Lobbyists lined up to persuade province to protect business in early COVID-19 stage
Some companies used lobbyists with PC government connections
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a new burst of lobbying in New Brunswick by professional consultants hired to advance their clients' interests with the Higgs government.
The online registry of lobbyists shows that several companies were quick to push for meetings with key elected officials and bureaucrats in order to make sure they could continue to operate during the early stages of the outbreak.
Major corporations, including Staples Canada, Johnston Equipment and Restaurant Brands International, the owners of Tim Hortons, deployed professional lobbyists to make the case their businesses were essential.
In some cases, companies used lobbyists with Progressive Conservative connections.
Former executive assistant one of lobbyists
Dieppe-based Pulmonem Inc., which says on its website it wants to test an existing generic drug to treat inflammation caused by COVID-19, hired Eric Pelletier, a former executive assistant to PC ministers in the Bernard Lord government.
Pelletier's registration, dated May 11, said he would arrange meetings with Department of Health officials, the office of Premier Blaine Higgs and the COVID-19 task force "to receive support from NB government for clinical testing of a drug that may be used to treat COVID-19."
Meanwhile, Halifax-based lobbyist Robert Batherson, a former press secretary to one–time Nova Scotia PC Premier John Hamm, registered in April to lobby for Tim Hortons.
Batherson's registration says he intended to talk to Higgs's chief of staff and two ministerial assistants "regarding Tim Hortons locations in New Brunswick providing essential food services during the COVID-19 global pandemic."
Pelletier works for a consulting firm called Prospectus. Another Prospectus employee who works as Pulmonem's spokesperson did not respond to questions from CBC News.
Batherson said he couldn't comment and referred questions to Tim Hortons, which didn't respond.
Registered after federal contract awarded
Not all of the lobbyists had PC credentials: Jordan O'Brien, the former chief of staff to Liberal premier Brian Gallant, registered on April 29 to represent Fredericton-based LuminUltra Technologies.
That was two weeks after the federal Liberal government announced that LuminUltra had won a national contract to provide chemicals for 500,000 COVID-19 tests per week.
It's not clear from O'Brien's registration why he had to lobby the province two weeks after LuminUltra won the contract.
The registration says he wanted to speak to deputy ministers and other top officials about "limits" in the province's emergency order "that prevent technical experts from other provinces to come to work on an urgent project relating to the COVID-19 pandemic."
LuminUltra CEO Pat Whalen told CBC News in April that landing the contract involved weeks of working "pretty close to around the clock" with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Whalen called it an "exciting, very fast moving … interesting time." He and O'Brien did not comment on the lobbying Monday.
Government 'heard' from many
Government spokesperson John McNeill said Monday in an emailed statement that the COVID-19 response "led to many actions that none of us have ever experienced before."
He said the government "heard from a number of stakeholders, including citizens, businesses and others who reached out to government for clarification on requirements under the mandatory order."
Having businesses "step up" to provide essential services "is exactly the sort of private sector leadership that we saw across society that has helped get us to the point we are at today," he said.
New Brunswick's public lobbyist registry has been in place since 2017.
It requires anyone who is paid to try to influence governments or win access to decision-makers to register publicly, whether they are hired consultants or in-house employees.
The sheer number of government orders and policies put in place starting in March, when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the province, prompted seven such lobbyists to leap into action.
Lobbying as an essential service important
Natalie Dash of Campbell Strategies Inc. registered on March 20 to represent Staples Canada, the chain of office-supply stores. She listed her objective as "ensuring continued access to consumer essentials, business, janitorial and cleaning supplies throughout the COVID-19 crisis."
Leslie Noble of Strategy Corp. registered five days later to represent Sysco Canada, a national food wholesaler and distributor.
Noble's registration said she would try to set up meetings with officials including Higgs "to offer the assistance of Sysco Canada regarding supply chain and coordination of the distribution of food and other goods in the fight against COVID-19."
And Marisa Maslink, a lobbyist with McMillan Vantage, registered on April 6 on behalf of Johnston Equipment, seeking to meet Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart to "share" information "about the essential nature of Johnston Equipment's work during the COVID-19 crisis."
Meanwhile, Andrew House, a lobbyist with Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, sought meetings with Higgs, several cabinet ministers and Moncton South Liberal MLA Cathy Rogers on behalf of Asurion, a company that provides insurance for consumer electronics.
He said he would lobby "about insurance laws and consumer protection laws, specifically about the legal classification of electronic warranty products and … about emergency response measures related to COVID-19."
Other than Batherson, none of the lobbyists responded to requests for comment from CBC News.