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It's time for a lobbyist law

The tragic death of MLA Steve Cardiff has silenced a strong voice for open government and democratic reform in the Yukon.

The tragic death of MLA Steve Cardiff has silenced a strong voice for open government and democratic reform in the Yukon.

A fitting legacy would be for politicians of all parties to embrace a cause that Cardiff long championed - a law to make lobbying transparent and accountable.

The issue, of course, is the creation of a lobbyist registry, so Yukoners can see who is being paid to influence government decisions.

Cardiff sensibly wanted the registry to be accompanied by a code of conduct - to ensure professional lobbyists act with ethics and integrity.

Lobbyist registration laws are on the books at the federal level and in seven provinces. This legislation doesn’t prevent people from lobbying; after all, it is our democratic right to make representations to government.

Instead, it requires that people paid to make representations to government must do so openly. Specifically, such legislation forces public reporting of lobbyists’ identities, the names of their employers and clients, the government departments they contact and the subjects they discuss.

It comes down to transparency. Every Canadian has the right to influence government policy. Nobody has the right to influence government policy in secret.

A lobbyist disclosure law would give Yukoners one more tool to hold their government accountable.

As the Yukon economy continues to grow, numerous interests - local, from elsewhere in Canada, and from around the globe - want to affect territorial decision-making. Precisely who is paying lobbyists to approach Yukon politicians and bureaucrats? How often and on which topics? No one can say for sure. Yukoners will never know until the territory adopts a lobbying-transparency law.

Lobbying disclosure should not be a partisan issue. Elsewhere in Canada we often see a multiparty consensus in favour of lobbyist registration.

Yukoners should demand the same.

One nonpartisan authority is Conflict of Interest Commissioner David Phillip Jones. For five consecutive years, the commissioner’s annual reports have noted lobbyist-registration laws exist elsewhere in Canada, but not in the Yukon. For five years, territorial politicians have considered his reports without taking action.

Part of the problem is unnecessary confusion. Some MLAs are worried that a lobbyist registration law might prevent Yukoners from approaching the government. The concern is groundless. Lobbying laws only apply to people (for example, employees, consultants or lawyers) who are paid to influence government decisions. The law would not affect communication between MLAs and constituents.

In any event, a lobbying law does not stop people from talking to government. It simply requires disclosure by people who do so for money.

The good news for Yukoners is that no political party officially opposes a lobbyist-disclosure law. The Yukon NDP formally supports it, the Yukon Liberals say they have “an open mind” and, to the best of my knowledge, the new Yukon Party leader, Premier Darrell Pasloski, has not been asked the question.

Even former premier Dennis Fentie claimed to be open-minded. In one memorable exchange, Fentie told Cardiff he wasn’t refusing to bring forward lobbyist legislation; he just wanted to see what it would look like.

Of course, it is easy to see what a lobbying disclosure law looks like. One need only examine the legislation that has been adopted in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and four other provinces.

“Professional lobbying in Canada is a $100-million-a-year industry,” the late Steve Cardiff once observed. “To deny lobbying is happening here, or that there is no need to regulate it, flies in the face of common sense and good governance.”

He was absolutely right.

Yukoners deserve the same democratic right enjoyed by most other Canadians - the right to know who is paid to influence territorial policies and decisions.

With an election coming this fall, voters should ask all candidates to support legislation to make lobbying transparent and accountable.

Guy Giorno is a partner in the law firm Fasken Martineau and is a leading Canadian expert in laws on lobbying.