Political lobbyists, fear not: the Yukon government has shot down an NDP proposal to reveal efforts to sway political decisions.
The proposal, made earlier this month, was part of a broader NDP-sponsored motion to address the territory’s “democratic deficit” with a series of reforms.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson is familiar with how companies, First Nations and non-profits seek to shape public policy. She routinely received appeals from these groups when she served as the Yukon’s director of Indian and Northern Affairs.
There’s nothing unethical about lobbying, she said in an interview. But Hanson has a problem with when it’s not publicly disclosed.
Now that the Yukon’s amidst a mining boom, the territory “is coming under increasing pressure from industry, including as far away as China, to allow widespread development in all areas of this territory,” Hanson warned the legislature on March 3.
The federal government and at least seven provinces have laws that govern political lobbying, by the NDP’s count: Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland.
And the Yukon’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner recommended last year that the territory create a registry for lobbyists, said Hanson. “This government has chosen to ignore his advice and, as a result, we have no lobbying legislation, no registry of lobbyists, no code of conduct for lobbyists, and conflict-of-interest legislation that has not kept pace with the changing times.”
But Justice Minister Marian Horne expressed concern that lobbying rules, if poorly defined, would prevent constituents from raising concerns with their MLAs about potholes and bush-clearing.
The NDP’s former leader, Todd Hardy, also “lobbied” Horne to deal with crime in downtown Whitehorse, she said. And representatives from women’s groups do much the same, said Horne.
That’s nonsense, Hanson later said in an interview. Other Canadian jurisdictions have managed to define lobbying in such a way to exclude constituents who want to air their concerns. “I don’t think that’s rocket science.”
However, Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell also raised concerns over how to define lobbying.
“Government frequently meets with representatives from major companies, corporations, as does the opposition. We don’t see those people as lobbyists. We see them as presidents or officers of corporations.”
The public should be consulted before any rules are put in place, said Mitchell. “We would listen to the consultation, as opposed to the government, which doesn’t.”
The big problem with Ottawa’s lobbying rules is that they’re too narrowly defined, according to a February release by Democracy Watch.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that “anyone can lobby, without registering under the act, if they are not paid to lobby. This is a very easy loophole to exploit – just arrange to have your client pay you for advice and other services, and lobby for them for free.”
Lobbyists only need to register if they spend more than 20 per cent of their working hours lobbying.
Only pre-scheduled, oral communications with ministers and senior government staff must be disclosed.
Since the Lobbying Act became law in 1989, no one has been prosecuted for failing to register as a lobbyist.
Democracy Watch likens the situation to a world in which “the police sat in their offices waiting for complaints as their method for enforcing laws about the flow of traffic (each of which contained loopholes), and then took years to investigate each complaint, and years more to lay charges and prosecute, if they ever did prosecute.
“How many speeders, red-light runners, hit-and-run and drunk drivers would be caught? Worse, how many people would even follow driving laws? This is the exact analogy to the loophole-filled and weak law and ethics rules and enforcement record for the flow of communication from people trying to influence the federal government for the past 22 years.”
As for Hanson, she professed to be puzzled by the cool reception her proposal received.
“I’m just perplexed why anyone would think this is an underhanded or nefarious suggestion. It’s just good government.”
Contact John Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.