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To Lobby or Not to Lobby | Alberta Panel Discusses Reasons For and Against Business Lobbying

Apr 1, 2010

Question: Should lobbying be part of your tool kit?

by Fil Fraser

The Case: At one time, businesses could expect to succeed by offering reliable products and honest service. “Build a better mousetrap,” and all that. But in an era where everything from cars to couriers to cough syrup are regulated, and where government subsidies and legislative agendas are often part of the environment, businesses are faced with challenges beyond doing a good job. In addition to advertising and public relations, they may need to lobby as well.

But, as we’re learning from the Americans (who spend billions doing it), business lobbying not only helps maintain a level playing field, but can tip the scales – sometimes unfairly and perhaps illegally – either in your favour or that of your competitor. As a matter of course and at the same time, not-for-profit and volunteer organizations lobby government on behalf of their own causes as well.

The Panel
Ron Ghitter: a lawyer and businessman, and a former senator and one-time Alberta MLA
Karen Lynch: the executive director of Volunteer Alberta, an organization that advocates in favour of not-for-profit and charitable organizations
Ken Chapman: a lawyer, political analyst, blogger, principal of Cambridge Strategies Inc. and a registered lobbyist

Ron Ghitter: It’s always fair for a corporation, philanthropic or otherwise, to have the opportunity to express its point of view to the decision-makers to explain their particular benefits and needs. And it’s good from the politicians’ point of view to have the opportunity to hear from these people.

And that is all OK. The difficulty you get into is when big money enters into the equation and the public perception is that they’re buying their way into government contracts or government legislation. It’s a matter of walking the tightrope as to when lobbying gets too far over the line and is against the public interest.

Karen Lynch: No one thinks that we want a Canadian situation to mirror what they have in America, where simply huge amounts of money are spent both on direct lobbying and also indirectly supporting political campaigns. I don’t think anyone wants to see that here.

But with the number of issues that legislators have to know about, it’s almost impossible to get their attention on anything unless you go and speak with them.

Ken Chapman: Lobbying is not a bad thing. It got a bad name because of the American experience, but in the Canadian experience I think it contributes a lot to good democracy. What people mistakenly think, in the Alberta context, is that a lobbyist gives you better access. That’s not my experience. The Alberta government and all Alberta political parties are very open, easy to get in touch with and are eager to speak with citizens.

Ghitter: Most of the major oil and gas companies – in fact all of them in Calgary – have departments that deal with what they call “government relations.” The people who are hired there are generally those who have worked in government. They may have worked in ministers’ offices and end up in the private sector where they are well paid to lobby the government. Sometimes that can go too far. Sometimes favouritism enters into it and the public perception is that these corporations have bought their way into programs, even though they may not be the best or even programs that are necessary.

Lynch: In the old days, going to speak with politicians was what good citizens – people who were involved – did. But in the last 10 years, it has developed into a bit of an art form. There are now people who, under the guise of government relations, lobby all the time because they feel that the legislators are not aware of the issues and the implications of either policy or funding decisions if they don’t have that kind of knowledge.

People often think that lobbying is directly about money, but it’s also about public policy, and public policy doesn’t always translate into money. For the non-profit sector, it’s an understanding that everything that non-profits do is exactly in the same constituency as the government. What government tries to do is create quality-
of-life opportunities, and for non-profit organizations that’s exactly what we do, too.

Chapman: Former ministers and senior bureaucrats who lobby do have an edge.

There are cooling-off periods to make sure that there’s some integrity to the process. But by the same token, people who have had direct experience by sitting in caucus meetings know how legislative sausages are actually made. Those of us who’ve never sat in on those meetings don’t have that advantage. The contrarian position is that people who have been on the inside have a relatively ideological basis and can sometimes be very narrow in their perspective and have trouble accommodating or accepting other points of view.

Ghitter: I’m very much in favour of registering lobbyists, and ensuring that those who have worked in government, either elected or otherwise, shall not be allowed to lobby for a period of time after leaving government. I’m all in favour of having public disclosure as to meetings that occur between lobbyists and government officials, be they bureaucrats or the politicians themselves, because it can go too far.

If you look at the example of the United States, it’s really made their government – in my view – dysfunctional. The lobbyists in Washington – and they’re everywhere – have huge amounts of money at their disposal and, to a degree, end up owning the politicians.

April’s Right Call Audio Collection, now.

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