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Brison asks lobbyist watchdog to investigate Harper

[PoliticsWatch Updated 3:30 p.m. November 4, 2005]

OTTAWA  — Public Works Minister Scott Brison says he has filed a complaint with the federal registrar of lobbyists to investigate Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for what Brison says is a failure to register as a lobbyist during his time as head of the National Citizens Coalition. 

Brison's request comes on the same day Harper unveiled an integrity package in a speech to his MPs on Parliament Hill. 

Harper called for "real teeth and real penalties to enforce violations of the Lobbyists Registration Act."

"The National Citizens Coalition is a lobbyist organization," Brison said. "Mr. Harper was a lobbyist but he did not register as a lobbyist."

The party released a statement in which they said Brison has "stooped to a new low and tried a drive-by smear."

The Conservatives say Harper "never worked as a lobbyist."

"He worked at a public advocacy group that is not involved in lobbying activities."

Five hours later, Harper responded by calling Brison's allegation "baseless and a poor attempt to distract Canadians from (the Liberal) record of waste, scandal and mismanagement." 

Harper also criticized Brison for using his department's resources for "partisan political activity." 

Deputy Conservative Leader Peter MacKay called Brison's complaint a "distraction tactic" from the recent findings of a Liberal kickback scheme by Justice John Gomery. 

"If there's a complaint to be made, let him register it. Mr. Brison is entitled to do whatever he wants."

Scott Reid, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Paul Martin, told Canadian Press that lobbying is defined as trying to influence public policy, which is what Harper did while at the NCC.

 "If Mr. Harper wants to play sheriff, he can start by slapping handcuffs on himself," he told CP.

Harper left Parliament in 1997 to become vice president and shortly after that president of the National Citizens' Coalition, before he returned to politics in 2002. 

The National Citizens Coalition is a conservative advocacy group that often engages in high-profile campaigns for smaller government, stronger defence and against unions. 

While the group says it is "non-partisan," its Web site has an anti-Liberal and anti-NDP slant. 

The NCC reacted by demanding Brison apologize. 

"Brison today called the NCC a `lobby' group, and accused current Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper of being an `unregistered lobbyist' when he headed our group," said Gerry Nicholls of the National Citizens Coalition said in a statement. "Both statements are false and malicious. Brison should apologize to us and to our supporters.

"We are a non-profit organization that promotes more freedom and less government through advertising," said Nicholls. "When Harper was president of the NCC he did not engage in lobbying of any kind. For Brison to suggest otherwise is ludicrous."

According to the Lobbyists Registration Act, lobbyists are required for corporations and organizations when "one or more employees communicate with federal public office holders on behalf of the employer."

A person is considered a lobbyist when his or her lobbying represents 20 per cent of overall duties. 

"The return must be filed in respect of: the development, making or amending of laws and regulations, policies or programs, or the award of federal grants, contributions, tax credits or other financial benefits, and where the lobbying activities would constitute a significant part of the duties of one employee or, if such lobbying activities were performed by many employees, they would constitute a significant part of the duties of one equivalent employee," according to the Act. 

While the National Citizens Coalition says it does not lobby politicians other advocacy groups, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Dominion Institute of Canada, have registered in-house and outside lobbyists with the federal lobbyist registrar's office. 

The issue of lobbying has been a hot topic in Ottawa since Parliament returned in the fall. Michael Nelson, the federal registrar of lobbyists, recently told MPs he is conducting eight investigations of four lobbyists for breaches of the Lobbyists Code of Conduct. 

Former Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall has been at the centre of much of the controversy after Industry Canada ordered one of his clients to repay over $400,000 of a Technology Partnerships Canada loan because it had entered into a contingency fee arrangement with its lobbyist. 

Dingwall recently told MPs that he did not receive a "success fee" from the company, but his public registration has Yes under the contingency fee line.

Earlier in the day, Harper introduced a series of measures a Conservative government would introduce to change the culture in Ottawa. 

This included a series of initiatives to toughen the rules for lobbyists: 

- Extend to five years the period for which ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public servants cannot lobby government. 

- Ban success or contingency fee arrangements. 

- Require ministers and senior government officials to record their contacts with lobbyists. 

- Make the Registrar of Lobbyists an independent Officer of Parliament. Currently, the registrar is part of Industry Canada, one of the most heavily lobbied departments. Nelson and his staff have recently moved into separate office space. 

- Give the Registrar of Lobbyists the mandate and resources to investigate violations. 

- Extend to 10 years the period for which violations can be investigated and prosecuted. The current statute of limitations of the lobbyists act is two years, but Nelson believes there is no statute of limitations on violations of the code of conduct.

"Politics will no longer be a steppingstone for a lucrative career lobbying government," Harper said. 

"Make no mistake. If there are MPs in this room who want to use public office for their own benefit or if there are Hill staffers who dream of making it rich by trying to lobby a future Conservative government, if that's true of you then you better make different plans or leave."

Harper's entire ethics package was given a thumbs up from the public interest group Democracy Watch, which has been critical of all the political parties for their lack action in the past. 

"The Conservatives have pledged a comprehensive, effective package of measures that will do much to clean up the federal government's ethics, spending and transparency enforcement systems," said Duff Conacher, of Democracy Watch in a statement. 

Conacher said the only thing missing was a law that would hold politicians to their campaign promises.

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