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Quebec’s lobbyist registry best in Canada, though all struggle in key transparency metrics: study

By Marco Vigliotti      

Only one federal or provincial lobbying registry, that of Quebec, requires lobbyists to disclose their compensation.

Outgoing lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd is responsible for overseeing the federal lobbyist registry. A new report ranked it the second best in the country.
The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Most public lobbying registries in Canada are lacking pivotal disclosure requirements, leaving Canadians in the dark about the scope and cost of lobbying campaigns targeting government officials, suggests a new report.

In an assessment released on Tuesday, the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), a non-profit aiming to help institutional investors improve corporate governance, found that Canada’s 10 federal and provincial lobbying registries were lacking in transparency of lobbying activities and compensation, though fared generally well in regard to accessibility.

As part of its report, SHARE ranked the Quebec lobbyist registry as the best in the country, praising the province for being the only Canadian jurisdiction it studied requiring consultant lobbyists to say how much they’re being paid for their work.

All Canadian registries exempt in-house lobbyists (those lobbying on behalf of their employer as opposed to a client), from having to register if advocacy activities don’t constitute a significant portion of their duties. At the federal level, the amount is 20 per cent of an employee’s time.

The report commended Quebec because the province’s in-house lobbyists must publicly register not just if their lobbying activities reach a certain number of days’ work, but also if they are considered of “significant importance” to their organization even if they don’t reach a quantitative threshold.

Even though the study praised the province’s unique registry, Quebec received only 6.5 points out of a possible 11, followed by the federal registry at 5.5 points, and Ontario, with five points.

Despite receiving high grades elsewhere, Quebec and Ontario lost marks because the provinces don’t require lobbyists to report individual communications with public office holders or who was present at meetings with officials, according to the report, titled Canada’s Lobbyist Registries: What Can They Tell Investors About Corporate Lobbying?

But SHARE commended Ontario and Quebec for requiring lobbyists to say more specifically what they are trying to accomplish. Ontario’s provincial registrar, for instance, says explicitly that it will “refuse to accept vague, ‘catch-all’ answers in filings,” according to the report.

“For investors and the public, these requirements provide the clearest picture of which decisions lobbyists are attempting to influence, and how,” wrote authors Kevin Thomas and Brittany Stares.

While the SHARE report deemed the federal registry “weaker” than its counterparts in Ontario and Quebec in terms of transparency of lobbying aims, it noted it’s the only Canadian jurisdiction requiring lobbyists to report on individual communications with government officials, which is done through mandatory monthly communications reports.

The authors say the requirement provides “greater transparency” about the amount and persistence of lobbying efforts than other jurisdictions, which only require lobbyists to register their intention to communicate with public officials within a given timeframe.

The report, though, faulted the federal registry for only requiring that lobbyists report oral and arranged communications with government officials. If they lobby them at a chance meeting in person, write them, or call them up out of the blue, they don’t have to report.

Overall, New Brunswick fared the worst, receiving just two points in the SHARE assessment, though the province’s lobbyist registration only went online on July 1.

Newfoundland and Labrador, faulted for “ongoing technical issues that restricted accessibility,” finished second last in the rankings at 2.5 points. It was the only province that failed to receive at least one point for having a searchable lobbyist registry available online.

At three points each, Nova Scotia and British Columbia finished tied for third worst, while Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba made up the meat of the order, all finishing with four points apiece.

All jurisdictions lost one point each because none of them require lobbyists to disclose who specifically participated in meetings with government officials, save those already listed in the general registration.

SHARE said investors are becoming increasingly interested in how corporations are influencing public policy, with shareholders at several Canadians firms recently petitioning for more information on resources put towards lobbying activities and better details on the nature of internal advocacy efforts.

But gaps in reporting make it difficult to get a firmer picture of lobbying activities, according to Mr. Thomas, who also serves as SHARE’s director of shareholder engagement.

He argued that a “credible, open, and accountable” public policy process is a “priority” for both investors and the Canadian public.

“If it is not transparent, accountable, and effectively managed at the top, lobbying activity carries both reputational risk and risk of misalignment with long-term shareholder value and priorities,” he was quoted as saying in a press release.

The report’s recommendations included: increasing disclosure about who specifically participates in meetings and about what they lobby on in particular (pieces of legislation, regulations, etc.) and their aim; requiring lobbyists to disclose their expenses and how much they’re paid to do the work; and changing the thresholds for registration so more lobbying activity is captured.

Prince Edward Island is the only province not to have in place a publicly accessible database of who’s lobbying government officials and lawmakers, though the province’s Liberal government introduced legislation late last year mandating the creation of such a registry.

The country’s three northern territories also don’t have registries.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times 

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