SILAS KAUFMAN

Lobbyists and Lip Service

Who really influences government—and how they get away with it

By Jeff Gailus

Shortly after 3:00 p.m. on March 7, 2007, following what Hansard describes as “a fanfare of trumpets,” freshly minted Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach introduced the Lobbyists Act in the legislature. It was a message from the new king that the guard had changed, that “glasnost” had finally arrived in Alberta.

Two months earlier, this quiet, earnest pig farmer from Andrew had replaced Ralph Klein as the leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party, simultaneously vaulting into the premier’s throne. Klein, the jovial autocrat who built his kingdom on a combination of gormless, “aw shucks” populism and top-down despotism, had ignored calls to monitor the lobbyist army that invaded the legislature under his watch, claiming there were no lobbyists. Stelmach, by contrast, pledged to commit to the very pillars of leadership—integrity, transparency and accountability—that Klein eschewed. To affirm his intentions, he made the Lobbyists Act his first order of business.

“One of our top five priorities is governing with integrity and transparency,” Stelmach said as he introduced the Act. “This is an example of our commitment to this principle.” The Act demonstrated his commitment to openness in government, he claimed, in three ways: first, it establishes an online registry of all lobbyists who meet with government officials; second, it requires lobbyists to declare existing contracts under which they are paid to advise government; and third, it provides an online, searchable index of such government contracts.

Stelmach might have been a naive alchemist who believed that by simply saying the magic words often enough, and by providing the public with more access to information about who is trying to influence government, he could revive the public trust that his predecessor, King Ralph, had so fundamentally eroded. Or his words might have been pure rhetoric, said only for the sake of appearances. Either way, restoring government integrity simply by passing the Lobbyists Act was a tall order—and Stelmach must have known it.

Lobbying is something of a dark art. At their best, lobbyists are perceived to be fixers and rainmakers, people called in to make sure that government decisions don’t undermine the interests of their clients. At their worst, they are a nefarious bunch of swindlers making backroom deals behind closed doors, usually in an effort to line the pockets of Big Business at the expense of us citizens. 

The latter persona was reflected and reinforced in Christopher Buckley’s recent novel-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster Thank You for Smoking, in which smooth-talking tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor uses a variety of tactics to defend Big Tobacco against the charge that smoking, gulp, causes cancer. “I get paid to talk,” Naylor boasts in the film’s opening monologue. “I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names. You know that guy in high school who could pick up any girl? I’m him. On crack.”

According to political pundit, strategist and lawyer-cum-lobbyist Ken Chapman, concerns about the excessive influence of special-interest lobbying on public policy are “legitimate,” but he’s also quick to point out that lobbying has long been part of the democratic process. It’s unclear whether lobbying began in Washington or London, but the term originated from the propensity of certain individuals, anxious to influence legislation, to gather in the lobbies of legislative chambers to appeal to lawmakers on their way to debate and vote.

Alberta too has a surprisingly long history of lobbying. According to The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Canada’s gentlemen ranchers had as early as 1890 organized themselves into groups such as the Alberta Stock Growers’ Association to lobby the government about such matters as import and export policies. “Until the tide of national politics turned against them, the conservative ranching elite of Alberta boasted an impressive record of successful lobbying,” the Encyclopedia says. “Land leases, in particular well-watered range, went to large ranching companies, and tariffs favoured beef exporters. The stock raisers succeeded for about 20 years in keeping out competition from ranchers and farmers in the US.”

Today, says Chapman, lobbying is all around us. “Everyone who is trying to influence public policy or political decisions, no matter the issue, is involved in lobbying.” Alberta’s Lobbyists Act and similar legislation in other jurisdictions, however, pertains to a relatively new class of professional lobbyists—consultants who operate as “guns for hire,” or staff lobbyists at organizations with overt political agendas. The currency of lobbyists, who are often former politicians or bureaucrats, is knowledge: how the political system works and how to influence the people that citizens entrust to make decisions on their behalf. Lobbyists charge their clients hefty fees to help them understand how political decisions are made—and by whom, and why—so that they might sway those decisions in their favour. Mostly it’s about access. “Companies hire lobbyists to get their phone calls returned and get meetings,” says Chapman. “They don’t hire them very often on expertise; they hire them to get access.”

