for Small Business and Red Tape Reduction Associate Minister Prabmeet Sarkaria, said in a statement the government is doing everything it can to ensure businesses struggling due to the pandemic are able to survive.
“Many regulations are in place for very good reasons — like protecting our drinking water and keeping workers safe on the job,” Allen said.
Companies do not have to disclose lobbying activity if they receive a written invitation to do it. The fact that the Ontario government has asked to suggest rule changes during COVID-19 allows them to avoid lobbying rules, Democracy Watch says
“As we work to ease the regulatory burden, we are doing so in a smart, careful way to ensure that health, safety and environmental protections are maintained or enhanced.”
On the federal level, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has asked Ottawa to suspend requirements to disclose lobbying of federal officials. Neither Allen nor CAPP answered questions about whether the Ontario government received a similar request from the oil-lobby group, and whether that influenced the creation of the portal.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:41 p.m. on May 2, 2020 to correct that CAPP asked for a suspension of federal lobbying disclosure requirements.