Canada’s top-lobbied political staffers have “panache,” and are “affable” and “rigorous,” according to those who’ve sat down with the men who are the government’s most-sought officials based on communications reports filed in the federal lobbying registry this year.
The three most in-demand staffers are all policy advisers to ministers in important departments connected to Liberal platform promises and potential funding, observers say, namely innovation, finance, and infrastructure.
The two advisers with the busiest dance cards have had over 25 per cent more communications than the next-nearest government official this calendar year.
David McFarlane, in the innovation minister’s office, tops the list with 209 communications connected to his name since the start of the year, according to an Oct. 17 search of the lobbying registry. Next is deputy director of finance Ian Foucher, with 201, followed by Mathieu Bélanger in infrastructure with 147.
“Part of why these people generate so much traffic is because they’re in sensitive files. Infrastructure and innovation, particularly superclusters, are two of the signature issues so it makes sense it’ll be up there with finance,” said StrategyCorp’s John Duffy, a Liberal strategist and former volunteer campaign adviser to Paul Martin.
“It aligns with the hot-button issues of the day,” said former Liberal staffer and Environics Communications vice-president Greg MacEachern, adding finance in any government will be a key department.
The lobbying communications data feed into a wider approach by the Liberal government, promising accessibility of all government officials, said Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal Paul Moen, who advised former Liberal trade minister Jim Peterson. Policy advisers are often a first point of entry, with the option to escalate asks politically afterwards.
Mr. McFarlane’s most frequent visitors include Telus Corporation and Shaw Communications—with nine communications each on separate days this year—followed by Enerkem Inc., with eight. Rogers Communications Inc. had six and Xplornet Communications Inc. logged five, while Microsoft Canada Inc., Rio Tinto Canada Management Inc., Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., General Motors of Canada Company and Bombardier Inc. all logged communication reports on four days since Jan. 1.
At the top of Mr. Foucher’s communication list are Home Capital Group Inc. and Canadian Credit Union Association, with 16 and 12 communications, respectively. Next is Royal Bank of Canada, with seven, followed by five communication reports for each of BMO Financial Group, Manulife Financial Corporation, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board and TMX Group Limited.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities almost doubled Mathieu Bélanger’s next most active group, with 14 communications, followed by Canada Green Building Council with eight, Canadian Urban Transit Association with seven, and Canadian Electricity Association and David Suzuki Foundation with four apiece.
Too many meetings a cause for concern: Curran
Rachel Curran, former Conservative PMO director of policy, said too many meetings with the same organizations and same people would have been flagged in her office.
“And it should be a flag for the Liberals, too,” said Ms. Curran, because sometimes it hints at relationship building for personal, rather than professional, reasons, noting that was the case with some Conservative staffers.
Mr. MacEachern and Mr. Duffy, both Liberal insiders, rejected Ms. Curran’s concerns, pointing to a five-year lobbying ban for those working in ministers’ offices as a strong safeguard. A spokesperson in Mr. Bélanger’s office said “meetings are held on a professional basis only,” and follow the ethics commissioner’s conflict of interest rules.
As a policy adviser receiving dozens of requests from different organizations, Ms. Curran said it’s better to spread meetings out and that a couple of interactions should be enough to understand the organization’s asks or advice.
If the same larger companies or groups gain access to government, “that is going to feed the perception that their size and their relative power is buying influence, which is a matter of optics you need to be careful to avoid.”
Mr. McFarlane is not your typical director of policy, with an “incredibly eclectic background” that included a stint as a chef. Because he gets so engaged, meetings with him, said Mr. Duffy, can feel “like he’s whipping up some amazing dessert.”
“There’s a lot of panache to the way he communicates. He gets across very clearly what’s going on and where you might fit in.”
Mr. McFarlane has been in the role since February 2016, hired by first-time cabinet minister Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) four months after the Liberals took their majority in the House. Prior to that, he worked two years as a project manager at Investissement Québec where his LinkedIn says he worked at “Identifying, framing and financing investment projects.”
Mr. Bains’s office said Mr. McFarlane was not available for an interview and that the minister leads a diverse department covering many sectors.
“It is important that [Mr. Bains’s] staff and himself meet with these stakeholders to better understand their particular situations and the unique challenges that they face,” said spokesperson Karl Sasseville by email.
As Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s NAFTA lead, Mr. Foucher’s numbers reflect a number of factors, observers say, including staff changes that have led to a smaller team.
Job shakeups within Mr. Morneau’s office this year include policy director Hersi Hujaleh’s move to Employment Minister Patty Hajdu’s (Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont.) office. Soon, director of policy Robert Asselin will be moving to the private sector, the finance minister’s spokesperson Daniel Lauzon confirmed, and Justin To, the PMO’s deputy director of policy will take the lead in that spot following a transition of several weeks.
The finance file also features many high-profile issues touching on the budget and the government’s tax policy changes, boosting Mr. Foucher’s popularity.
Mr. Foucher joined Mr. Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) as a senior policy adviser in December 2015, before being named deputy policy director in July, according to LinkedIn. He came to government after three years as a senior analyst at the Bank of Canada and studies in international finance policy.
He’s regarded as thoughtful, accessible, affable, said Mr. Moen.
“He really challenges the stakeholders and certainly our clients to justify their position. Where the arguments fall short, he’s not afraid to say,” said Mr. Moen, adding he appreciates that tough honesty because it offers a clear picture of what’s possible.
Mr. Foucher told The Hill Times he did not want to comment for this story, as others in government play more prominent roles. The finance minister’s spokesperson, Mr. Lauzon, said the office takes pride in having an open-door policy, both with individual meetings and wider pre-budget consultations.
“There’s a much broader approach that leads people to be part of the budget process and be a part of finance that isn’t always obvious. We try to give people as many access points as we can to that decision-making process and the decision makers themselves,” Mr. Lauzon said.
Detail-oriented, rigorous, and well informed are a few of the ways former urban planner Mr. Bélanger is described by those who have worked with him.
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) hired him as director of policy in September 2016. Mr. Bélanger joined the Liberal government in December 2015 as chief of staff to former immigration minister John McCallum.
That wasn’t his first foray in the political realm. Back in 2013 he ran for Montreal city council as part of Vrai Changement, a team that included current Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) who was running for mayor. Mr. Sohi’s office said Mr. Bélanger was not available for an interview.
That urban planning background shapes conversations, said Mr. Duffy, because it requires a mind that can fit the square peg of complex and less-tangible factors inside the round hole of a clearly defined framework.
“You can see Bélanger doing that before your eyes when you’re in a meeting with him. He is fitting what you’re talking about into a framework and it’s exciting to be around,” he said, adding it’s watching “a good mind at work.”
The Hill Times
Busiest groups, by staff communication
- Home Capital Group Inc., Ian Foucher, 16
- The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Mathieu Bélanger, 14
- Canadian Credit Union Association, Ian Foucher, 12
- Telus Corporation, David McFarlane, 9
- Shaw Communications, David McFarlane, 9
- Enerkem Inc., David McFarlane, 8
- Canada Green Building Council, Mathieu Bélanger, 8
- Royal Bank of Canada, Ian Foucher, 7
- Rogers Communications Inc., David McFarlane, 6
- BMO Financial Group, Ian Foucher, 5
- Manulife Financial Corporation, Ian Foucher, 5
- Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, Ian Foucher, 5
- TMX Group Limited, Ian Foucher, 5
- Xplornet Communications Inc., David McFarlane, 5
- Microsoft Canada Inc., David McFarlane, 4
- Rio Tinto Canada Management Inc., David McFarlane, 4
- Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., David McFarlane, 4
- General Motors of Canada Company, David McFarlane, 4
- Bombardier Inc., David McFarlane, 4
- Canadian Bankers Association, Ian Foucher, 4
- Aimia Inc., Ian Foucher, 4
- Fédération des caisses Desjardins du Québec, Ian Foucher, 4
- MasterCard Canada, ULC., Ian Foucher, 4
- Canadian Urban Transit Association, Mathieu Bélanger, 4
- Canadian Electricity Association, Mathieu Bélanger, 4
- David Suzuki Foundation, Mathieu Bélanger, 4
Source: Federal lobbysists’ registry export from Jan. 1, 2017 to Oct. 17, 2017. Multiple reports for the same organization filed on the same day were not counted.