MP asks House ethics committee to put ‘unnecessarily rushed’ lobbying rule changes on hold

MPs recently moved to delay proposed changes to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct that include reduced cooling-off periods for lobbyists doing political work and more stringent rules for gift-giving.

“I felt that the process was unnecessarily rushed by the commissioner... the two weeks’ notice that we were given in the kind of dying weeks of the calendar year were insufficient, in my opinion, to give this legislation the seriousness that it deserves,” said NDP MP Matthew Green, a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

On Nov. 30, Green asked the House ethics committee to invite lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger to appear before the committee to discuss the proposed changes. His motion also requested the process to update the code be paused until her appearance.

Anyone paid to lobby the federal government is required to join the federal lobbying registry and follow the code of conduct. The proposed changes are intended to clarify the rules for the benefit of both lobbyists and the department, Bélanger told Canada’s National Observer in May.

Lobbyists and advocacy groups alike have qualms with her updates, albeit for different reasons. Some lobby groups are concerned the cooling-off period will interfere with individuals’ rights to participate in the democratic process and say stricter limits on gift-giving will make it difficult to host events. For gifts, the commissioner proposed a low-value limit of $40 and annual limit for all allowed gifts is $80.

The cooling-off period for certain political work is currently a full election cycle, and the commissioner’s changes would change it to one and two years for less and more involved political work, respectively.

For the one-year category, the political work must be “performed on a full-time or near-full-time basis for a candidate, official or political party” to invoke the cooling-off period. This creates a dangerous loophole that allows lobbyists to do work that takes little time but still has a notable impact on a politician’s campaign, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit, non-partisan organization advocating for democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility. Democracy Watch argues less significant political activity requires a five-year minimum cooling-off period, and more significant involvement warrants 10 years.

Green said he believes the revised cooling-off periods “to be a bit of a weakening of the code.”

There have been scandals in recent years and investigations into the relationship and revolving door between government and lobbyists, like We Charity, he pointed out.

“I believe that we have a responsibility — in the most non-partisan way — we have a duty as parliamentarians to provide full and complete consultation when it comes to strengthening up everything related to codes of conduct, conflict of interest and lobbying to demonstrate to Canadians that we're doing everything we can to reduce the likelihood of there being undue influence by some people over government and over politicians,” said Green.

The commissioner’s initial timeline anticipated the code coming into force in January.

“There have been public concerns and concerns brought to the attention of committee members over the past week with the proposed update that require further scrutiny by the committee and that is why we have asked that it be paused,” Conservative MP John Brassard, chair of the ethics committee, told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement.

The committee likely won’t get to its review of the code until committee meetings resume after the Christmas break in late January. Bélanger has yet to receive an invitation to appear before the House ethics committee, according to an emailed statement staffer Manon Dion sent to Canada’s National Observer on Dec. 5.

The committee will make recommendations after hearing from Bélanger, outside experts and additional public consultation. Much of the work in the House of Commons tends to be “hyper-partisan ambulance-chasing,” but the committee has a duty to create greater transparency, said Green.

While committee members will have “varying opinions” on the proposed code, “when it works well, you can't even tell who's in what party,” he added.

For Green, this is an opportunity to strengthen the code in a non-partisan way and try to deliver an international “gold standard” for political accountability and clarity.

While Bélanger is not compelled to act on the recommendations, nor does she need the committee’s approval to enact the new rules, she said she will consider any comments provided.

Ultimately, the trust of the public is at stake, said Green.

“The clearer … and the higher standards we can impose on ourselves to regulate the relationships and the activities on Parliament Hill, the more trust we're going to regain from the public.”

Ethics committee vice-chairs Iqra Khalid and René Villemure, Liberal and Bloc Québécois, respectively, did not respond to request for comment.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer