Who's cheque-ing who?

Critics say the Lobbyist Act has no teeth

Alberta Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson's 2012 annual report, released November 19, has nothing but enthusiasm for the work of his office and the success of the two laws that control it, the Conflicts of Interest Act and Lobbyists Act.

"It continues to be an unqualified success in achieving the public policy expectations set out in the Lobbyists Act," Wilkinson writes. Lobbyist Act registrar Bradley Odsen concurs in the report, "2011/12 has been a year of considerable accomplishment, particularly relating to enhancing the profile of the office and the registry."

However, recent concerns raised by the media and in the legislature by members of all three opposition parties suggest that "success" does need to be qualified. Most notably, questions about a $430,000 campaign donation to the Progressive Conservative Party from Daryl Katz, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers and president of the Katz Group, and his own campaign to secure provincial funding for an area expansion, have plagued the government in recent weeks.

Though Katz himself is not a registered lobbyist, opposition parties argue his political donations, combined with "chats" he is known to have had with Premier Alison Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner at social events, clearly amount to lobbying.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman and NDP MLA Rachel Notley were both members of the committee charged with reviewing the Lobbyist Act in 2011. The committee on the whole decided the only change it would make to the act was to include "prep time" in the 100 hours of lobbying work a person must do to legally be considered a lobbyist. Blakeman and Notley filed a minority report calling for an additional six changes in order to close loopholes they feared would inevitably lead to ethical abuses by those seeking to influence government decisions.

Those suggestions include empowering the lobbyist registrar to force a government official to report contact with a lobbyist, reducing the 100-hour threshold to 50 hours, removing the ability of a lobbyist to lobby a government department at the same time as they or their company is contracted to work in that department, and allowing the registrar to respond publicly to a complainant. Those recommendations were all rejected by the committee, a majority of which was made up of Conservative MLAs.

"I really knew my stuff in that committee, and everyone else admitted it," says Blakeman. "Nonetheless when they [presented the recommendations to] their caucus, they would come marching back in lockstep and vote 'no' to stuff the day before they'd agreed actually I had a really good point on."

"In terms of the Lobbyists Act itself, I mean that's one part of a very large puzzle, all of which comes together to make the most secretive government in the country," says Notley.

Notley describes meetings in 2011 with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers as an example of the ways lobbying escapes detection.

"We became aware that CAPP and the government were working together on coming up with a communications strategy around fracking to convince people that it was all safe and everything. We were told that we didn't actually need to have that kind of thing reported because they were invited there by the government," she says. Not having to register as a lobbyist or report a meeting with corporate representatives when the meeting is arranged by a cabinet member is "a huge, huge exemption," Notley says.

The Lobbyist Registry currently contains 279 registrations. The top four subjects lobbyists seek to influence the government on are the environment, with 144 lobbyists; energy, with 142; finance, with 124; and health, with 115. Social programs appear to be of the least concern, with only 18 lobbyists registered to press that subject.

Odsen has no support staff to help him review the registry applications sent in by lobbyists. The law does not ask Odsen or anybody else to regulate the information he receives from lobbyists; rather it is up to registrants to ensure what they give him is accurate.

"When an application to register comes in, I try to [ensure to] the best of my ability that it's the proper person that's applying to register as a lobbyist and is providing the correct information in that regard.... I don't follow up on each one to see whether or not it's happening. They certify that's what's happening," he says.

He also says lobbyists understand and support the registry a great deal.

"They have no objections whatsoever to this, they support it because I think in large part an awful lot of the negativity surrounding the notion of lobbying in the public mind is that it's this stuff that goes on behind closed doors.... Professional lobbyists are proud of what they do, they provide an important service," Odsen says.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan is a registered lobbyist who says he has quite a few objections to the registry.

"It's better to have a lobbyist registry than not, but here in Alberta it's a pretty toothless tiger. In fact it's verging on useless because it gives you the name of an individual, the name of the organization that they're representing, and then some really vague information about the subjects that they're lobbying on," McGowan says. "After working with the lobbyist registry for the last year or two, it seems to me that the registry is more about giving the appearance of transparency and accountability than actually guaranteeing transparency and accountability."

He says that based on his experiences, and recent allegations about the ethical misconduct of various government officials, he believes the government deliberately shelters its supporters and punishes its detractors.

"For example, our federation had its wrists slapped by the lobbyists registry, not for breaching the act, but for raising concerns about the act. And I got a very stern talking to. In fact, I was told that I had to come and meet with the registrar and receive a lecture about proper decorum when dealing with the registry," he says, referring to an incident in 2011 when the AFL accused CAPP representatives of failing to register as lobbyists when discussing a joint communications plan around fracking. The same meetings also highlighted by Notley. The ensuing investigation by the ethics commissioner ruled that CAPP was not lobbying the government and, therefore, the act did not apply. It went on to say that the CAPP representatives did not work for CAPP and that the government instigated the conversation, again negating the requirements of the Lobbyists Act.

The Lobbyists Act is not up for review again until 2015. Notley says the government can change it of its own volition, otherwise nothing will happen. She and Blakeman are on the committee currently reviewing the Conflict of Interest Act, the second law which governs the ethics commissioner. Both are skeptical about the review making changes in the genuine interest of transparency and accountability.

Fast Forward Weekly News, November 29, 2012 
Byline: Suzy Thompson

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