Objections to lobbying laws don’t add up

Premier Darrell Pasloski was a no-show at the grocery store last weekend. I waited and waited but he never arrived. This, despite his assurance that all I needed to do to speak with my politicians was go to the local supermarket.

Premier Darrell Pasloski was a no-show at the grocery store last weekend. I waited and waited but he never arrived.

This, despite his assurance that all I needed to do to speak with my politicians was go to the local supermarket. The premier made his offer for regular citizen consultations at the checkout line while rejecting the NDP’s suggestion that the Yukon needs new legislation to regulate lobbyists.

The NDP’s proposed law mirrors legislation in place in most other jurisdictions in Canada. It would require that lobbyists, who are paid to “lobby” the government, register with a newly created registrar and submit regular returns. It also requires that cabinet members submit their own returns detailing when, where and with which lobbyists they met and the subject matter of their discussions.

There are other parts to the NDP’s proposal. It prohibits former ministers, deputy ministers and holders of certain “prescribed” positions from lobbying the government during a “cooling off period” after leaving office. It also prohibits those with contracts to provide advice to the government from lobbying simultaneously lobbying the government on the same subject matter.

As can be seen, “regulating” lobbying doesn’t mean stopping it. There is nothing in this proposal that would prevent powerful interests from getting together with our leader to discuss issues. Lobbyist registration simply means making that the practice must be more transparent so we, as voters, have a better idea of who government officials are meeting with and what they are discussing.

If we start from the idea that open and transparent government is a good thing, it is a hard idea to oppose. We should have some idea what our politicians are up to.

But it is also not hard to understand why government – and this government in particular – doesn’t want to go down the road of regulate lobbying. This is hardly a government renowned for its openness and transparency. Its efforts to limit the scope of Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act – which allows the public to have access to public records – have been well-documented over the years.

Public access to the type of information that would be contained in the lobbyist registry could potentially embarrass the government. Meetings with lobbyists would be a matter of public record. So we would get to see if they were actually short chats in the line-up at the grocery store – as suggested by the premier – or something seedier, like discussions with large corporations to sell a public utility or loosen environmental regulations.

I find the premier’s folksy claim that Yukoners who want to speak to their politicians only need to go to the grocery store to be pretty weak. It is true that you are more likely to run into one of our territorial politicians out in the community than you would elsewhere in the country. That is one of the benefits of living in a relatively small community. But unless you happen to be stalking them or know the places they tend to frequent, the odds of that happening on any given day are still pretty low.

You have a better chance of speaking to the premier or other members of cabinet if you call their office and actually schedule a meeting with them. If you can, that is.

Will the premier humour Joe Public for a few moments at the Canada Games Centre? Yes. He wants his vote after all. But does the average citizen have the clout to schedule a lengthier sit-down with a politician? Doubtful.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the premier’s assertion that the Yukon is “too small” to regulate lobbying, but for different reasons. This process would be fairly onerous and expensive and I’m hesitant to support the creation of yet another oversight bureaucracy in the territory.

Our existing oversight bodies – including the office of the ombudsman and information/privacy commissioner, the human rights commission, and the conflicts commissioner – may not be the largest items on the territorial budget, but they are not free either. We should give serious consideration to whether or not we should create another one.

And it is not just the creation of a paid registrar that comes with a cost. Detailing every meeting with every lobbyist and filing the necessary forms will also burden our leaders thus distracting them from doing the people’s business.

It is a bit of a surprise that the government hasn’t taken this angle when arguing against lobbyist legislation.

Meanwhile, the premier’s own point that the Yukon is a small place actually undermines his case. Surely it should not be hard to keep track of the small number of people who would be required to register under the proposed legislation and comply. Just how many lobbyists is he meeting with, anyway?

Kyle Carruthers is a born and

raised Yukoner who lives and

practises law in Whitehorse.