Problems arise, however, when lobbying begins to corrupt the political process by influencing policy decisions that serve special interests rather than the public good. If you’re an energy company, say, environmental regulations can cost you time and money, delaying or even preventing certain projects from moving forward. It’s best to work the right rooms and shake the right hands to ensure the regulations in question favour your industry’s interests over environmental protection.

Some critics argue that as the political process has grown more complex, lobbying has essentially replaced representative democracy as the means of influencing politicians. Local and individual needs have taken a back seat to those of special interests, and citizens’ ability to access the decision-makers who supposedly work for them has dwindled while professional lobbyists have moved in, like an invasive species, on behalf of their often corporate clients.

Stephen Harper, for instance, is constantly courted by executives from the oil and gas sector. According to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, the overseer of the federal Lobbying Act (the current version of which came into force in 2008), groups lobbying on healthcare and environmental issues rarely get a chance to meet with Harper, while the captains of Canadian industry—the oil and gas sector in particular—seem to have an open door. Major environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation (at the federal level) and the Pembina Institute (in Alberta) say they don’t even bother asking for meetings with senior politicians anymore.

The lobbyist registry reads like a who’s who of Alberta politics—all working on behalf of special interests.

Why the discrepancy? It’s the economy, stupid. 

“There’s only so much time for decision-makers to meet with people,” says Bradley Odsen, QC, registrar for Alberta’s new Lobbyists Act and general counsel for the Office of the Ethics Commissioner. “They need to step back and determine which groups’ interests are most important. The energy industry drives the economy in Alberta. What they have to say is important because it will affect all Albertans.” Compare that, Odsen says, to a bunch of little old ladies concerned about, say, kitty cats without collars, and it’s easy to see why lobbyists for industry have the most access.

A big part of Odsen’s role has been to oversee the development of the online registry that is really the heart of the Lobbyists Act. He estimates that there are between 300 and 400 lobbyists working for organizations in Alberta, plus another 175 consultant lobbyists. As of February 2, 2011, 230 of the former and 90 of the latter have signed up; and more, says Odsen, register every day. Not surprisingly—given the political and economic realities in Alberta—“environment” and “energy” top the list of the subjects that receive the most attention from the army of lobbyists serving companies in Alberta, with “health and wellness” and “finance” close behind.

Despite the fact that many lobbyists haven’t bothered to register, Odsen maintains that the response so far is a sign the lobbyist community has taken the Act and the registry seriously. How to enforce registration? Odsen says that’s the difficult part. In typical Alberta fashion, he sees his role as “encouraging” compliance rather than enforcing it. “At this point, I’m still out in the public giving presentations,” he says. “It’s a complex Act, even though it’s small. People need to determine whether they are obligated to register. I help them do that.”

Liberal leader David Swann is less sanguine about the Act’s effectiveness. He’s concerned about the low registration numbers and lack of enforcement. “After a full year in force, we’ve seen just one investigation report,” he says. “We’re aware of cases where lobbying was occurring and the lobbyist hadn’t registered at the time—this may be an issue of transition or it may be that lobbyists haven’t been complying with the Act.”

Enforcement, such as it is, relies on someone making a complaint, and that’s exactly what the Liberals did last July. MLA Hugh MacDonald requested that Odsen investigate Ian Murray & Company, a registered firm that received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts from Alberta Energy to provide advice on the Bitumen Royalty-in-Kind program. At the same time, Ian Murray & Company lobbied the same department on behalf of a number of organizations, including the Integrated Carbon Dioxide Network, which is made up of energy giants including BP, Syncrude, Suncor, Total E&P and others.

“You can’t receive money from the same department that you’re lobbying on behalf of some of the biggest energy players in the oilpatch,” MacDonald says. “Not even in Alberta is this acceptable.”

But according to Odsen’s interpretation of the Act, it is. Odsen dismissed the allegations because it is indeed legal for Ian Murray & Company to receive government contracts to provide advice on one matter and then lobby the same department on other matters as long as they declare their intentions to do so, which they did. Case closed.

