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New Lobbying Rules Stir up a Hall Full of Concerns

'It's a black hole' moans one attendee at education session hosted by pending registrar of lobbyists.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 Mar 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Ken Dobell: New law clearly prohibits his previous practices.

Attendees at a public meeting in Victoria last week raised several concerns about impending changes to the rules governing lobbyists in British Columbia.

The most contentious was around a new rule that prohibits someone from being hired to lobby on an issue on which the person is already providing advice to the government.

"If I was to be hired by the provincial government to do lobbying on the federal government, and yet at the same time that means all my clients where I've had to deal with the provincial government might now be in conflict," said one meeting attendee trying to understand the new reality.

"I might be in conflict, so I have to drop one of my clients don't I?"

The meeting host and registrar of lobbyists, Mary Carlson, didn't offer an opinion, but said, "Clearly that's going to be a lot busier on that front than we anticipated."

The meeting at Victoria's central library was publicly advertised and open to the public, though Carlson suggested the discussion would be confidential. "I want you to feel free to say anything," she said. "What you say in this room will stay in this room. I'm not a regulator until April 1, so I think it's more important we just sort of chat about anything you don't understand."

Meeting that spirit halfway, The Tyee has decided not to identify anyone who was there, though we can tell you the attendees included at least one former Liberal MLA and a former senior NDP official, as well as representatives of unions, business groups and non-profit agencies.

The Dobell issue

At issue is a new section, 2.1, that says, "A person must not. . . lobby on a matter in relation to which the person, or a person associated with that person, holds a contract for providing paid advice." Nor can they "enter into a contract for providing paid advice on a matter in relation to which the person, or a person associated with that person, is lobbying."

As Carlson put it at the meeting, "Basically you can't lobby yourself."

"You can not be on contract to provide paid advice to the government and lobby on that same subject matter," she said. "This is actually the Ken Dobell issue. Working for the premier on the homeless strategy, working for the City of Vancouver, that's exactly where this comes from."

Dobell is a former deputy premier who pled guilty to breaking the Lobbyists Registration Act.

Carlson said Dobell honestly didn't believe his work on behalf of Vancouver was lobbying. "If people as incredibly intelligent and upstanding as Mr. Dobell get caught, I can't imagine all the other agencies out there that have no idea that they're lobbying."

She might also have cited National Public Relations' Marcia Smith who, according to the Hansard record of questions the NDP raised in 2003, was lobbying the province on behalf of an oil and mining industry association when the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources hired her to advise it on the government's energy plan.

Associates included

There was particular concern at the Victoria library meeting about how broad the law becomes when it includes "associates."

What if a person worked for a government relations firm, one person wanted to know. A consultant might easily be working through their firm on a topic for the government, while someone else in the firm might be lobbying the government on the same topic.

"You could have two corporations that are wholly owned by a holding company, one works for government and one for lobbying, and under what you've just told me they can't do that," said another, taking it a step further. "That pretty much eliminates two-thirds of the lobbying companies in B.C. because we're all owned by [the same company.]"

Carlson said the new law also allows the registrar to exempt people from the prohibition, if she believes it is in the public interest to do so, but allowed there are a lot of details to work out.

"You're going to be really busy. I mean, really busy, because there are a lot of people doing that," an attendee said.

Said another, "It's a black hole. I talk myself into and out of times where I'm breaking the law minute by minute."

Definition explored

Much of the remainder of the discussion was around the updated definition of "lobbying," which appears likely to include more people.

The definition covers anyone who communicates for payment with a public office holder with an intent to influence, she said. It also includes paid consultants who arrange meetings with government officials for their clients.

"There's this conventional view that lobbying involves some questionable interaction with government, typically involving, you know, arm twisting or trips on a boat and all that kind of stuff," she said. "I think the more progressive commentators recognize it as a much more neutral activity. We certainly recognize it as a neutral activity."

Lobbying is a normal part of democracy and government's decision-making, she said. "You can't expect civil servants to understand all the angles of any issue and lobbying's just one way to make sure all those interests are represented and everything that needs to be heard on the matter is heard."

The new registration website will be in place for when the new regulations begin on April 1, she said.

"We intend to be quite generous and helpful for the first year to make sure everybody is up and running and understands the new expectation," she said. Everyone will have to re-register with the new system, she said. "Primarily that's so everybody just gets out of the bad system and into the new shiny car that hopefully won't break down as much as the other one did."

As time goes on there will be more detail in the system than what's available now. "The expectation is we'll be tougher than we were in the past," Carlson said. "We don't want to be burdensome, but the value of this registry from a public transparency perspective is directly related to what goes in it."

After an hour and a quarter, Carlson wrapped up the meeting on an optimistic note: "We won't go into the enforcement part because we won't even have to use that."  [Tyee]

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