Cost of Living·Q&A

It's not like the movies: insiders reveal the art of lobbying government

Two lobbyists sit down with Cost of Living host Paul Haavardsrud to talk about the dos and don’ts of lobbying. 

Two lobbyists explain how their job isn't like "Thank You For Smoking"

Some lobbyists say their job is to "translate" between government and business. (Shutterstock / Pressmaster)

Government and business are two very different beasts, but their worlds intertwine in both obvious and unseen ways.

The two often operate under different mandates and timelines, and it can seem as though government and business speak different languages sometimes.

Lobbyists, then, are the translators between worlds, according to Kim Haakstad, vice-president of Global Public Affairs in Vancouver.

What does a lobbyist do?

Whether they're representing a company, a business advocacy group or an industry, the job of a lobbyist is to align the client's interests with government policy. A good lobbyist knows when to apply pressure, whom to talk to, and when to shut up. 

Right now, lobbyists across Canada are watching the federal election closely and are ready to pivot their messages to suit whatever party forms government next.

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Two seasoned lobbyists are among those waiting to see where things land after the polls close. 

Kim Haakstad heads the British Columbia chapter of the Public Affairs Association of Canada and prior to that served as the deputy chief of staff to former B.C. premier Christy Clark.

Lori Kent is an independent consultant based in Calgary, who has worked in all levels of government and previously worked as an in-house lobbyist for Loblaw Companies Limited. 

They both sat down with Cost of Living host Paul Haavardsrud to talk about the dos and don'ts of lobbying. 

Two lobbyists explain how their job isn't like "Thank You For Smoking" and reveal the art of lobbying government.

Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What do you see as the job of a lobbyist?

Haakstad: I think our number one job is actually working as a translator between government and industry. We help them to better understand each other and communicate.

Kent: Another main role is to provide information to companies about how the legislative process works and how to have an impact on that. And to provide information to governments. There are a lot of people who work in government — they can't know everything.

Haakstad: Public servants and politicians are incredibly dedicated people but many of them haven't had any experience in the industry in which a company works in. And so we're helping them really understand how a policy change or a piece of legislation might impact an industry or a company and see those consequences in real terms.

Kim Haakstad (L), vice-president of Global Public Affairs in Vancouver and Lori Kent, an independent consultant based in Calgary. (Submitted)

How would this work in say, the resource industry? Let's just say there's something happening in Ottawa on Parliament Hill, and you've been hired as a lobbyist by a company or an industry to make their case. Who do you want to talk to you?

Kent: First of all, the prime minister!

Haakstad: It's funny Lori says that because that's what every client coming to see you says, 'we need to talk to the prime minister.' Everyone wants to start at the top. But when we actually then talk to them and ask, 'well have you talked to your local member of parliament? Have you talked to people in the public service who are actually doing the early work on policy development? Start there.'

Kent: Absolutely. If you have a resource project and you know your client wants to go to Ottawa to meet with the minister, even if they were to get a meeting, the first thing the minister is going to do is turn to his staff and say, 'What do you know about this?' And if they know nothing about it, it's not going anywhere.

This screenshot shows the City of Hamilton's Lobbyist registry, and allows the public to search lobbyists by subject matters and lobbying dates. (City of Hamilton)

You mention the staff then. How do you know who to talk to?

Haakstad: We usually start with the people that are most closely to the policy development process. As you get to the more senior levels of government, they have so many different things that they have to focus on, they don't have the expertise necessarily in what we're trying to do.

It sounds like there are two groups then: the political staff, [including] the MP and their staff. And there are the departments — the public servants. How differently do you approach them?

Kent: There's a number of similarities, but there are some crucial differences in that the political timeline in Canada and the provinces is about four years. Whereas people in the public sector,  they may be there for 20 years. Then in business, you have a completely different time horizon. So a lot of lobbying is trying to mesh those time horizons.

Is there a type of person or a type of role that you really makes you want to have their cell phone number? 

Haakstad: When I was working in-house at an industry group for pubs, bars and private liquors, that someone was the general manager of the Liquor Control and Licensing branch. That was a really important relationship for us. 

Kent: In some cases, maybe in the smaller department, it's the ADM (assistant deputy minister), but a lot of the times it's the executive director of a specific branch. At that level you have somebody who's familiar with the nuts and bolts of the issue, but also has a direct pipeline up to the deputy minister's office.

Does it help to have worked on the political side of things? I mean, Kim you worked for Christy Clark. 

Haakstad: What is really helpful is to know how government works and operates, and how government decisions are made. It's less about the relationships.

Is that why we end up seeing Stephen Harper and Paul Martin end up at law firms or working in intergovernmental relations?

Haakstad: I think so. I think that's why companies find value in having them as senior advisers and senior counsel is they help them understand regulatory risk. 

Something that seems to have changed on Parliament Hill is the role of the Senate. It feels like the Senate is becoming more active. Have you noticed that?

Haakstad: It is absolutely true. A particular example of that was C-45, the Cannabis Act that was passed last year. The Senate had a really active role in that and we saw them work hard to make substantial changes that were different from the version of the act that was passed in the House. There was a lot of lobbying and for the first time, many senators were talking about the fact that they weren't used to being lobbied that way. The root of that is the creation of the Independent Senate Group.

Paula Simons is an independent senator. She's from Alberta. She described her first couple of days on the job as being inundated with lobbyists. Are you surprised to hear that?

Kent: I'd be surprised if she wasn't. Given her position and that fact that she's new to the role. 

Haakstad: The timing for Senator Simons' appointment was right in the heart of the debate around C-69 [which aims to overhaul the environmental assessment process for major resource projects]. Being a senator from Alberta, this was really part of trying to have the Senate introduce substantial amendments to the Impact Assessment Act. So folks were trying to change it, delay it.

Sen. Paula Simons said she was "inundated with lobbyists" for her first few days in the Senate. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

So if you're the industry, and you see a new independent senator appointed, you see Paula Simons — she's from Alberta, all of the sudden your eyes light up?

Kent: In many cases it doesn't. But I think one advantage of being the first in ... She talked about being inundated, so she can't meet with everyone. So if you're among the first, you might be the only.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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