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BC’s Wild West World of Insider Lobbyists

As the likely new premier, David Eby will have a golden opportunity to curb the influence of insiders. Here’s why he probably won’t.

Donald Gutstein 20 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Donald Gutstein, a former professor in the School of Communication at SFU, is the author of The Big Stall, Harperism and four other books on links between corporations, politics and media. He is a research collaborator with the Corporate Mapping Project.

When David Eby takes over as the leader of the BC NDP and becomes premier later this year, as he almost certainly will, one item he likely won’t be revisiting is lobbyist registration.

He should.

When John Horgan became premier in 2017, and again after his 2020 majority victory, a steady stream of party insiders left their positions and joined corporate lobbying firms, or helped start new ones.

Prior to Horgan taking the helm, the BC Liberals were in power for 16 years and corporations and other organizations had little need for lobbyists with NDP connections. But as happened in Alberta in 2015 when the Rachel Notley government took over, suddenly every corporation had to have lobbyists with useful access to NDP ministers and senior staff.

Functionaries with Liberal connections, many of whom worked for former BC Liberal premier Christy Clark, had flooded the lobbying space, enabled by lax lobbying laws brought in by the previous Gordon Campbell government.

In 2013, two years after Clark took over from Campbell, then lobbyist registrar Elizabeth Denham provided a list of changes that would put B.C.’s legislation on equal footing with other jurisdictions.

Clark ignored these. Why should she change? Life was good for politicians, staffers, lobbyists and clients.

Change was in the air for the new NDP government though. The mandate letter for newly appointed Attorney General Eby required him to “introduce legislation to reform lobbying in B.C.”

And he did. He closed a key loophole for consultant lobbyists — individuals who, for payment, undertake to lobby on behalf of a client. Before, consultant lobbyists had to list all possible lobbying targets, regardless of whether they were ever contacted. This was a relatively useless requirement that masked actual activity. After Eby’s amendments, lobbyists had to report on targets they actually contacted.

The amendments also placed more stringent reporting requirements on in-house lobbyists — employees of an organization who lobby government on behalf of their organization.

Eby should have done more. Topics listed by lobbyists in their registrations mostly lack specifics as to the nature of the issue under discussion. They give the public little sense of how a lobbying effort could affect public policy, legislation or regulation.

What’s more, Eby could have levelled the playing field when wealthy, powerful corporate clients go up against citizen, environmental or social justice organizations with their relative lack of resources to influence government action. The late Dermod Travis, former executive director for IntegrityBC, asserted that the government needs to make it clear there are ways for people and organizations to be heard by government without having to pay for a lobbyist’s services.

Eby also could have introduced genuine transparency by requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid by a client, as is the case in Washington state and elsewhere. Boeing, for instance, pays McBride Public Affairs US$10,000 a month to lobby the state government on its behalf. Shouldn’t British Columbians have similar information about the dollars changing hands to influence public policy and legislation?

Lobbying must be a lucrative vocation, because it is a high-growth industry in B.C. Strategies 360, a lobbying firm, didn’t exist in the province when Horgan took over. Now it is an NDP powerhouse, with two former party executive directors, a former party president, a former cabinet minister and various former senior staffers in its ranks.

Michael Gardiner was NDP provincial director between 2014 and 2016. Before that, he was communications director of the BC Federation of Labour. During this time, he was running his own PR shop. He claimed credit for Horgan’s party leadership victory and he worked on many provincial campaigns, leaving in the run-up to the 2017 election. He signed his first client two weeks after Horgan became premier.

Gardiner recruited several prominent New Democrats to join his firm, and in 2019 merged with Seattle-based Strategies 360 to create a Vancouver office. This much larger firm has 21 offices in 12 western U.S. states from New Mexico to Washington, plus Alaska and Hawaii. He brought his team and his clients, including the BC Salmon Farmers Association, to the new firm. His mission for the fish farmers was “to promote opportunities for fish farming in B.C. by building understanding and trust with the B.C. Government.”

Lobbying targets for the industry were in the ministries of transportation and infrastructure; agriculture; forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development; Indigenous relations and reconciliation; and the Premier’s Office. The new Strategies 360 BC office continued to lobby for this association until 2020, when in-house lobbyists took over the job.

