Lobbyists set a new record for efforts to influence federal government during pandemic
Groups and companies tried to influence pandemic aid programs, says lobbying commissioner
The past year saw lobbyists set a record for the number of contacts with official Ottawa as they tried to influence how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government spent billions of dollars on pandemic aid, Canada's lobbying commissioner said Friday.
Testifying before members of the House of Commons ethics committee on her annual budget, Nancy Bélanger said there was a record number of meetings over the past year between lobbyists and MPs, ministerial aides and key public servants — resulting in 28,919 communication reports.
That's a 54 per cent increase over the previous year's total of 18,728 reports and it beats the previous record of 27,522, set in 2018-19.
Bélanger said the past year saw 2,457 new registrations to lobby the federal government, an increase of 41 per cent over the previous year. March 2021 set a record for the highest monthly average of active lobbyists — 6,435.
Lobbyists targeted pandemic programs
Bélanger attributed the increase to the desire of various groups to influence the programs the government was setting up to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is certain that there were many, many groups who had to deal with all of you to be able to determine which programs should be put in place during the pandemic," she said. "People wanted to listen to them to determine what were their priorities and ensure that Canadians could continue to survive during this year that has been very difficult for everyone."
The health restrictions imposed by the pandemic also meant that if a lobbyist wanted to communicate with an MP or an aide to a cabinet minister, they had to arrange a meeting in advance — something that requires a lobbyist to register and file a communication report.
"What we heard was that lobbyists had to change the way they work," Bélanger told MPs, adding lobbyists told her MPs were more available than usual.
"They arranged a lot of meetings via Zoom and those meetings, because those meetings were arranged in advance and they were oral, they had to be inscribed in the registry."
Bélanger said members of Parliament were lobbied the most, followed by officials working in Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the Department of Finance.
Commissioner hands over complaints to RCMP
Not all lobbyists played by the rules, Bélanger said.
She said she referred three complaints to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last year for investigation and referred another case in recent weeks. Her office is refusing to disclose any details about the cases that have been handed over to police.
Offences under the Lobbying Act can include lobbying without registering to lobby, lobbying while prohibited or providing false or misleading information, said Manon Dion, a spokesperson for the commissioner's office.
Bélanger said her office's compliance activities increased over the past year; it initiated 28 preliminary assessments, double the number from the previous year. At the end of the fiscal year in March, her office had 24 preliminary assessments and four investigations underway.
Bélanger said the current law needs to be updated.
"We need to amend that Lobbying Act," she said, adding that while her office has proposed 11 recommendations to improve the rules that govern lobbying, the government has yet to initiate a review.
Earlier Friday, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard fielded questions from MPs on the committee about the backlog in the government's handling of access to information requests and her office's handling of complaints.
Maynard said one of the biggest sources of delay is departments consulting each other before releasing information.
Maynard said she will table a special report in coming weeks on how Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is handling access requests and recommends that people be able to obtain information about their files without having to file an access request.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.