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On election eve, Liberals get tougher 
with lobbyists

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. November 23, 2005]

OTTAWA  — With the federal election just days away, the Liberal government announced Wednesday that it was cracking down on lobbyists, a move the opposition parties quickly dismissed. 

Industry Minister David Emerson told the House of Commons that the government planned a number of changes to the Lobbyists' Registration Act, an act that has been in effect for over a decade but no one has been found in violation of. 

Emerson's announcement comes after a fall where a number of well-connected Liberals who make up the lobbying industry in Ottawa have been the subject of negative news stories and questions in question period. 

"The Lobbyists' Registration Act has not been very effective," said Industry Minister David Emerson after question period. 

Emerson said that was discovered following the controversy at the Technology Partnerships Canada program. 

An audit of the program found numerous cases of lobbyists charging contingency fees in violation of the program. 

A company that hired former Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall to lobby for a TPC loan, Bioniche, was recently forced to repay part of their loan to the program because of contingency fees. 

Emerson admitted that given the likely defeat of the government next week there is not enough time to get the changes put into law. 

He said he was merely signalling the government's intention. 

That brought a strong rebuke from the opposition parties, who have for years criticized the culture in Ottawa where political staff walk away from The Hill and right into the doors of lucrative careers using their connections in lobbying. 

"They have done nothing and then on the eve of the election to say, 'Oh we've brought in legislation but didn't have time to pass it' is a fraud on the Canadian public," said Conservative MP John Williams. 

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the reforms were "just not credible."

"Making an announcement just before an election means that it means just about as much as a typical Liberal election promise. That's not much," he said. 

Conservative MP James Rajotte, who has been raising numerous questions about lobbyists involved in the TPC program, said he does not believe for a second that the government was serious about these reforms. 

"The closeness between the lobbyists and this government is probably closer than any other government in history," Rajotte said.

"We don't think they're serious about this at all. If Canadians actually want to enact changes to the Lobbyists' Registration Act or the lobbyist code, they should elect a Conservative government."

Eight of the 15 people who were on Prime Minister Paul Martin's transition team 2003 were lobbyists or former lobbyists. 

Some people who were on the team deregistered as a lobbyist days before joining Martin's transition team. They then helped pick a cabinet for Martin and shortly thereafter returned to lobbying the same ministers they had a role in selecting. 

The Liberals' proposed changes are meant to compete with reforms announced in the Conservative Party's Federal Accountability Act, a piece of legislation Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said he would make the piece of legislation introduced by a Conservative government. 

Harper's legislation, for example, proposes making the registrar of lobbyists an independent officer of Parliament, on par with the Auditor General and the Ethics Commissioner. 

The changes proposed by Emerson would have the registrar appointed by cabinet. The current registrar is officially an employee of Emerson's Industry department, raising questions about whether his office is structurally biased. 

The registrar and his staff recently left the premises of the department to set up shop in their own space in an effort to appear more arm's length. 

Emerson has also proposed making the registrar subject to a review by Parliament. Industry Canada's news release suggests making the registrar a cabinet appointment "would ensure that the registrar maintains full independence from any Minister, and offers the Registrar the security of tenure."

The government is also proposing giving the registrar the power to impose fines of up to $50,000 for violations of the Lobbyists' Registration Act and the Code of Conduct. 

Michael Nelson, the current registrar of lobbyists, recently told a parliamentary committee that he wanted parliament to have a debate about giving him the power to fine instead of automatically having to refer things to the RCMP. 

The Conservative proposals on lobbying are much tougher and include areas where Emerson did not tread, such as a longer cooling off period for ministers and staffers to lobby government, the banning of success fees and requiring public office holders to record their contacts with lobbyists. 

Duff Conacher of the public interest group Democracy Watch said a key thing missing from Emerson's proposal is requiring public officials to disclose who they have been lobbied by. 

"Secret lobbying would still be legal," according to Conacher. 

He also said the government's proposal to make the registrar more independent is "vague," and does not mean politicians will not have control over the registrar or his office. 

Conacher said he likes the Conservative plan but believes none of it will happen unless Harper promises to resign if he does not enact all the changes he has proposed. 

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