The firm’s most prolific lobbyist was Stephen Howard, who was registered to lobby for 25 clients, including the Salmon Farmers Association. Howard had a long career as a communications director for the BC General Employees’ Union, Hospital Employees’ Union and the BC Federation of Labour. In 2012, he became Adrian Dix’s chief of staff and accompanied Dix through his disastrous 2013 election campaign.

For the 2017 election, Howard managed Ravi Kahlon’s Delta North campaign and was a member of the Horgan transition team as senior aide to then Attorney General Eby when the government was formed.

Eby’s amendments included a two-year ban on lobbying by former senior public office holders, although this does not prevent former senior public office holders from joining a firm and advising those who are able to lobby government, such as former party officials. Howard left Eby’s office on Sept. 8, 2017. One day after his two-year period ended, Howard registered to lobby for Telus, Tourmaline Oil Corp., BC Salmon Farmers Association and Western Forest Products, among others. To be sure, these were Gardiner clients, but Howard shared the load.

Tourmaline is the largest fracked methane gas (a.k.a. natural gas) producer in Canada, with extensive holdings in northeastern B.C. In 2016, Tourmaline bought 25,000 hectares in the Fort St. John region from Shell Canada.

But then the NDP, with possible anti-fracking tendencies that would need to be countered, won the election. Two weeks after Horgan assumed office, Gardiner registered as a lobbyist for the fracked gas giant. Tourmaline’s Fort St. John-area gas fields are near Dawson Creek, where the Coastal GasLink pipeline will originate, and the company plans to boost supply for the LNG Canada plant when tanker sailings begin in 2025 or 2026.

It turned out the Horgan government was aligned with fracking and LNG exports, so Tourmaline could get on with the job.

“The world needs more gas and Canada has the cleanest methane in the world and so the most logical way forward is for Canada to grow its gas production, ship it via LNG to Asia,” Mike Rose, CEO of Tourmaline, said in a recent interview.

To prepare for the boost in production, Tourmaline purchased two gas-processing plants in the region. Meanwhile, Strategies 360 ramped up its lobbying efforts in the first quarter of 2022, with multiple meetings or communications with four cabinet ministers (Josie Osborne, Rob Fleming, Bruce Ralston and Kahlon), three assistant deputy ministers, the head of the BC Oil and Gas Commission and staff, and various executive directors and assistants, ministerial advisers and MLAs. At the same time, Tourmaline assigned its full complement of in-house lobbyists to advance the agenda — a full court press.

Strategies 360 was already receiving NDP reinforcements. Four months after the 2020 victory, two senior party insiders joined the lobby firm. Raj Sihota was a second party executive director; Lisa Denton the person most responsible for candidate recruitment. They were followed by former party president Craig Keating and former minister of transportation Claire Trevena. Trevena couldn’t lobby for two years; the others could begin lobbying right away.

The magnitude of Strategies 360 support for Tourmaline could be known by British Columbians if lobbyists were required to disclose the total amount of payment received for service — a crucial provision that Eby neglected to include in the lobbying amendments.

Not all NDPers joined Strategies 360, of course. Brad Lavigne rivalled Gardiner’s rapid rise in B.C. lobbying circles after the 2017 election. Lavigne’s party connections were largely federal, as national director between 2009 and 2011, campaign director in 2011 and senior campaign adviser in 2015. His fame relates to his association with the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton and the “orange wave” of the 2011 federal election, in which the New Democrats won 103 seats — the most ever — and became the official Opposition for the first time in the party's history.

Lavigne started in government relations in 2015 and in 2017 he sold his firm to Counsel Public Affairs Inc., just as Gardiner sold his to Strategies 360 after the NDP came to power. Counsel is an Ontario-based PR and lobbying firm founded largely by provincial Liberals in 2003.

Lavigne had B.C. roots and brought in some recruits from the BC NDP: David Bieber, a former director of communications; Jim Rutkowski, chief of staff to then finance minister Carole James; Jean-Marc Prevost, director of communications in the Ministry of Health; and Amanda van Baarsen, senior aide to current Health Minister Dix.

