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Commissioner’s report indicates much more lobbying last year

By Derek Abma      

But data in recent months suggests the government is finding less time to meet with stakeholders.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, pictured in this file photo on the Hill, is Canada's federal minister responsible for lobbying. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

There’s been more lobbying than normal going on over the last year or so, according to the most recent annual report from the federal lobbying commissioner.

There were 5,559 people registered to lobby the federal government at the end of the 2106-17 fiscal year on March 31, which was up about 10 per cent from a level of around 5,000 “usually listed at any given time between 2012 and 2016,” said the report, tabled June 9.

It said that as of March 31, there were 3,801 registrations in the system, which was up more than 25 per cent from a level of 3,000, around which “registrations generally remained stable at … since 2008.”

Communication reports totalled 22,103 in the 2016-17 fiscal year, or 1,850 a month on average. That was almost double the 11,627 filed in 2015-16, as indicated in the previous year’s annual report. That report indicated that the 72-day election campaign between August and October “appeared to have an impact on the volume of communications reports.”

But last year’s total was still almost 70 per cent more than the 13,134 reports indicated in the 2014-15 annual report, which was for a non-election year. A more direct comparison could be 2012-13, which like 2016-17 was the first full fiscal year following an election. The registry shows just 11,653 communication reports over the course of 2012-13.

“I think the numbers probably speak for themselves,” said Philip Cartwright, a lobbyist with Global Public Affairs, who last week started a yearlong term as president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada (GRIC). “I think that this is a government that is very consultative and there have been dozens of consultations and policy dialogues going on across departments.”

He added: “I think there are more stakeholders that are interested in talking to government because there’s this broad range of consultations.”

Joe Jordan, a lobbyist with Bluesky Strategy Group, said the increased numbers are a result of the inevitable boost that comes from having a new government in place that wants to meet with many stakeholders to get oriented to issues.

He added that this Liberal government represented a “cultural shift” from the former Conservative government in terms of its how it sees “the value of consultation.”

“This government clearly is seeing more people and consulting with more people than the previous government,” said Mr. Jordan, a former Liberal MP.

Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

He said the heightened lobbying activity would inevitably start “levelling off as the government starts to narrow its focus.” In fact, he said this might already be happening, as seen by the four straight months of year-to-year declines in communication reports on the lobbyists registry. Most recently, the 2,379 reports filed for in May marked a 2.2 per cent decrease from a year earlier, and April and February’s numbers were down by double digits.

“There’s only so many hours in the day,” Mr. Jordan said. “There’s only so many hours you can devote to conversations that aren’t directly germane to your mandate.”

He said cabinet ministers and their staffers are becoming more preoccupied with checking off to-do lists in their mandate letters, particularly as rumours of a cabinet shuffle circulate and their performances become more scrutinized.

Guy Giorno, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, said “it’s plausible” and “makes sense, based on my experience in government,” that the decrease in communication reports in recent months reflects a government becoming more focused on achieving elements of its agenda in contrast to a newer one keen to speak to scores of stakeholders about an array of issues.

“It takes time to be accessible,” he said. “And the more you’ve got going on, the more selective you’ll be.”

Mr. Giorno, now a Fasken Martineau lawyer specializing in government ethics, said the increased number of registrations and communication reports indicated in the commissioner’s report likely represents a combination of more lobbying activity and also increased compliance with lobbying regulations.

“How much? I don’t know,” he said. “But I think it’s clear that the commissioner’s office is more active in enforcement and prosecutions and convictions. So I think some of the changes are attributable to better compliance.”

Still, Mr. Giorno said given the vast difference in the volume of communication reports being filed, much of it is related to “the culture of the government and the approach,” contrasting the current Liberal government’s approach to lobbyists with the former Conservative government he once worked for.

Mr. Jordan agreed that increasing compliance is part of the reason for the rising numbers, noting the efforts of Karen Shepherd, the longtime lobbying commissioner, to communicate and enforce provisions of the 2008 Lobbying Act and related regulations. However, he said he would be surprised if more than 15 per cent of the increased levels captured by the report is due to this, as opposed simply reflecting more lobbying.

“You’re getting more clarity around the act, around the responsibilities, and you might be pulling in under the registered-lobbyists category people that before kind of thought they were on the edge and weren’t registered,” Mr. Jordan said.

The annual lobbying commissioner’s report indicated that 94.3 per cent of communication reports were filed in a timely manner last year, meaning they came in by the 15th of the month following “oral arranged communications” between lobbyists and public office holders. That proportion has been steadily increasing over the years, from less than 90 per cent in 2012-13 and 2013-14, the report showed.

“Over the years, I implemented measures to reinforce the importance of filing monthly communication reports in a timely manner,” Ms. Shepherd said in the report. “Outreach materials were developed to ensure that the requirements and timelines to report communications with designated public office holders are understood.”

Such measures include website and email warnings to registrants whose communication reports are overdue.

Mr. Cartwright said the lobbying commissioner’s office has “a group in that office who know the act well and who are very accessible and interested in being able to provide advice and answers to questions … when lobbyists do have questions about interpretations” or registration issues.

Ms. Shepherd is coming to the end of her second six-month interim term as commissioner as the government continues to search for a longer-term replacement. Her term ends June 30, and she declined to comment on anything related to that. She has been in the job since 2008, and remains the only person to hold this position, which was created by the Lobbying Act.

The Canadian Press recently reported that both Ms. Shepherd and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, in the coming weeks, would start their third-consecutive, six-month, interim terms in these jobs.

Mr. Jordan said the government’s new merit-based process for appointments is evidently “too cumbersome and bureaucratic,” and there is a need to get on with appointing new commissioners.

“I think they’re going to have to do this a little differently, because in all fairness, both the ethics commissioner and the lobbying commissioner are in the same boat,” he said.

“You can’t continue to extend their terms by a short periods of time, because they don’t really have a mandate to do the jobs properly,” he added, noting that the incumbents are probably reluctant to make bold moves that would interfere with their successors putting their own stamps on the offices.

One bit of data from the annual report that didn’t show drastic changes from the norm last year was the amount of people registered at any point during the 2016-17 fiscal year—as opposed to the snapshot of where things stood on the last day of the fiscal year. Over the year, a total of 8,653 different people were registered lobbyists, not far of the norm of 8,500 that the commissioner said had been “relatively stable” since 2012-13.

“What it’s telling us is that there’s not hundreds and hundreds of new people entering the lobbying industry,” Mr. Jordan said. “I guess the existing capacities can handle the increase in activity.”

He noted that there are many in the government relations industry whose status as registered lobbyists can shift, depending on the need and individuals’ roles within their organizations.


The Hill Times 

Federal lobbying snapshot at end of 2016-17:

  • 3,801 registrations (3,000 the norm between 2008 and 2016)
  • 5,559 registered lobbyists (5,000 the norm between 2012 and 2013)
  • 22,103 communications reports during year (almost double from previous year)

Source: Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada Annual Report 2016-17

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