Ontarians deserve to know who’s behind public lobbying campaigns

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – When well-funded lobby groups attempt to shape public opinion, Canadians have a right to know who is behind those campaigns and why.
Apr 10 2014.   By: Nicholas Kyonka

When well-funded lobby groups attempt to shape public opinion, Canadians have a right to know who is behind those campaigns and why.

As the long-simmering debate over unionization in Ontario proves, this isn’t always easy.

In recent months, Ontarians have begun to hear from a new anti-union group called Working Canadians, which has launched a province-wide campaign to spread its message.

The group, which says it’s comprised of “volunteer individuals,” does not identify where it’s based, who’s making its strategic decisions, or where its funding comes from.

It also doesn’t say whether real working Canadians can join the group as members and make their voices heard within the organization.

This is important because Ontario’s democratic system—like Canada’s—is based on the idea that the electorate can make reasonable decisions informed by arguments put forward by publicly accountable groups and individuals.

Without transparency of leadership, there is no such accountability.

Without accountability, groups that attempt to lobby the public can more easily get away with using fear-mongering tactics or spreading misinformation, such as claiming to be something they are not.

In Working Canadians’ case, Ontarians should question who is funding the group and whether its direction comes from companies or individuals that have a vested interest in stigmatizing organized labour.

If it is, we should question whether it’s really concerned about the interests of the working Canadians it says it represents.

Though Working Canadians doesn’t say where its funding comes from, we do know that its spokeswoman has deep ties to several other organizations that have spoken out against unionization.

Working Canadians’ spokeswoman Catherine Swift is currently the chair of the lobby group the Canadian Federation of Independent Business—which has advocated against unions in the past—and has also served as the spokeswoman for another anti-labour group, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada.

While neither of those groups makes its financial information publicly available, we know that CFIB gets annual membership fees from more than 109,000 businesses and employs more than 300 people across the country, including a large team of lobbyists.

If a well-funded organization representing business interests is financing an anti-union group that wants to sway public opinion while claiming to represent working Canadians, the general public has a right to know.

That knowledge could affect the way citizens view the group or its message. It could also affect the way they vote in an upcoming provincial election, possibly as early as this spring.

Working Canadians is certainly not the only advocacy group that needs to improve its financial and leadership transparency to offer greater public accountability to its message.

On the other side of Ontario’s labour debate, the pro-union group Working Families should also be pressured to embrace increased transparency.

While Working Families reports on its website that it was founded by “members of the labour movement” and lists 14 unions as supporters, it is similarly ambiguous as to whether these groups are its primary funders. Like its anti-union counterpart, Working Families does not say who sits on its board of directors, and does not list any staff or contact information online.

In Ottawa this week we are marking the launch of a new non-profit organization that is dedicated to shining light on public lobby groups that are not transparent about how they are funded and whose interests they represent.

We will also provide a certification process that will help Canadians identify groups that are open and accountable.

While our activities will centre on organizations that want to impact issues on the national stage, we won’t hesitate to highlight provincial groups that could benefit from increased transparency, such as Working Canadians and Working Families.

It is our hope that our efforts will help pressure honest advocacy groups to become more transparent, giving Canadians better insight into which groups may have shadowy connections to covert interests.

At Canadians for Responsible Advocacy, we believe wealthy groups that take a stand on the issues affecting our country should disclose where their funding is coming from, and that they should no longer be permitted to hide behind opaque fronts.

In the Canadian democratic system, Canadians have a right to know who is trying to shape their opinions and why. We’re making it our job to help them find out.

Nicholas Kyonka is chief executive officer of Canadians For Responsible Advocacy, a non-profit organization funded by small individual donations and its unique Accountable Advocacy certification program.

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