Corporations will have to pull back curtain on who's lobbying feds
Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears as a witness at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012 12:34PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Mining giant Barrick Gold won't say which of its people placed calls this year to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's right-hand man, but soon companies won't be able to shield the identity of all those involved in lobbying government officials.
The government said Monday it will change lobbying rules so that the name of every in-house lobbyist who communicates with a public office holder is publicly listed.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement said his department is also looking into how to have members of corporate boards registered as lobbyists.
The federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is currently investigating three calls placed by one or more Barrick Gold officials to Nigel Wright, Harper's chief of staff.
Wright has a personal relationship with Barrick founder and chairman Peter Munk and his son Anthony Munk, who sits on the firm's board. Only the name of the person who files reports to the lobbying commissioner is currently disclosed, even if that person was not part of a meeting or phone call.
Neither Barrick Gold nor the Conservative government has revealed who phoned Wright and other officials from the prime minister's office three times in May.
Clement wouldn't comment on that particular issue, but said the proposed change would bring clarity to communications.
"Sometimes, there are many cases where the senior reporting officer doesn't attend the meeting, so it's not as transparent as it should be, in our opinion," Clement said in an interview.
The proposed changes to the act were part of Clement's response to a review of the Lobbying Act by a Commons committee.
Wright's communication with Barrick Gold was raised Monday during the first question period of the fall session.
"When Barrick Gold wanted to get the ear of the prime minister, it called its good buddy Nigel Wright ... (who) allowed himself to be lobbied not once, not twice, but three times in a classic case of who one knows in the PMO," said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
"Will the government recognize that it needs to clean up its act and work with us to bring in some real legislation with real teeth to close up this kind of backroom lobbying?"
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre countered by pointing out it was his government that introduced tougher lobbying rules in 2006 with the Accountability Act.
"Happily, all of our government, including and especially the prime minister's chief of staff, have been following it ever since."
The access to information, privacy and ethics committee made a series of other unanimous proposals, but only a few were immediately picked up by the government.
Treasury Board will "continue to study carefully" a key recommendation to allow the commissioner of lobbying to levy fines against those who break the rules. Currently, the commissioner only has the power to educate violators, and write them up in a report. She refers matters to the RCMP, but to date nobody has been charged.
Clement said allowing an agent of Parliament to levy fines would be a first, and needs to be cleared by lawyers.
"I think that the basis for making the recommendation was that it would strengthen compliance, and I think that's a pretty logical argument," said Clement.
"I don't have a problem with it in principle, but if I'm drafting legislation to make this possible, I do have to make sure that is legally consistent with the rule of law in this country."
Clement will also study a recommendation to eliminate the threshold of 20 per cent of duties before a lobbyist is required to register their activities. This would have potentially affected former MPs and other public office holders who enter the consulting world but do not register because they don't spend more than one-fifth of their time lobbying.
Instead, Clement will move ahead with a recommendation that would include more public servants in the definition of public office holder, not just those at the assistant deputy minister level and upwards. Clement said it would depend on who has signing authority and control over the awarding of contracts, not necessarily their title.