The whole point of the registry is to make lobbying transparent—which is only possible if Albertans use it.

Odsen says it’s difficult to figure out whether the Act has been a success. Yes, only about half of the estimated number of lobbyists in Alberta have signed up, but many of them may not be actively lobbying right now. Or maybe they are and they don’t want anyone to know about it. It’s difficult to say. Besides, Odsen says, the main measure of success “is not necessarily that [lobbyists] register, but whether Albertans make use of the registry” to keep track of who’s lobbying whom and for what reason. The whole point of the registry is to make lobbying more transparent, which is only possible if Albertans use it.

And so I decided to take the registry for a test drive, to see what this new window into the world of lobbying could tell me about how politics is done here in the province of Alberta.

The lobbyist registry reads like a who’s who of Alberta politics. Former MLAs, ministers and bureaucrats have either hung out their own shingles or joined the rosters of the various trade and advocacy organizations that peddle influence as if it were candy. Ian Murray & Company, for instance, employs two former Alberta politicos. Ian Murray himself was executive assistant to the Minister of Forestry, Lands & Wildlife in the late 1980s, while James Horsman was a provincial cabinet minister from 1979 to 1992. Now they are fixers.

By contemporary website standards, the registry is less than beautiful and a bit clunky, a dark green Ford Pinto rather than a bright red Ferrari. But after 10 minutes of stalling and missed shifts, I figured out what the registry is and isn’t capable of and set off on my test drive (www.lobbyistsact.ab.ca).

I thought I’d investigate an issue that pits the energy industry against, well, everyone else. For years, 25 stakeholders on the Alberta Water Council (AWC) had been working, at the government’s request, on a recommendation for a new wetlands policy. Wetlands are an important part of healthy ecosystems and provide a gold mine of valuable ecological services: filtering water, buffering against floods and drought, recharging groundwater, storing carbon and providing habitat for wildlife. Despite wetlands’ importance, increasing amounts of urban, agricultural and industrial activity—including oil sands development—have already obliterated many of them in Alberta, and the evidence indicates the trend will continue.

The AWC’s interim wetland policy had a “no-net-loss” provision for private lands. Given the recognized importance of wetlands and the threats they face, the almost unanimous recommendation from the AWC was to extend the no-net-loss policy to Crown land too, including oil sands country. The recommendation was not unanimous, because two of the council’s 25 members—namely the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR), which represents the mining sector, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), representing the oil and gas industry—refused to support the no-net-loss policy. Instead, they sent “letters of non-consensus” to Minister of Environment Rob Renner, claiming in part that it would be too expensive for industry to replace the wetlands they destroyed while mining the oil sands.

On October 29, 2010, Renner announced a wetlands policy that does not include a no-net-loss provision for any part of Alberta, including private lands. Instead, it relies largely on government discretion that almost certainly will see wetlands continue to disappear. Using language straight from industry’s “letters of non-consensus,” Renner opted for a “more flexible approach” because, he said, “not all wetlands are alike.”

What happened? Why would the Environment Minister ignore the almost unanimous recommendations of the Alberta Water Council and side with the two dissenting members? Perhaps, I thought, the lobbyist registry could help me.

Sure enough, both CAPP and ACR are registered lobbyists. CAPP employs 43 lobbyists, including David Collyer, former president of Shell Canada, and two former public officials, Greg Stringham and Rick Hyndman, both of whom were senior bureaucrats in energy-related departments and ministries. Sure enough, the registry indicated CAPP was lobbying the Environment ministry “in regards to Policy Directive: Alberta wetland policy and implementation plan” while it was supposedly sitting in good faith on the Alberta Water Council.

Although ACR’s registration is less specific, it shows that ACR was lobbying the ministries of Energy, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development on “Policy Directive: orderly and responsible development of our natural resources” while working with the Alberta Water Council on the wetland policy. ACR’s registration doesn’t say anything about wetlands, but a quick Google search reveals that it lobbied hard to make sure the policy didn’t contain a no-net-loss provision.

