Lobbyists have been given “too much time and too much importance” when it comes to gathering input for the Senate’s study of legislation at committee, says the second-highest ranking member of the Independent Senators Group, who is planning to raise the issue during a day-long ISG meeting on the Hill on Feb. 5.
“We should be more aware of the intent of some lobbyists, that is to promote a special cause of special industry,” said Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain (De la Vallière, Que.), the deputy facilitator of the ISG. “It is not exactly the type of contribution that we always want.”
Sen. Saint-Germain spoke to The Hill Times about the ISG’s upcoming “retreat” meeting, set to take place in Centre Block in two weeks. She said she plans to raise the subject of how and when lobbyists are chosen as witnesses for committee studies during that meeting, which will also cover key pieces of legislation, areas of common interest among ISG Senators, and more.
“We want independent experts and we want people who bring added value,” said Sen. Saint-Germain, adding it was her own opinion, and not that of the group as a whole.
“Whereas each committee has limited time to complete their studies, the quality of expert witnesses is of the utmost importance. Lobbyists and corporate representatives can testify honestly and legally without a doubt, but I have a preference for independent, impartial and neutral information.
“In general, I would say that the information provided by scholars, scientists and fellow citizens involved is likely to be more reliable and valuable for Canadians.”
Lobbyists contacted Senators at an unprecedented rate last year, reporting 1,250 communications altogether. That’s up from 687 in 2016, which was well above the previous high of 472 in 2014. The federal Lobbying Act came into force in 2008.
Those numbers likely do not include many of the committee appearances by lobbyists, who are not required to report communications if they are initiated by the government, or in this case, a Senate committee.
The creation and growth of the Independent Senators Group has sparked a great deal of interest in the Senate among lobbyists, thanks in part to the fact that many ISG members have shown themselves willing to propose amendments to government legislation.
Sen. Saint-Germain said many of her colleagues in the ISG were concerned with finding the best way to deal with a barrage of requests from lobbyists, wanting to make their case on a particular issue.
“It’s very, very time consuming,” she said.
The ISG is now the largest group in the Senate. It now holds 39 of the 105 seats in the Senate Chamber, with the Conservatives holding the second-most, at 33, the Senate Liberals 15, and non-affiliated Senators holding seven. Eleven seats in the Senate are currently empty, and it is likely that all or most will become part of the ISG once they are filled.
As an example, Sen. Saint-Germain pointed to the Senate Transport and Communications Committee’s study last year on autonomous vehicles, during which the committee members were approached by lobbyists who she said represented private sector interests that were not immediately obvious. She declined to name them. During that study, the Transport Committee heard from lobbyists representing the trucking and insurance industries, BlackBerry, General Motors of Canada, Transdev, New Flyer Industries Canada, and other witnesses from the private sector, as well as academia and government.
“It’s important that we hear [lobby groups], but sometimes they are very numerous, and we give them, from my standpoint, too much time and too much importance.”
Lobbyists would “absolutely” be concerned to hear Sen. Saint-Germain’s comment that they are given too much time and importance in the Senate, said Phil Cartwright, the president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada—an organization representing lobbyists.
Lobbyists make recommendations on studies or bills that could impact large portions of Canada’s economy or society, he said.
“Advocacy is a very important part of a democratic system.”
Mr. Cartwright said he did not believe Sen. Saint-Germain’s views on lobbyists were widely shared among Parliamentarians.
The office of Conservative Senate leader Larry Smith (Saurel, Que.) responded to Sen. Saint-Germain’s comments by saying the Senate Conservatives would “continue to be faithful to our role as official opposition in the Senate Chamber, in particular, when it comes to ensuring that all voices are heard at committee.”
The ISG holds summit meetings like the one planned for Feb. 5 at the end of each summer and winter break. Key pieces of legislation, such as the government’s marijuana legalization Bill C-45, and the Senate’s “modernization” are also on the agenda, said Sen. Saint-Germain.
The latter will likely include talk of changing the way the Senate schedules debate over pieces of legislation, a haphazard process through which debates can be stretched out over long periods of time, and any item on the Senate’s agenda can theoretically be debated on any given day.
Sen. Saint-Germain said the group would probably discuss whether the Senate can sit for longer hours—perhaps starting earlier in the day—or devote more time in the Chamber to debate on legislation, and less to Senators’ declarations.
The government’s representative in the Senate, Senator Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), has also proposed a change to the way the Senate schedules debates, a point he pressed again in an opinion piece published on his Senate website Jan. 16, in which he called the current system of debate “a disjointed practice that makes it difficult for the public to follow how laws are evaluated and reviewed.”
Sen. Saint-Germain also confirmed that the ISG will continue to press for permanent changes to the Rules of the Senate to give the ISG leaders the same rights and privileges in the Chamber as their counterparts who represent the official opposition and government.
Any such changes must be made through the Senate Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament Committee. Sen. Saint-Germain does not sit on that committee, but the ISG facilitator, Sen. Yuen Pau Woo (B.C.) does.
The Senate Liberals, Conservatives, and ISG struck a deal in November that re-allocated seats on Senate committees and gave, temporarily, some new rights and privileges to the ISG leaders, in light of the group’s growing size.
Sen. Saint-Germain said the ISG would press to make those gains permanent through changes made via the Rules Committee, and would also seek some new rights and privileges it had not gained in the last set of negotiations, such as the ability for the group’s leaders to refer a bill for study at committee.
“It’s a series of issues like that, that as a consequence, the ISG facilitator does not have the same capability to influence the orders of the day or the way the chamber works,” she said, adding bills were at times not referred to a committee promptly for “partisan reasons.”
“We are now the most numerous group, as you know, and it is important to adapt the rules consequently.”
The ISG is not a political caucus, and does not whip votes among its members. ISG Senators have a record of voting overwhelmingly in favour of government legislation, but have at times pushed hard for amendments to bills, against the will of the government.
ISG Senator Marc Gold (Stadacona, Que.) said he hoped to set aside time during the ISG’s summit meeting to discuss his new role as the group’s liaison, a re-styled role that replaces the whip of a political caucus.
The ISG does not whip votes, but uses its liaison to keep track of who is in the Chamber or available for a vote, and occasionally uses the cloud-based online survey tool SurveyMonkey to get a voluntary, anonymous count of ISG Senators’ voting intentions on important pieces of legislation.
Caucus whips also traditionally take on other roles, such as disciplining members who don’t follow the party line, and approving requests from caucus members to travel at the Senate’s expense. Recent changes to the Senate Administrative Rules have also given the leadership of Senate groups power to allocate office space for Senators within their group, something that would fall to the whips as well.
“I don’t see putting discipline in one person’s hands—it certainly wouldn’t be a role that I would be comfortable in,” he said.
Sen. Gold said he hoped the group could develop a set of rules to determine when travel for ISG members would or would not be approved, instead of having those decisions falling solely under his discretion.
*Does not necessarily include lobby groups that testify before a committee.