The lobby industry just can’t seem to get a break. Each government since Brian Mulroney has tightened the lobbying rules in an effort to minimize the perception of conflict and improper influence. Usually these changes come after real or imagined controversy. For Brian Mulroney, it was former Newfoundland premier Frank Moore’s representation of Air Canada while it was a crown corporation and for Paul Martin it was perceptions of Earnscliffe Consulting as it represented clients to the department of finance while its polling division did the departmental research. One shudders to think about what new rules will be discussed after the accusations concerning Jaffer and Guergis.
In many ways Canada has led the way in reforming lobbying regulations and legislation. Indeed the industry has been supportive of attempts to be more transparent in its representations to government. More recently the amount of disclosure required with respect to each meeting with government officials and the punishing five year freeze that public office holders face when leaving office has made it more difficult for the private sector to conduct legitimate and often commercially sensitive communications with government. At the same time the regulations make it very difficult for government to recruit the best and the brightest to serve the public interest.
In many ways, the biggest loser here is government. Experienced former office holders like ministers, deputies and political staff cannot communicate to current public office holders their newly acquired private sector insights. Democracy is supposed to be about the exchange of perspectives. Unfortunately, concern about influence has overwhelmed reason. Former public office holders are assumed to be up to no good and their activities scrutinized closely by media and public advocacy groups like Democracy Watch.
Lately there has even been a view that former office holders should not be involved in providing strategic advice and counsel to clients who are seeking to impact public policy. The rules are clear and adequate. Post employment conflict of interest rules prevent former ministers, deputies and ministerial political staff from disclosing information to employers, clients or associates that is not available to others. This would be taking advantage of their former position. However the conflict restrictions do not prevent a former minister, for example, from being employed by a public affairs or law firm and giving advice and counsel on regulations or on how a client should participate in a public policy debate.
Ethical people comply with the law and unethical people don’t comply regardless of the law. Rather than make legitimate communication with government more regulated than it is today, I think we should be talking about providing professional education to politicians, political staff and officials about ethical conduct in government. This would be no different than the corporate governance training that private sector directors and board advisor have been receiving for years. Encouragingly last week I met with Preston Manning to discuss his project to build a graduate program for ‘Political Management’ at Carleton University. This is part of the Manning Centre’s objective of improving political democracy. It sounds like the kind of initiative that would add value for aspiring politicians and political staff and ultimately hold better hope for ensuring proper ethical conduct in business government relations.