Last week, the House of Commons Ethics Committee issued its final report on the five-year statutory review of the Lobbying Act. It looks like a number of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ key recommendations were accepted.
The most important was the deletion of the “20% rule”, which allowed former public office holders to lobby as corporate employees if their lobbying activities didn’t comprise more than 20 per cent of their job. The loophole was an obvious concession to MPs and former ministers who wanted to use their knowledge of government in their next career. The Commons Committee probably preferred to keep this rule, but I suspect the Prime Minister himself weighed in on this provision, as he is determined to eliminate any risk of an ethical breach on the basis of a loophole.
The impact of this change is that all lobbyists, whether corporate or agency, will be on an equal footing.
The focus of this government has been on transparency and enforcement of the Lobbying Act. It will likely support the granting of additional powers by the Lobbying Commissioner to fine breaches of the law. This is also something that we at H+K agree with.
Disappointingly, the Committee, and possibly the government, is declining to address Rule 8—the regulation that effectively prohibits registered lobbyists from participating in meaningful positions on election campaigns. The report implies that if the industry wants to test this rule in court, it is free to do so.
Interestingly, there was also a recommendation to prohibit gifts to designated office holders, such as tickets, dinner, entertainment, etc. While I don’t mind saving the marketing budget, we at H+K have always been very careful never to entertain a public office holder while we were acting on a file that he or she was engaged in. I actually think the recommendation is a brilliant way of minimizing social occasions as a pretext for lobbying activities.
My only area of deep concern was the decision to keep the monthly contact reports. H+K recommended we update our lobby registrations every three months. I think this could well be the major issue five years from now. In its attempt to provide transparency, the government is also arming itself with data that—in the wrong hands—could be used to restrict access to government.
Free and open access to government is an important objective of the Lobbying Act that was seldom discussed during the hearings. Monthly registrations give the government information practically in real time. A government hostile to a particular interest group now has the ability to track and prevent lobbying activities of groups it disagrees with. That’s too much power in the hands of governments. It will be abused sooner or later by a government determined to control its agenda—and this will feed the next reform.