Yesterday, my colleague Elizabeth Roscoe and I appeared before the House of Commons ethics committee that is reviewing the Lobbying Act. Our main message was that the Lobbying Commissioner needs greater enforcement powers to crack down on non-compliance with the Act and Lobbying Code of Conduct. We at Hill+Knowlton Strategies just want everyone to live by the same rules we do and think tougher penalties will help. This was broadly well received.
What was greeted with more skepticism was our recommendation that contact reports detailing registered meetings should move from monthly to quarterly. This would make our registration system consistent with the US.
However, the committee seems to feel that monthly reporting adds greater transparency around companies’ motives. And, they are right about that. But, there is a fine line that needs to be drawn between greater transparency and another principle in the Act which calls for “free and open access to government”. We argued that monthly reports are increasing client risk because they expose their commercial strategies. This level of required transparency is becoming a disincentive for companies to speak to government. Unfortunately, I don’t think Parliament appreciates this risk.
Time constraints prevented us from presenting another proof point to support our recommendation around reporting. In the hands of a future government, monthly contact reports can easily be abused. We shouldn’t be giving government the ability to restrict the access of certain types of lobbyists. For me, it’s not a stretch to imagine a highly partisan government limiting access for a lobbyist that has a publicly stated partisan or policy bias. Imagine if business lobbyists were shut down if they opposed some future budget change for example. With monthly contact reports, governments now know who is lobbying, almost in real time. A very simple communication from the “centre” could quickly shut down a lobbyist.
Five years from now, when the Act is reviewed again, I believe this will be the main issue. All governments – politics aside – try to tightly control their policy agenda. Some, like the current federal government, are better at it than most. There is nothing wrong with that. But, Parliament needs to ensure that it doesn’t tip the balance so far in the direction of transparency that it restricts free and open access to the government.
To me, monthly contact reports come close to being Orwellian.