Harmonized lobbying rules may soon stretch across Canada’s two western-most provinces as British Columbia seeks to amend its long-embattled measures intended to shed light on those attempting to curry government favour.
Amendments to B.C.’s law create penalty and investigation guidelines for those who lobby government without first being registered to do so.
Additionally, the new rules would prevent those who have contracts with government from working as lobbyists of government.
Lobbyist registries in both Alberta and B.C. are open to the public and easily searchable.
“This bill amends the Lobbyists Registration Act,” B.C. Attorney General Mike de Jong told the legislature on introducing it for second reading on Oct. 29.
“It, in fact, introduces amendments that, in my view, significantly update and strengthen the lobbyist regime in British Columbia and in many ways bring it into alignment with legislation enacted by our neighbours in Alberta.”
Lobbyists work on behalf of groups or individuals to try to influence government policy or programs. Both B.C. and Alberta require in-house and outside-contracted lobbyists to register if they meet certain criteria including, in some cases, hours of work spent on a project.
Alberta does not require lobbyists of non-profit organizations to register.
The registry was first created in B.C. to shed light on those who seek to influence public office holders. In the second reading of the proposed amendments, de Jong pointed out that lobbying is not a criminal act but a valuable part of the democratic process.
“The notion of lobbying and the term ‘to lobby’ isn’t and shouldn’t be considered a dirty word,” he told the legislature.
“The notion of people bringing their views to elected officials and trying to impress upon those elected officials a particular point of view — in fact, trying to influence them as they go about making decisions — is a valid and fundamentally important part of the democratic process.”
The B.C. registry was one of the first in Canada and largely patterned on the federal and Ontario registries. However, B.C.’s has been under political and media scrutiny since 2005 when concerns were raised that the enabling legislation had no teeth.
The act was also absent of a provision preventing lobbyists from serving two masters: the provincial government and an outside firm or corporation.
This was brought to light when Ken Dobell, the former deputy minister to the premier, was granted an absolute discharge after pleading guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist. Dobell had been a special adviser to Premier Gordon Campbell while at the same time lobbying the province on behalf of the City of Vancouver.
In 2008, B.C. lobbyist registrar David Loukidelis said he would no longer investigate complaints about potentially illegal lobbying until there were legislative changes giving him proper powers to do so. This announcement followed a letter written on behalf of former B.C. Liberal election co-chairman Patrick Kinsella refusing to co-operate with the registrar.
Loukidelis had asked Kinsella to provide information about his interactions with the provincial government. Kinsella refused through a letter from his lawyer — since been reprinted by several media outlets — saying the “the registrar of lobbyists has no legislative or other power to accept complaints or to conduct any investigation or reporting on the activities of individuals alleged to have contravened the act.”
B.C.’s amended act will give the registrar the power to conduct investigations, compel testimony, and document production. The results of these investigations must then be reported to the legislative assembly.
Under the amended act those violating the lobbyist registry could be fined up to $25,000 for a first offence and between $25,000 and $100,000 for subsequent offences. Those convicted under the act can be prevented from lobbying for a period of up to two years. The fine provisions are also consistent with the Alberta registry.
Bradley Odsen, Alberta lobbyist registrar and general counsel for the province’s ethics commissioner, says his province’s act was not born out of controversy. The act does contain provisions originally absent from the B.C. law.
Since the act came into force, Odsen has spent time speaking to media and various business organizations, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, in an attempt to explain the registry. He says his counterparts in Ontario have told him they have not had to use the penalty provisions under their act or conduct an investigation.
“I am hopeful it is going to be the same kind of situation here,” says Odsen. “I perceive my role as not being a policeman, but as being a facilitator, helping people to understand the act and the requirements under the act as it applies to them, and helping them comply with the act.”
Lobbyists began registering in Alberta on Sept. 28. Consultant lobbyists were to register within 30 days. As of Thursday, there were 26 individual lobbyists and 13 organizations registered on the Alberta web site.
Amendments to B.C.’s act passed second reading Oct. 29.