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Science + Tech

BC's Lobbyist Tracker Needs Big Fixes, Says a Creator

Former AG: Website tweak is overdue, but not enough.

Andrew MacLeod 7 Jan

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria.

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Lobbyist Geoff Plant: helped start registry.

The provincial government has agreed to put money into improving the lobbyist registry website, but fixing the system will require more than updating the software.

As B.C.'s attorney general in 2001, Geoff Plant midwifed the birth of one of the first lobbyist registries in Canada. Now a lobbyist himself and a partner in the law firm Heenan Blaikie, in May he got to see the system from the other side for the first time. But you wouldn't know his name was on the registry at all, he points out, unless you knew to look for him as "Paul Plant."

Anyone curious to see who the former cabinet minister is lobbying would likely either miss his name in the public reports or conclude incorrectly he's trying to pull a fast one. Plant's full name is "Paul Geoffrey Plant," but the registry only allowed room for two of his names.

Aside from the lack of space for his full, publicly recognized name, says Plant, the site only allows lobbyists three words to describe what they are doing. The result is phrases like "seeking business opportunities" or "awareness and advocacy," which are too vague to be useful.

"When we put it together in summer 2001, we wanted to get something up and running," Plant says. The plan was always to go back and make it better, he says, but that's never happened. "I'd sure spend some money making that a more user-friendly computer software system."

Money for website fix

In December, the government's select standing committee on finance and government services agreed to give one time funding of $150,000 to fix the website to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which acts as registrar for lobbyists.

In information and privacy commissioner David Loukidelis's Nov. 26, 2007, budget submission to the committee, he lists several problems with the site and notes a similar request was refused last year. "From the outset," the submission says, "the system has been criticized by lobbyists, the public and the media as being difficult to use."

The submission says the system is time consuming for people trying to register. They run into problems, and then require much support from the commissioner's office, using valuable staff time. Nor does the site accept online payments, which would streamline the process. Finally, the submission says, "the system does not have adequate reporting capabilities."

The problems are the direct result of the government going with the lowest bidder to build the registry before it was launched in 2002, the submission suggests. The top bid was $329,246. The average bid was $155,000. The government, however, chose a firm that promised to do the job for the bargain price of $29,900.

Bigger problems

While improving the website will solve some of the problems, there are also a number of problems that would require fixing the legislation that governs the registry.

For one thing, says Plant, when the Liberal government started the registry the only enforcement mechanism available was to make it an offence not to register. Fines were set at a maximum of $25,000. If someone fails to register, it means pursuing it through either the police or a prosecutor. "I don't think that's the best approach," says Plant. "There needs to be some powers given to the registrar or the commissioner."

There's also the question of whose responsibility it is to register the lobbying. The act puts the onus on the lobbyists to say what they are doing. But why not make the politicians, the people in the relationship who can and should be held accountable to voters, responsible? Says Plant, "I think those are good questions. I don't know that there's one right answer for all time to these questions."

The trick, he says, is designing the system so it captures the right things. The way it is now, people are supposed to list every MLA they plan to contact or might contact. Some registered lobbyists have responded by listing virtually every member of the house, which obscures to whom they are actually talking.

Guess who's coming to dinner

From the registrants' point of view, says Plant, it's pretty easy, when sitting at the computer to register, to imagine talking to anyone. "I can tell you from the perspective of someone who's lobbying, that's exactly the challenge. You run down the list of ministers and MLAs and try to guess who you might be talking to."

But it's not always predictable. Recently, Plant says, he was at a Business Council of B.C. dinner and there were a few MLAs and cabinet ministers there. What, as a former colleague and current lobbyist, was he going to talk with them about? "If I've got something burning a hole in the back of my brain I've been meaning to talk to somebody in government about, here's someone in government. Oops, have I registered [to talk to this person] or not?"

Still, he says, listing all the possible contacts does not make the registry more useful. Nor, he adds, would including the names of senior bureaucrats and political aids. "I worry that at some point it becomes overkill."

Changing what's recorded in the registry might also change how lobbyists work. The idea is to provide transparency, Plant says, not to change behaviours. "I was ambivalent then, and am still ambivalent, about whether there's much public benefit to regulating the activity of lobbyists."

It makes sense for the government to consult widely, Plant says, and you don't want to scare people away from talking to MLAs and cabinet ministers. The public would be no better served, he says, if lobbyists started targeting constituency assistants and other political aides not caught by the lobbyist act, making their contact invisible. "You can achieve a lot by knowing who's talking to government."

Windows covered over

The registry was supposed to be a window onto one part of how the government functions, and was a key part of the BC Liberals' promise to make B.C.'s administration the most open and accountable in Canada. As Plant says, "When we did this six years ago my primary interest was in the goal of transparency. I thought the registry would be an important step in achieving that goal."

While the goal is laudable, other jurisdictions have launched lobbyist registries with plate glass that make the B.C. registry look like it has garbage bags stapled over the windows. As the website Public Eye noted in December, Alberta's lobbyist registrar now has the power to conduct investigations and has judicial type powers to summon witnesses and compel evidence to be given. Alberta also now threatens fines of up to $100,000 for non-compliance, four times the maximum penalty in B.C., and can ban a lobbyist from government relations work for two years.

Nova Scotia's registry also puts B.C.'s to shame. It includes full names, addresses, phone and fax numbers for both the lobbyists and the organizations for whom they work. It has an extended space for a description of the lobbying activity, and many of the entries are very specific about what contracts or opportunities the client is interested in.

In Nova Scotia lobbyists also describe what techniques they'll be using, including whether they plan on having meetings, making phone calls or sending written letters or e-mails. Perhaps most importantly, the registry requires them to reveal how they are being funded and whether their payment is contingent on their client getting what they want. Ontario's registry has similar details.

If Premier Gordon Campbell is serious about having the most open and accountable government in the country, catching up with and passing the other provinces will require much more than a small reinvestment in the lobbyist website.

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