Ethics Committee Approves New Lobbying Rules That Will 'Legalize Bribery,' Say Canadian Citizen Groups
Authored by Tara MacIsaac via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
Changes are coming to Canada’s lobbying rules, and a coalition of citizen groups says they will “legalize bribery by allowing for favour-trading between lobbyists and politicians.” The House ethics committee has approved a proposed revision of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct by and large, only making a few recommendations for changes.
“It’s shameful that the Liberal, Conservative and Bloc MPs on the Ethics Committee have decided … to support changes that will gut key ethical lobbying rules,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, in a release on March 27. Democracy Watch is joined by 26 citizen groups and more than 30 lawyers and professors in opposition to the changes proposed by Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Bélanger.
They criticise the sponsored travel junkets allowed by the rules. They say the proposed new rules will also allow people to do important campaign work for a politician, then lobby that same politician shortly thereafter. They say the sense of obligation gives that lobbyist an unfair advantage.
Cooling Off Period
Bélanger has said that she seeks to change the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct because it needs to be clarified to make it more enforceable. For example, the current code says there should be a cooling off period between “political activity” in support of a politician and then lobbying that politician. It doesn’t say how long, only a “specified period.”
“There is no definition of political activity, or what is meant by a specified period,” Manon Dion, a spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner, told The Epoch Times via email. Bélanger’s new code seeks to define political activity and set specific time periods.
A set of guidelines published by her office does this, but the guidelines aren’t codified in law. Those guidelines currently say the cooling off period for certain high-level political activities should be “a period equivalent to a full election cycle,” or four years.
Conacher criticises Bélanger for taking a step back, making the cooling off period only one or two years in her revised version of the code.
“Somebody helps you get elected, raises a whole bunch of money for you—when do you ever stop owing them? You owe them forever. It’s just ridiculous to say that it magically disappears after one to two years,” Conacher said in an interview with The Epoch Times in February when the ethics committee began hearing testimony from stakeholders on the issue.
The ethics committee, in their March 20 letter of approval to Bélanger, did not recommend lengthening the cooling off period.
The letter noted Democracy Watch’s concern that under Bélanger’s revised code someone could, in theory, fundraise huge amounts of money for a public official and lobby that official at the same time. That’s because fundraising itself isn’t prohibited, only “full-time” or “nearly full-time” political work.
The committee suggested updating the definition of “political work” to include any significant fundraising.
In a March 3 letter to the committee, Bélanger noted that rule 7 in her code prevents this. “[Rule 7] expressly applies to circumstances outside the scope of the other rules of the Code and prevents registered lobbyists from lobbying officials who could reasonably be seen to have a sense of obligation toward them,” she said.
The commissioner was hesitant to impose a longer cooling off period, Dion said, because of concern that limiting people’s political activity too much would be in violation of Charter rights.
“The updated rule was carefully crafted to achieve its objective of restricting lobbying where a sense of obligation could reasonably be seen to exist and to provide the greatest clarity for lobbyists, all while complying with the Charter,” Dion said.
Lawyers who have joined Democracy Watch’s coalition against the code changes contest this claim. The claim is based on a legal opinion given to the commissioner’s office by one law firm. The office has declined to share details related to that opinion, “in light of the importance of client-solicitor privilege,” Dion said.
A March 6 letter signed by 11 lawyers and 21 law and political science professors says the Supreme Court of Canada allows for reasonable limits on Charter rights to protect government integrity.
“It is an entirely reasonable limit to prohibit a person who does anything significant to help a politician or political party from lobbying the politician, party leader and top party officials for 4 years. That prohibition ensures that lobbyists don’t lobby people they have helped—which helps ensure ethical lobbying and protects the integrity of government and policy-making,” the letter said.
Gifts and Hospitality
Another point of contention in the revised code is a limit on how much lobbyists can spend on gifts and hospitality for public officials.
Bélanger proposed a limit of $80 per year. She had originally said $30 per year, but raised it after lobbying groups opposed it during the public comment period.
Lobbying groups continued to oppose this limit in their testimony to the ethics committee in February, saying it is difficult to tell how much an official consumes at a banquet, for example, and to keep track of the worth for each person.
The ethics committee suggested changing the limit to $200. It suggested adding language to allow for certain types of gifts beyond the limit, “such as sponsored travel or gifts of reasonable value given as expressions of cultural tradition.” It gave moccasins as an example of a cultural gift that might cost more than the $80 limit.
“The Committee agrees that sponsored travel, where it serves a legitimate purpose, should be exempted from the application of the low-value limit and the annual limit,” it wrote.
Democracy Watch said in its March 27 release, “The Committee wants a loophole so lobbyists can continue to give ‘sponsored travel’ junket trips to MPs and their family members and associates.”
The group said it has 20,000 signatures on a voter petition to stop the changes and it will file a lawsuit challenging the changes if they go through.