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Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd won’t seek another term

By Marco Vigliotti      

Her decision draws mixed reactions from lobbyists and observers, with some accusing her of poorly conceived rules, while others are praising her openness and accessibility.

Karen Shepherd has announced that she won't seek reappointment as commissioner of lobbying when her term concludes at the end of December. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd is stepping down after more than eight years in office. 

Ms. Shepherd told The Hill Times on Oct. 27 that she would not seek reappointment when her current term expires at the end of December.

She made the remarks following a presentation to the House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee, where she singled out the development of a new code of conduct for lobbyists in 2015 as a major highlight of her time in office. 

The lobbying commissioner job, an independent agent of Parliament, was established in the 2008 Lobbying Act passed during the former Conservative government’s tenure. The legislation brought in a host of new rules surrounding federal lobbying.

Ms. Shepherd was appointed as the first-ever commissioner in July 2008 on an interim basis. She served two six-month terms before being officially appointed on June 30, 2009 for a seven-year term.

Her term was originally set to expire at the end of last June, though the Liberal government extended it by six months.

Lobbyist reaction mixed

News of her departure drew a mixed reaction from members of the lobbying community, some of whom criticized her for poorly developing new rules, while others defended her as accessible and responsive.

Ms. Shepherd’s most important job and accomplishment was the expansion of the lobbyists’ registry, a publicly accessible web portal that documents interactions between lobbyists and public office holders, said Scott Thurlow, senior counsel with Temple Scott Associates Inc.

Lobbyists are required to register with the commissioner’s office with information including what they are lobbying about and departments they are targeting; that gets posted on the online registry. They are also required to report communications with public office holders, and post it on the registry.

After continually improvements over the years, the registry is now “extremely user-friendly and accomplishes its primary goal: transparency for the public,” said Mr. Thurlow, who referred to it as a great tool for opposition researchers.

Joe Jordan, senior associate at Bluesky Strategy Group and a former Liberal MP, commended the departing commissioner for efforts to reach out to stakeholders, and her handling of the portfolio during the first years of the new regulatory regime.

He said he appreciated how the office has prioritized education over penalizing those who inadvertently ran afoul of the rules, and that it has used these sorts of slip-ups as teachable moments.

“I think that served them well as the industry comes around that they’re there and they’re not going anywhere,” he said, arguing that the commissioner unfairly received the brunt of criticism in the early years of the office from those in the industry opposed to the new rules.

Patrick Kennedy, a consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada (GRIC), an advocacy group for lobbyists, applauded the commissioner for consistently engaging with the lobbying community on key policy decisions, including the development of the new code.

“GRIC and the commissioner have had a strong dialogue over the past number of years, we’ve appreciated the commissioner’s level of engagement with the lobbying community, in particular around the consultations she held on the code of conduct—she was willing to receive perspectives from the lobbying community and made some changes,” he told The Hill Times.

Despite acknowledging technical improvements to the registry, Greg MacEachern, senior vice-president of government relations with Environics Communications, said that Ms. Shepherd was prone to floating out confusing trial balloons that “didn’t seem all that well thought out.”

He pointed to how in the lead-up to the 2011 election there was confusion about what contributions could be made to a political campaign without creating a future conflict of interest.

At the time, the commissioner’s office, he said, appeared to suggest activities such as having a lawn sign or participating in a political panel qualified as a contribution, which, in retrospect, “seemed kind of silly,” considering that these activities are likely protected by constitutional protections on free speech.

These confusing edicts “created a lack of confidence” about whether the prospective rules would see the light of day, said Mr. MacEachern, who also accused Ms. Shepherd of placing undue attention on relatively insignificant issues, such as the small trinkets provided to MPs at social events.

“Lobbyists in Canada recognize that they work in a regulated industry; we like that because we want people to have confidence in an industry that some people have doubts about. But we want to see a commissioner that is concentrating on the big issues,” he said.

On the other end, Duff Conacher, co-founder of ethics watchdog Democracy Watch, criticized Ms. Shepherd for failing to adequately enforce federal lobbying laws.

He argued that investigations into each of the three individuals found to have violated the Lobbying Act during her tenure were prompted by complaints from the media or members of the public, not through the work of the commissioner’s office.

“If [traffic cops] acted like this, no one would worry about getting a speeding ticket,” said Mr. Conacher, who had previously applied for the position, and who said he was placed on a short list of applicants.

He said he’s still debating if it’s worth the time and effort to apply this time around, and questioned whether the government is seriously looking for a credible watchdog to ensure compliance with lobbying laws or is content with another “lapdog” like Ms. Shepherd.

In a statement, Ms. Shepherd said that it has been an “honour to have been Canada’s first commissioner of lobbying,” and that she’s proud of what she accomplished over the last eight years.

The commissioner’s office has said in the past that it takes all allegations seriously. The decision to initiate an investigation can be triggered by an “external complaint or can be internally generated,” such as through monitoring media reports, for instance, it’s said.

She’s also made clear in the past that she can only do so much with the powers she’s been given by Parliament. In 2012, for instance, she suggested she be given the power to independently impose fines.

Job posted online

The government has posted a notice seeking applicants for the post on the website for governor-in-council appointments, which are made by the federal cabinet.

It is posted under the Treasury Board subhead on the website, with a listed salary of $174,700 to $205,500.

Applications are being accepted until Nov. 21.

In addition to the lobbying post, the government is seeking applicants for the position of commissioner of ethics and conflict of interest, currently occupied by Mary Dawson.

The call for applicants was listed on the governor-in-council appointments website, with the same closing date as the lobbying job, and a salary posted as “under review.”

Ms. Dawson’s office refused comment when asked whether the commissioner would seek another term in office. Her term also ends around the end of the year.

By beginning the appointment process, Mr. Jordan said it appears that the government is foregoing a prime opportunity to merge the offices of the lobbying and ethics commissioners, which Ms. Dawson suggested as a possibility earlier this year.

The next opportunity to merge the posts, he said, would be when the terms of the next appointees elapse, seven years from now.


The Hill Times

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