Lobbying Bill's Critics have a Point

Now here's something odd: the Hamm government's bill to regulate lobbyists has drawn fire, not from the corporations and industry associations usually suspected of wielding undue influence behind the scenes, but from labour unions and an arts group.

What's strange about this is that requiring lobbyists to register with the government, and compelling them to disclose their clients, the issues they're pushing, and the government agencies they're trying to influence, has traditionally been a project of the left.

One persistent advocate of lobbyist registration is Paul Pross, a retired professor of public administration at Dalhousie University and a longtime supporter of the New Democratic Party. He sees the proposed act as "an important step toward ensuring greater transparency in government and toward reinforcing democratic principles."

Then along come the Nova Scotia Government Employees' Union and the Nova Scotia Cultural Network to denounce Bill Seven as "Big Brotherly," and "undemocratic."

The impulse behind lobbyist registration is obvious to most Nova Scotians: the suspicion that executives of companies like Michelin, Sobeys, Stora Enso, and IMP Group can move at will through the inner sanctums of government, where a quiet word with power brokers can alter or kill prospective legislation without the public knowing a thing about it.

Thanks to federal legislation, any citizen can track the activitiesof lobbyists seeking to influence the Government of Canada. Go toIndustry Canada's Website , click on "English," "L," "Lobbyist Registration," and "View/Search." Then type in the name of any lobbyist and discover who they are lobbying, on what subjects, for which clients.

Type in Dave Dingwall, for example, and you'll find a list of twenty-five firms (including IMP Group, American Airlines, Clearwater Fine Foods, Assembly of First Nations, Laurentian Corp., Sun Microsystems, Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., Salter Street Films, Halifax International Airport Authority) that pay the former health minister and Cape Breton East MP to influence his erstwhile cabinet colleagues. That's useful information for anyone seeking to monitor the development of federal policy. But the right to petition one's rulers lies at the very heart of free expression in a democracy  whether the petitioner be Donald Sobey or the proverbial single mother on welfare. Any government attempting to regulate or constrain that right has to tread carefully and precisely.

The Hamm government's lobby bill would require organizations attempting to influence government to document their activities every six months. Even the smallest, nonprofit group would have to disclose its "business and activities," the names of individuals and organizations contributing more than $750 to its lobbying efforts, whether it received government money, the names of its lobbyists, the subject matter of its lobbying efforts, the agencies and departments it seeks to influence, and its communication techniques, including whether has encouraged "grass roots communications" with lawmakers.

It must disclose all this information for the previous six months, along with its plans for the next six months. A registrar would be empowered to compel additional clarification, and in one alarmingly imprecise phrase, "such other information as may be prescribed with respect to the membership."

Strangely, the information required from nonprofit groups (and industry associations) goes well beyond what's demanded of corporations, which are only required to file annually.

"It could easily be used to target and harass those identified as opponents of whatever government is in power without necessarily solving the problem of undue corporate influence," complains Andrew Terris, director of the Cultural Network, an arts advocacy group

NSGEU president Joan Jessome says her union will have to hire additional people to handle the paperwork - an ironic consequence from a government pledged to curb red tape.

Terris seeks "exemptions for groups operating in the public interest, such as nonprofit groups," but it wouldn't take Ken Rowe's corporate lawyers half a day to scurry through that loophole. The corporate-sponsored Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and its labour-funded counterpart, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, both operate on a nonprofit basis. Anyone keeping tabs on lobbyists would want to know what both groups are up to.

Public interest is in the eye of the beholder, and the law can't make fish of one and fowl of the other.

What's most troubling about Bill Seven is its apparent focus on non-profit groups and organizations. Even Pross, who supports the bill and wants to see it strengthened by requiring lobbyists to disclose the cost of their activities, objects to the unequal treatment of corporations and charitable groups.

None of these objections is insurmountable, but the fact they have been raised by groups and individuals who normally support transparency in government suggests the bill has been poorly drafted.

There's no great rush here. The government will be in power for at least two more years. Justice Minister Michael Baker should take the time to listen to the critics and adjust the bill as necessary before blundering onward.

Originally published by The Daily News. Copyright 2001 by Parker Barss Donham. All rights reserved. To contact the author, e-mail him at pdonham@fox.nstn.ca.

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