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On Monday, more than 30 lawyers and professors joined forces in an open letter to speak out against proposed changes to lobbying rules in Canada.
Opponents say lobbying stands to become more unethical if suggested changes from the commissioner of lobbying Nancy Bélanger go through. Faisal Bhabha, associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, said he signed the letter released by lobbying watchdog group Democracy Watch because current rules “help protect the integrity of our fragile democracy.”
They join citizen groups and individuals who have spoken out against the suggested changes to the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, which governs how paid lobbyists operate on Parliament Hill.
As of now, a lobbyist who works on a politician’s campaign can’t contact them for a full election cycle afterwards to avoid politicians feeling obligated to help people who have helped them. Bélanger is proposing to shorten those limits to two years for lobbyists who work closely with a candidate (say, on a fundraising campaign) and one year for lobbyists who are less involved (who canvass, for example).
A press release from Democracy Watch said the one-year limit applies “only [to] people who campaign for 30 hours or more a week, or who have frequent in-depth interaction with the candidate or party officials.”
There is also a proposed “no risk” lobbying category, which would allow people who support politicians through attending fundraisers or campaign events or who donate less than $1,650 to have no cooling-off period — meaning, the letter argues, they could “secretly campaign up to near full-time and fundraise unlimited amounts of money for politicians and parties while lobbying them.”
Unpaid lobbyists, who do not need to register, do not fall under the code. Democracy Watch has called out that loophole in the past, along with other ways lobbyists can avoid registered communication with the federal government.
“Under the proposed regime, we might expect to see a common cycle of lobbyists doing favours for government ministers by campaigning and fundraising for them and their parties and then turning around and lobbying those same ministers to return the favours by changing laws, regulations and policies in ways that are in the lobbyists’ clients’ interests rather than in the public interest,” Bhabha said.
The letter urges the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to reject the suggested changes. Last month, Bélanger told the CBC that she hopes to have the changes in place by the end of March.
Opponents say lobbying stands to become more unethical if suggested changes go through. @BhabhaFaisal said he signed the @DemocracyWatchr letter because the current rules “help protect the integrity of our fragile democracy.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the House of Commons ethics committee met in private to discuss the proposed changes. The current Lobbying Code is from 2015, and the rules take up just two pages, while an accompanying document breaks down the code further.
In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, Bélanger said there has been “a lot of misunderstanding” about the proposed lobbying rules. She pointed to an appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, as well as a letter she sent to the committee in March that addressed misconceptions about the proposed rules.
In her letter, she addresses concerns from both sides: those who think the proposed laws are too weak and those who view them as too strong. She said the suggested cooling-off periods would protect against conflicts of interest and noted there is leeway to adjust if necessary.
“This one-year period could be reduced in appropriate circumstances. In particular, the updated rule on political work authorizes the commissioner to reduce the cooling-off period taking any relevant circumstances into account, including the importance or prominence of the political work and its frequency, extent or duration,” Bélanger writes.
The Democracy Watch letter highlights concern about the window for reduction, and ultimately argues for a minimum four-year cooling-off period for people engaging significantly in political activities or fundraising, adding there should be no reduction on a case-by-case basis from the commissioner.
In Canada, lobbyists are already able to sway politics in an unreasonable way, said Bhabha.
“Protections help mitigate the risks presented by such influence. Gutting the protections will make it easier for politicians to make decisions that serve the private interests of the clients of the lobbyists who helped get the politicians elected. This will only breed further loss of public confidence in electoral politics,” he said.
“Anyone who cares about the value of their vote should be deeply concerned about the impact of the proposed changes on the quality of Canadian democracy.”