Exploring the little-known world of lobbying in Manitoba
Most Manitobans might not realize it, but networks of organizations and consultants that lobby politicians play a critical role in how policies are formed.
Lobbying is an essential and legitimate part of modern democracy that simultaneously triggers worries about unfair access and undue influence by narrow special interests.
The right to lobby reflects fundamental democratic values like freedom of association and speech. Lobbyists offer information and advice, strengthen the law-making process, encourage debate and in general increase the responsiveness of governments to trends within society.
However, a Gandalf Group poll in November 2014 found that only nine per cent of Canadians trusted lobbyists, a ranking that put them four points back of politicians and 24 points back of journalists.
Lobbying is seen to operate within specialized, closed, and submerged networks within various policy fields. The concern is that well-financed and well-connected groups and individuals will set the policy agenda, frame issues and propose solutions in a manner that subverts democracy and ignores the wider public interest.
In my current research, I have discovered that there has been almost no published analysis of the Manitoba lobbyist community in terms of its size, membership, strategies and impacts on policy-making.
Limiting the risk of improper influence
In 2008 the legislature passed the Lobbyist Registration Act (LRA).
It seeks to balance the right of organizations and individuals to have input while limiting the risk of improper influence over government actions.
The act came into force in 2012 when a registrar of lobbyists (an independent officer of the legislature) was appointed and a registry of lobbyists was established. Both organizational (in-house) and consultant (for-hire) lobbyists are required to register and report on the targets (MLAs, ministers or other public officials) and subject matter of their lobbying efforts.
The information provided by lobbyists can be found on the website of the lobbyist registrar.
In terms of compliance and enforcement of the act, the registrar must verify information provided by lobbyists, may refuse to accept a report from a lobbyist, and, after prosecution through the courts, lobbyists guilty of serious violations of the LRA are subject to fines up to $25,000.
To date, no one has been fined under the act. There is no provision to remove a lobbyist from the registry for reasons of improper behaviour.
Unlike some other jurisdictions, the Manitoba law makes no provision for the development of a code of conduct for lobbyists that might fill the gap between the legal details and the spirit of the LRA.
There is provision for the registrar to issue advisory opinions on the application of the act but none have been issued to date.
Unlike other independent officers of the legislature, the registrar is not required to file an annual report, so there is no document that summarizes lobbying activity and analyzes problematic cases that might have arisen.
The website offers the public the opportunity to search the lobbying statistics, although one suspects few people use the site. It is not the easiest website to navigate, especially if one does not know the right links to use.
Moreover, the statistics do not speak for themselves and will say different things to different people.
Here are some highlights from a few hours spent exploring the site:
- In the period from April 2013 (one year after the commencement of the registry) to April 2015, there were 735 in-house lobbyists and 75 for-hire lobbyists that were active at one time or another. Presently there are 69 lobbyists of both types registered as active.
- A search of the subject matter of lobbying reveals, as one might expect, tremendous variety. On an initial click, the website provides this information mainly on the basis of the lineup of departments of the provincial government (agriculture, education, health, etc.).
- In terms of who does the lobbying, large national associations, corporations and consulting firms can be found on the register. For example, the Canadian Bankers Association had more than 20 representatives on the registry, presumably not all of them being active at once. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business was also prominent in the listings with five different people registered. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives was represented by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley and by local entrepreneur Hartley Richardson.
- A number of provincial organizations, like the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Manitoba Municipal Association, show up with some frequency in the registry. Names of past Manitoba political figures can be found on the registry as for-hire lobbyists, such as Vic Toews, Hugh McFadyen and Leo Dugay.
- Advocates on behalf of social causes like unemployment, poverty, disability rights and aboriginal issues are active but not to the extent of the better-financed groups. As someone once observed, the pluralist lobbying chorus tends to sing with an upper-class accent.
- In terms of targets of lobbying, a search for all contacts with cabinet ministers since April 2013 revealed that the largest number contacts at 568 were with Premier Greg Selinger's office. However, the statistics also show the extent to which the five ministers who resigned from cabinet on Nov. 3, 2014, were carrying a heavy ministerial workload in terms of dealing with the demands of various groups: Howard had 228 contacts, Oswald had 314, Selby had 310, Swan had 228 and Struthers had 511.
- Lobbying efforts are also directed at senior and middle managers of the civil service who are usually involved with the early stages of policy development.
- All 57 MLAs were, at some point, approached by lobbyists. However, contact with backbench MLAs is usually a sign that lobbyists have failed to achieve their goals in dealing with the cabinet and/or the bureaucracy or such contacts are part of a publicity campaign to mobilize support for the positions of a particular group.
Activity does not automatically lead to impact and influence on policy-making, but even this brief glance into this little-known world of lobbying in Manitoba reveals the importance of having someone speaking on your behalf in the corridors of power.
Paul Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.