Lobbyists and stakeholders await the final version of an updated Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, following much discussion in the House with some witnesses arguing that proposed changes go too far, while others contend they don’t go far enough. “Even as a key stakeholder, I don't think we were anticipating to do as many meetings on it or have as many witnesses as they did. Ultimately, though, I think it was very beneficial,” said Megan Buttle, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada. “It was a larger bite, but I think it was a necessary step, that the committee heard from key stakeholders that are impacted by this code.” The House Ethics Committee held three meetings between Feb. 3-17 to study proposed updates to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, which were released on Nov. 25, 2022, by federal Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger. The current code was last updated in 2015. On March 20, House Ethics Committee members sent a letter to Bélanger, outlining concerns and recommendations for improvements to the rules about gifts, hospitality and political work, based on testimony from witnesses and written submissions received by the committee. The committee’s recommendations are not binding, but the members' letter asked that Bélanger “carefully consider them” before publishing the final version in the Canada Gazette. Included among the proposed changes is a reduction in the length of the “cooling off” period prohibiting lobbyists from engaging specific designated public office holders after participating in political activity. The current code prevents a lobbyist who took part in political activity from lobbying the designated public office holder, or their staff, who benefited from that participation for a specified period. A separate guidance document suggests that the moratorium for “higher-risk” political activities (such as serving as a campaign chair on a campaign team) should be equivalent to a full election cycle, which is usually four years. The proposed change is for the cooling-off period be reduced to 12 or 24 months — depending on the significance of the work, and the level of interaction between the lobbyist and the designated public office holder — and that this would apply to both paid and unpaid political work. Buttle, who is also the principal who leads the digital strategy practice at Earnscliffe Strategies, appeared before the committee on Feb. 14 and argued that unpaid volunteers who work on political campaigns should not be subject to a restriction on lobbying. In an interview with The Hill Times on April 27, she called it an overstep to impose a cooling-off period on individuals who were not involved in political campaigns in strategic or senior roles. She raised concern that lobbyists could be discouraged from participating in election campaigns, even in low-level positions, if they are concerned about facing a restriction on their ability to lobby later on. Megan Buttle, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, says 'if there is ambiguity in understanding and interpreting they will not engage in elections.' Photograph courtesy of Megan Buttle “At the end of the day, lobbyists, if there is ambiguity, they will not do it. If there is ambiguity in understanding and interpreting … what is in the code, they will not engage in elections, because there's so much,” said Buttle. “They are so aware of the transparency that needs to come with their job, and that the fear of losing their job or being severely impacted is too much for them to even consider being part of the democratic process.” In contrast, Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, argued in a March 21 press release that the proposal for a shorter cooling off period would “gut key ethical lobbying rules,” by allowing lobbyists to immediately engage with candidates who they’ve helped get elected, so long as their campaign involvement wasn’t sufficiently extensive. Democracy Watch sent a letter to the ethics committee on April 6, co-signed by 27 academics and 15 lawyers, calling on the committee members to reject the proposed changes. Liberal MP Iqra Khalid (Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont.), a vice-chair of the House Ethics Committee, told The Hill Times in an emailed statement on April 27 that the members of the committee remain committed to ensuring that the lobbying of federal office holders is conducted with the highest standards of integrity and transparency. Liberal MP Iqra Khalid says 'the members of the ethics committee remain committed to ensuring that the lobbying of federal office holders is conducted with the highest standards of integrity and transparency.' The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade “The previous rule regarding a ‘cooling-off period’ was not specific and created some measure of confusion for registrants. The new rules provide clarity and a balanced approach to the cooling-off period by balancing the importance of free and open access to government and the need for Canadians to be able to recognize who is lobbying the government. The committee’s recommendations to the commissioner intend to provide additional clarity on these new rules to ensure compliance,” said Khalid in the email. “I respect the testimony of witnesses in opposition to the new rules. I believe these new rules will ensure that respect for Canadians' rights and respect for political expression continues while maintaining the world-class lobbying rules currently in place. Participation in the democratic process by everyday Canadians is essential and is the lifeblood of every successful political campaign. It would be a shame to see individuals' participation dulled by unclear rules.” Democracy Watch calls for release of cases involving possible lobby rule violations In a press release on April 13, Democracy Watch called on Bélanger to release her rulings on five cases, which she referred to the RCMP since she began as lobbying commissioner, and which were in turn referred back to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying (OCL). The commissioner testified in November 2020 before the House Ethics Committee that she had referred 11 cases to the RCMP between January 2018 to fall 2020. On Feb. 3, 2023, Bélanger updated the committee, and said that of those 11 cases, one charge had been laid, and five of the files were returned to her. Conacher told The Hill Times that Bélanger’s office has had “a ridiculous amount of time” to release a ruling on the five cases that have returned to her office, considering how long it has been since their initial referral to the RCMP, and that he wants to know what potential rule violations are being