In the “2008 Year in Review–2009 Preview” the Alberta Chamber of Resources published to its members more than a year before Renner’s announcement, ACR executive director Brad Anderson wrote that “the province has agreed to three of the four changes to the proposed wetlands policy that ACR suggested in a letter of non-consensus we delivered to the Ministry of Environment in July, and while the wetlands policy has not yet been implemented, these changes may save literally billions of dollars for our members.”

The fact that ACR and CAPP lobbied behind the Alberta Water Council’s back—something allowed by the current wording of the Act—infuriates Joe Obad, associate director of Water Matters and one of the other stakeholders on the AWC. “If you’re involved in a [formal] process, you shouldn’t be lobbying against it through back channels,” he says. “That should be clear in the terms of reference at the AWC table.”

What CAPP and ACR did “isn’t ethical,” he says, arguing that the government shouldn’t have met privately with them while they were at the Alberta Water Council table. “We really need limits to ensure a group can’t lobby on the side while they’re part of a specific process tasked to provide government with advice or recommendations.”

Obad says environmental groups have used professional lobbyists in the past, and while it may have resulted in more access, it didn’t get them more influence. Using a lobbyist can give “you a sense of what you’re competing against in terms of other files,” he says. “But in the greenie world, we tend to forget how far down the pecking order we are.”

“Lobbying the government of Alberta is virtually unnecessary since it’s entirely on industry’s side.”

The fact that CAPP and ACR successfully lobbied the government to choose their interests over the public interest is no surprise to those who know how the system works. About the time the wetlands policy was being finalized behind closed doors, Mark Rudolph, a 20-year veteran lobbyist based in Ottawa who represents Suncor and Shell, told the Montreal Gazette that “lobbying the province of Alberta is virtually unnecessary since… the government is entirely on the industry’s side.”

While Alberta’s new Lobbyists Act—and the registry at its heart—has provided a window into the world of influence, it must be strengthened when it comes up for review this year. David Swann says the biggest hole in the Act is that it doesn’t require lobbying activities to be documented if members of government invite lobbyists to provide advice. Given the government’s cozy relationship with industry—exemplified by Minister of Energy Ron Liepert’s attempt last fall to keep secret the names of his energy industry “advisory group”—changing this oversight is the least Albertans deserve.

The registry must also require registrants to provide a greater level of detail if it is to be a useful tool for Albertans to track influence peddling. CAPP’s admission that it was lobbying about the “Alberta Wetland Policy & Implementation Plan” was far more transparent than ACR’s disingenuous claim that it was lobbying for “orderly and responsible development of our natural resources” when in fact it was trying to gut the wetlands policy to save its members money.

Even better would be a requirement that lobbyists divulge every meeting that takes place, what was discussed and what the lobbyist in question asked for. When it comes to the public interest, the proprietary nature of information should take a back seat to the public’s right to know not only who is lobbying whom, but how much time they spend in bed together and what they talk about while they’re there.

Even these improvements, however, will do little more than put lipstick on the pig that is Democracy Lite here in Alberta. Even the best registry would not provide the “integrity and transparency” that Ed Stelmach claimed was his priority. Programs and policies that disperse political decision-making and mandate the provision of detailed rationales for government decisions are needed to restore the public trust and overcome the democratic deficit that plagues Alberta. Yet, since Stelmach took power, decision after decision has been made in a paternalistic black box, a political approach that always breeds public distrust and discontent.

Apart from the need to “balance” environmental protection with unrelenting economic development, Stelmach and his ministers have failed time and again to provide the public with an honest accounting of how the decisions they make—a royalty regime that shortchanges Albertans to the tune of a billion dollars annually and a wetlands policy that ignores public sentiment and ensures the continued degradation of public lands, to name but two—are in the public interest rather than in the short-term interests of industry and the army of well-paid lobbyists that do its bidding.

Absent this accounting, all the Lobbyists Act does is provide a clearer view of the charade that is democracy in Alberta. Unlike Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Stelmach’s professed desire to bring glasnost home—if it was ever sincere—remains nothing but a dream.  

Jeff Gailus is the author of The Grizzly Manifesto, published in 2010 by Rocky Mountain Books. He lives in Canmore. 

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