TheBreaker’s Bob Mackin points to the connection between van Baarsen working in Dix’s office and counsel’s lineup of clients in the pharmaceutical sector, including Innovative Medicines Canada, HumanisRx, CareRx and the Canadian division of AstraZeneca vaccine maker Emergent BioSolutions Inc. Van Baarsen couldn’t lobby for them, but others already were.

Earnscliffe Strategies picked up Nicki Hill, a former NDP director of organization, in 2018, and Danielle Dalzell, a former Horgan speechwriter, in 2020. Hill+Knowlton Strategies recruited Jeffrey Ferrier, the Ministry of Health’s executive director of communications, who soon registered as a lobbyist for coronavirus vaccine maker AstraZeneca.

Not all former government and party insiders joined corporate firms. Two lone wolves became high-profile lobbyists and media personalities, using their names and media presence as their currency.

Moe Sihota spent a decade as a cabinet minister during the 1990s and then four years as party president, subsequently opening a government relations and lobbying practice through his lobbying and property development firm Parhar Investments and Consulting Ltd. He was a political panelist on CBC Radio for 12 years.

Sihota has an extensive client list but is best known for his advocacy for Woodfibre LNG, which is developing a $1.6-billion LNG plant near Squamish. Woodfibre is a subsidiary of Pacific Energy, which in turn is a subsidiary of RGE (formerly Royal Golden Eagle), a Singapore-based natural resources manufacturing conglomerate. Sihota registered to lobby for Woodfibre three months after Horgan took over.

According to the lobbyist registry, the province and Woodfibre worked on “completing a Competitive Gap Analysis to determine financial or regulatory assistance which may be required before Client can make a Final Investment Decision.”

How much would the government pony up to persuade the company to move forward with the project? Woodfibre met or communicated with Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Deputy Minister Fazil Mihlar 15 times (Sihota did not need to be present at these meetings), and also with minister Ralston, Horgan chief of staff Geoff Meggs and other ministry staff. Apparently the terms were acceptable to the Indonesian tycoon who heads the conglomerate, because in April Woodfibre said it was going ahead with the project.

The other prominent lone wolf is Bill Tieleman, who runs his lobbying and PR shop through his company West Star Communications. Tieleman is a third former director of communications for the BC Federation of Labour who became a lobbyist. He spent a year as director of communications for former NDP premier Glen Clark.

Tieleman began lobbying in 2012 for a trio of union clients. He enhanced his profile as a columnist for The Tyee and the now-defunct 24 Hours newspaper and as a panelist on CBC Radio. He led high-profile campaigns to oppose the introduction of a single transferable vote electoral system and the Harmonized Sales Tax.

Like other lobbyists with NDP connections, Tieleman’s practice took off after Horgan was installed in office. He registered on July 31, 2017, to lobby the new premier and 10 cabinet ministers on behalf of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. His mandate was to “promote the creation and protection of private sector jobs, economic development and fair labour laws in regard to BC Hydro, Site C dam project and other infrastructure.”

Tieleman wrote his last column for The Tyee in March 2018.

Tieleman managed the PR campaign for the pro-Site C Allied Hydro Council of BC to convince the Horgan government to go ahead with building the dam. The campaign included unions Tieleman had as lobbying clients.

In contrast, Peace Valley landowners who were fighting to save their homes had nowhere near the same access to the Premier’s Office nor to the 10 ministers Tieleman had registered to lobby. And they didn’t have the money to hire their own lobbyists. Nor does B.C. lobbying policy provide alternative means for people like them to try to influence government decisions.

They were out of luck. On Dec. 11, 2017, Horgan announced the dam would proceed.

Before the dam go-ahead was announced, the Horgan government introduced legislation to ban corporate and union donations to political parties. This was a welcome move by all concerned. It seems though that many corporations and unions simply shifted their political spending to lobbying.

Eby’s government will have a golden opportunity to remove this distortion of the democratic process. But given the importance of lobbying money to the political economy of the New Democratic Party, don’t count on it happening any time soon.  [Tyee]

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