Opinion
Chris Windeyer

Let The Sunshine In: Why We Need a Lobbyist Registry

Keeping track of who's attempting to influence GNWT ministers is a basic democratic safeguard

On EDGE | Opinion

As Premier Bob McLeod is so fond of saying, the NWT has the resources the world wants.

Put aside the question of whether the world is willing to buy those resources at a price that makes extracting them economically sensible. Instead, focus on the fact that the NWT’s new regulatory responsibilities, courtesy of devolution, have created a situation where there will be increased interest, by both business and NGOs, in influencing what territorial government ministers think.

Who do you know?

This is the rationale behind the Legislative Assembly’s motion to create a lobbyist registry for the territory. Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny argues the registry is needed as a matter of basic government transparency. Meetings between lobbyists and cabinet ministers, MLAs or bureaucrats with “decision-making power” would be disclosed on a public website.

“[S]unlight is the best disinfectant, and a lobbyist registry is about as open and bright as it comes to cleansing the question of legitimacy of…House business,” Dolynny said while introducing his motion.

The motion passed easily, thanks to the fact that cabinet abstained, following its typical policy of sitting out votes that constitute advice to government from regular MLAs. Sahtu MLA Norman Yakelaya abstained for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but seem connected to his longstanding policy that Yellowknife is the worst.

More troubling is Premier Bob McLeod’s pooh-poohing of the idea. To abstain from the vote itself as a matter of course is fine, I suppose. But to suggest, as McLeod did, that Dolynny’s motion is “making a mountain out of a molehill” decidedly misses the point.

The premier said ministers have nothing to hide. There’s no reason to think that’s not true. He also said he meets with aboriginal groups and NGOs more often than paid lobbyists. Instinctively, I’d imagine that’s also true. And, he said, nobody ever asks, which stands to reason, because most people have a life.

Not me though. I’ve asked the premier’s office for records of all of his meetings for the (arbitrarily chosen) last six months. Shaun Dean, the premier’s communications director, has acknowledged the request and tells me staff are working on pulling the records together. We’ll post the results when they arrive.

Have cause, will lobby

Whatever the records show—likely nothing exciting, but who knows—at least now the premier can no longer say nobody’s asked. The motion punts the establishment of the registry to after the next election. But in the future, nobody should have to ask. They will be able to just go look for themselves. This is not a matter of mountains and molehills. It’s a basic democratic safeguard. You may have noticed that lobbyists have a habit of ending up in the news for unflattering reasons ranging from perceived conflicts of interest to astonishing levels of sleaze.

So while it’s true that meeting with the government to request change is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, citizens should be wary of those who are willing to pay a premium to have their cause advanced for them.

Many years ago I remember being on a train between between Montreal and Quebec City. We passed a billboard featuring the photo of a man in a suit, superimposed over a Canadian flag on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other. There was a phone number, the man’s name and the word en Francais: “Lobbyiste”. What was he lobbying for? Whatever you want. Who was he lobbying for? Whoever could pay.

This month, the North Carolina ethics commission ruled that it’s okay for lobbyists and politicians to have sex with each other. This is a scenario that, transposed to the NWT’s political arena, is as unlikely as it is utterly mortifying. That said, we ought to treat lobbyists like our children’s teenage crushes and insist that when they come over for a visit, the lights are always on and the door is always open.