investigated. Conacher said that Bélanger’s proposed changes to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct would weaken the rules, and so it would be “a bad look” if the OCL were to issue rulings for violations of those same regulations. “It is possible that the violations were of the code rules that she's gutting. It would obviously be embarrassing for her to issue rulings right now finding people guilty of violating rules that she's proposing to gut,” said Conacher. “It would lead to a lot more media coverage and attention and questions about why are you taking these kinds of things that are currently violations and changing the rules so that lobbyists would be allowed to do them in the future?” Kelley Love, a spokesperson for the OCL, said in an email to The Hill Times on April 26 that investigations must be conducted in private and the Lobbying Act only allows for information to be made public in limited circumstances. “In terms of general process, if the commissioner has reason to believe that an offence has been committed under the Lobbying Act, she must suspend her investigation and transfer the file to a peace officer. The RCMP then conducts its own investigation,” said Love in the email. “In instances where the referral does not result in a charge or conviction, the commissioner may decide to cease the investigation or continue to investigate either under the act or with respect to a related allegation under the code. It is only at the conclusion of an investigation that the commissioner must table a report on the investigation in Parliament.” The RCMP confirmed in an email to The Hill Times on April 26 that the case referred to them resulted in a charge laid in Ontario provincial court in Ottawa against 57-year-old Andrew David Burns of Toronto, for failing to file a return with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, as required by Section 5(1) of the Lobbying Act, in connection with communication he allegedly had with a public office holder for payment, thereby committing an offence contrary to Sec. 14(1). “This stems from a complaint received by the RCMP from the Commissioner of Lobbying in December 2018, regarding alleged communication between the accused and public office holders in relation to Bill S-203,” said Corporal Kim Chamberland, a RCMP spokesperson in the email. “The RCMP is not in a position to provide further information as this matter is currently before the courts.” Jcnockaert@hilltimes.com Proposed changes to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct The current version of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct was last amended on Dec. 1, 2015. The third edition of the Code was referred to the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Nov. 15, 2022 by Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger, in accordance with section 10.2 (3) of the Lobbying Act. Below are some of the significant changes in the proposed update. Gifts and hospitality rule changes The 2015 rule on gifts prevents a lobbyist from providing or promising a gift, favour, or other benefit to a public office holder whom they are lobbying or will lobby, which the public office holder is not allowed to accept. The new gift rule prevents a lobbyist from directly or indirectly offering any gift to an official that they lobby or expect to lobby, with the exception of a low value gift as a token of appreciation, or promotional item. The low-value limit is $40 in 2023 dollars. The annual limit for all allowed gifts is $80 in 2023 dollars. The 2015 edition’s gift rule does not use the word “hospitality,” but related guidance issued by Bélanger has instructed lobbyists to apply the 2015 gift rule to hospitality. A specific hospitality rule has been created for the third edition to provide greater clarity for lobbyists, with hospitality defined as food or beverage offered for consumption during an in-person meeting, lobby day, event or reception. Similarly to the gifts rule, the new hospitality rule prevents a lobbyist from directly or indirectly offering any hospitality to an official that they lobby or expect to lobby, with the exception of a low value food or beverages. The low-value limit for hospitality is $40 in 2023 dollars, and the annual limit is $80 in 2023 dollars. 'Cooling off period' changes The 2015 edition prevents a lobbyist who took part in political activity from lobbying the designated public office holder, or their staff, who benefited from that participation for a specified period. The current rule also states this lobbying ban only applies to the lobbyist if their political activity could reasonably be seen to create a sense of obligation. The “specified period” is not defined in the code, but a separate guidance document suggests that the moratorium for higher-risk political activities should be equivalent to a full election cycle, which is usually four years. The third edition proposes a 24-month cooling off period for political activities that are "strategic, high-profile or important political work for a candidate, official or political party,” (such as serving as a campaign manager). A shorter 12-month cooling off period has also been proposed for lower-profile political work (such as canvassing or soliciting donations), either involving frequent and/or extensive interaction with a candidate or official, or performed on a full-time or near-full-time basis for a candidate, official or political party. Objectives Earlier editions of the Code did not include an “objectives” section within the Code itself. The third edition states its objective is to foster transparent and ethical lobbying of federal officials. Application Previous editions of the code have not identified who must comply with it. The third edition states that an individual must comply with the code if the Lobbying Act requires them to do so. Expectations Previous editions of the code contained “principles” intended to guide lobbyists in complying with the code’s rules. Those principles included respect for democratic institutions, professionalism (meaning that a lobbyist should conform with the letter and the spirit of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, as well as with all relevant laws, including the Lobbying Act and its regulations) and integrity and honesty. The third edition instead sets out “expectations” that are intended to guide lobbyists in complying with the code’s rules of conduct. The principle of professionalism and the principle of integrity and honesty from the previous edition are combined into a single expectation of integrity, honesty and professionalism. That expectation states it is essential that lobbyists uphold the letter and spirit of the Lobbying Act, its regulations and the code.