New records show the power of lobbying
NationalPost.com – News/Canada
Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010. Andrew Mayeda, Glen Mcgregor and Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News – Ottawa
Lobbyists bent the ear of MPs and senators nearly 700 times in a little over a month, making their case on everything from BHP Billiton’s proposed takeover of the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan to federal funding for Special Olympics athletes, records filed with Canada’s lobbying watchdog show.
That works out to an average of more than 17 contacts between Canadian parliamentarians and lobbyists each business day — seven times as many contacts as lobbyists declared with cabinet ministers over the same period.
The new figures obtained by Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen shine a light for the first time on the extent to which lawmakers outside of cabinet are contacted by people paid to influence public policy.
Some political observers argue the power of individual MPs has waned in recent years as the federal government has become increasingly centralized, a trend that has accelerated under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But the lobbying records suggest that, far from being marginalized, backbench and opposition MPs, and to a lesser extent senators, are seen as influential players in the volatile setting of a minority Parliament, where a single vote can help kill or save legislation.
This fall, the Harper government extended the rules governing lobbyists to all MPs and senators. Under the new rules, lobbyists must report prearranged meetings or conversations they have with parliamentarians. Previously, the rules only covered communications with cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats, such as deputy ministers.
The government imposed the changes in response to the controversy over former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer’s dealings with a Toronto businessman and Conservative cabinet ministers, which critics said amounted to lobbying.
Since the new regulations came into force Sept. 20, lobbyists have reported 699 contacts with Canada’s 303 MPs and 105 senators. There are currently five vacant seats in the House of Commons.
While lobbyists reported more contact with Conservative MPs, they still regularly reach out to MPs from all parties. In fact, relative to their standings in the House of Commons, both Liberal and New Democrat MPs were the object of a disproportionately high amount of the lobbying. When it comes to being lobbied, Bloc Quebecois MPs punched below their weight, relative to the number of seats they hold in the Commons.
The three most lobbied MPs were Liberal transport, infrastructure and housing critic, John McCallum, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s parliamentary secretary, Colin Carrie, and NDP health critic Megan Leslie.
Special Olympics Canada, which held a “Hill day” on Sept. 28 to raise awareness for athletes with intellectual disabilities and to lobby for $800,000 in federal funding over two years, topped the list of most active organizations, based on number of MPs contacted. It was followed by Anglo-American mining giant BHP Billiton Ltd. and the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Society of Canada.
Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, a non-partisan advocacy group, said the records show only the tip of the iceberg. He said there is a lot of “hidden lobbying” of MPs on Parliament Hill, because the law is full of holes that allow lobbyists not to register if, for instance, they are lobbying part-time, aren’t paid as lobbyists, or are lobbying about the enforcement or administration of a law.
Mr. Conacher said there is no doubt that lobbyists view even the most junior MPs as people who should be influenced.
“MPs, especially in a minority Parliament, do have power to move issues forward by asking questions, and pushing for changes in committee.
“They lobby MPs because MPs sit on committees and write reports. And those reports can receive a ton of media attention and put a lot of pressure on the minister to initiate changing of a law.”
Mr. Conacher said lobbyists practise the “science of influence,” by “wining and dining” MPs at fancy restaurants and by bringing them to golf courses and paying their green fees.
Mr. Conacher said MPs aren’t required to report to the ethics commissioner any gift they receive from a lobbyist unless its value exceeds $500.
The recent efforts of the Mining Association of Canada, which also cracked the top-10 list of organizations, demonstrates how effective it can be to lobby individual MPs. The mining association launched an aggressive lobbying campaign against a private member’s bill that would have required Canadian mining and oil and gas companies to meet tough environmental and human-rights standards when operating in developing countries.
All three opposition parties initially supported the bill, which was sponsored by Liberal MP John McKay. But it was defeated late last month by a vote of 140 to 134, after 13 Liberals and four New Democrats didn’t show up.
Mr. McKay said the mining industry launched a full-court press, and their lobbyists killed the bill by persuading enough MPs to skip the vote.
The absentee MPs included New Democrat Charlie Angus, who represents the Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, whose economy relies heavily on mining. Also absent was Liberal MP Scott Andrews, whose Avalon riding in Newfoundland also relies on offshore petroleum development and nickel processing. The mining association lobbied both MPs before the vote that killed the bill.
“Based on the results of the last vote, we had a pretty good sense of where everyone stood, and we targeted our approach on that basis,” said Paul Hebert, the association’s vice-president of government relations.
Not all such campaigns are effective, however. Lobbyists representing BHP Billiton reported 44 contacts with 28 MPs — 16 Conservatives, eight Liberals and four NDP — to solicit support for the company’s $39-billion takeover offer for the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan.
In addition to deploying its own officials, BHP hired Conservative insider Michael Coates, who coached Mr. Harper to prepare for the leaders’ debates during the last election, and William Pristanski, a former political aide during the Mulroney era. Despite the charm offensive, the Harper government rejected BHP’s takeover, saying the deal doesn’t represent a “net benefit” to Canada.
Mr. McCallum attributed his large number of contacts with lobbyists to his appointment in early September as transport critic. Records show he met with organizations such as Canadian National Railway, Teamsters Canada and the Pembina Institute, an environmental advocacy group.
“That’s a pretty sprawling portfolio, where a lot of people have an interest, from airlines to railways to poor people to communities,” said Mr. McCallum, who was previously finance critic. “It’s normal that they would want to see me. And I want to see them to learn about my portfolio.”
Ms. Leslie offered similar reasons for her high ranking, noting that she was named health critic in early May. The New Democrat MP, who was elected for the first time in 2008, said she’s open to meeting with anyone concerned with the health field. During the period reviewed, she was lobbied by groups such as the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, but also pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline Inc.
“It’s a necessary part of your job to understand what’s going on, on the ground,” said Ms. Leslie, who was elected as an MP for the first time in 2008. “I think the true difference is what you do after you meet with lobbyists. I’m not a door mat for Big Pharma.”
Mr. Carrie declined an interview request.
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