Going Dutch: Sudden Lobbying Changes Ruffle Hyper-Social Ottawa

New guidelines could be at odds with Liberal's desire for MPs, bureaucrats to engage more
February 3, 2016 Updated: February 3, 2016

OTTAWA—A change in government brings with it a wave of invitations—companies, associations, and not-for-profits all want to get to know the new guard and figure out where they stand on key issues.

But how they meet the players in 2016 is still being shaped by the zeitgeist of 2006. A shift in attitude toward lobbying that the Conservatives introduced under the Federal Accountability Act continues to tighten the parameters around those interactions a decade later.

Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd last month startled the government relations world—and organizers of some charitable events—when she posted new guidance on the section of the lobbyists’ code of conduct that deals with gifts.

The main message was to go Dutch, whether it’s attending a fundraising gala or having lunch.

“If a lobbyist is actively lobbying or will lobby a public office holder, gifts, including meals and tickets to events, … are most likely unacceptable,” Shepherd wrote in the guidance.

“Lobbyists are cautioned against providing public office holders whom they are lobbying or will lobby with tickets to charitable or other events, when these tickets are at a reduced cost or no cost.”

Shepherd went on to say that if an organization wants to host a reception for parliamentarians, all of them have to be invited, the cost of the food and drink has to be “reasonable,” and there can’t be any whiff of lobbying at the event—including written materials.

In a city where industry receptions on Parliament Hill, working lunches, and sponsored tables at big charity events are part of the biosphere, the directives ruffled feathers. There were concerns that sponsors would start pulling out of fundraisers to avoid headaches.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada, which puts on Politics and the Pen—one of the premiere events in Ottawa—consulted both Shepherd and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics commissioner to ensure they wouldn’t have any problems.

Writers’ Trust executive director Mary Osborne says the organization fielded many questions from sponsors. The event ultimately received the blessing of the two officers of Parliament because the corporate sponsors don’t directly invite politicians to sit at their tables, the charity does.

We think it’s pretty insulting to the parliamentary process and to the parliamentarians themselves.
— Andre Albinati, Government Relations Institute of Canada

Lobbyists argue that parliamentarians and their staff don’t just learn about policy issues sitting at their desks at formal meetings, but also inform themselves by attending social events, speeches, and conferences—some of them put on by corporations or associations.

“From a public policy perspective, I have a problem with a viewpoint that states that a parliamentarian or staffer can be bought for the price of a coffee or meal for that matter,” said Andre Albinati, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada.

“We think it’s pretty insulting to the parliamentary process and to the parliamentarians themselves.”

Albinati says the new guidance might also be at odds with the new Liberal government’s desire for MPs and bureaucrats to engage more, and to communicate.

“I don’t know if this gets in the way of the objectives of a government that says ‘we actually want more consultation, we want more engagement of all stakeholders.'”

Shepherd says her recent renewal of the lobbyists’ code of conduct, after extensive consultations, brings it in line with what the public expects.

The code requires lobbyists to ask themselves whether a reasonable person sees a ticket or meal as an attempt to buy influence.

“It is a cultural change, but it is reflective of the increasing demand that Canadians are having of their public servants, including parliamentarians and public office holders,” said Shepherd.

“Those lobbying them are being subject also to high ethical standards. The world has changed that way.”

From The Canadian Press