Dirty windows: new lobbyist reporting rules still aren’t transparent
Amid the flurry of business during the Legislative Assembly’s frenzied final week before summer vacation, there was tabled a small item by the government that mostly escaped media notice. The GNWT issued its response to the assembly’s February motion calling on the government to establish a lobbyist registry.
I’m not throwing shade at my press colleagues. We missed it too. It can be easy to overlook some of the more routine, sometimes drearily boring, elements of house business.
But it may surprise you to know that one former Parliamentary bigwig, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, was playing close attention.
Guy Giorno is out of politics now, having trod the well-worn path between Parliament Hill and private practice with blue-chip law firms. He’s now a partner with the firm Fasken Martineau, and spends a lot of his time commenting on lobbying and transparency issues affecting Canadian governments large and small.
Giorno came across our February piece about Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny’s motion requiring cabinet ministers to disclose who they’re meeting with and when. The GNWT will begin issuing quarterly reports of ministerial meetings this summer. Premier Bob McLeod has already issued a list of his external meetings dating back to January, 2014.
This transparency is pretty opaque
But the new reporting measures offer sparse details: McLeod’s list includes only meeting dates, the outside party ministers met with and which ministers were present. At last check, it was still unclear whether minutes of individual meetings would be made available, either upon request or via the access-to-information process.
And there are several other reasons Giorno thinks the new regime doesn’t go far enough. Sure, he concedes, “more transparency is better than no transparency,” but he says the NWT’s new rules don’t go as far as they ought to. For starters, the NWT’s system is a reporting requirement, not actually a lobbyist registry. Giorno breaks his objections down into five specific points:
- The new rules only apply to ministers: “Typically a lobbyist registry will cover lobbying of everybody in government,” from cabinet and MLAs to deputy ministers and nearly everyone else in the civil service, as well as government agencies and MLA staffers, Giorno says.
- The new rules only cover meetings: “Obviously a lot of lobbying happens with meetings, but a lobbyist registry covers all forms of communications: phone calls, emails, text messages, letters.”
- It’s hard to track who benefits from the meeting: Lobbyist registries require disclosure of companies a person is lobbying for, including numbered companies—which have to report who runs the company and where they’re located—and parent companies. Registries also require disclosure of whether a lobbyist used to work for the government and if companies receive public money. “There’s all sort of additional information that’s required in registries that’s not present here,” Giorno says.
- The NWT’s system puts all the onus of reporting on cabinet, and none at all on lobbyists. “Registries place the burden on lobbyists and their employers to be transparent, to come forward and disclose what they’re doing.”
- Who enforces the new rules? What if a minister leaves something out? Or refuses to file a quarterly report? Typically (though not always), Giorno says, registries are maintained by an independent officer of the assembly (called statutory officers in the NWT). “This system is determined by the government,” he says. “The ministers will decide what meetings they will report.” There appear to be no formal consequences for ministers who flout the system here.
So the new system, while a start, has plenty of potential loopholes. As I wrote in February, there’s no evidence so far that NWT ministers are engaged in any graft or sleaze. But again, that’s not the point. Transparency can help prevent that kind of behaviour from taking root in the first place. And, of course, the assembly and the public government are our institutions. The minutiae of government business belongs to us and should be available on demand. (I’m kind of a hardliner on this: if I had my way, there’d be no such thing as cabinet confidentiality.)
Small does not mean innocent
There also remains a lingering sense among some of our leaders that the North is too small for the kind of greasy lobbying crap that happens in cut-throat seats of power like Ottawa or Washington. We are small, and, the thinking goes, therefore innocent. Recall McLeod’s objection that Dolynny’s motion was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Or Yukon premier Darrell Pasloski’s recent suggestion that his territory doesn’t need a lobbyist registry because people can run into MLAs “at the grocery store.”
But that is a weak attempt at a dodge. Look at it this way: next time you run into Bob McLeod at a grocery store, ask him about his February 13, 2014 meeting with representatives from ConocoPhillips (this is a real meeting from the list he disclosed). Ask him what the oil giants wanted to talk about, who they sent to meet with him, how long the meeting lasted, what Michael Miltenberger and Dave Ramsay (who were also present) had to say.
I doubt he could tell you much. And that’s not a knock on the premier. Off the top of my head, I have no idea what I was doing that day. You probably don’t either.
Giorno suspects that we will soon consider lobbyist registries much like access-to-information laws: a basic component of transparent civil government (the current shortcomings of those regimes, most notably at the Conservative government, are a matter for another day). Nine of 10 provinces, with the exception of PEI, have passed lobbyist registry laws, Giorno says. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan—the last two provinces to do so—are setting up their systems now.
“I personally don’t buy the argument that places are too small to be transparent,” he says. “The people of the NWT have to decide for themselves: Are you so small that everybody knows who’s lobbying whom?”
Even with the GNWT’s baby steps toward transparency, the answer to that question remains painfully clear: not really.