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Harper's use of lobbyists criticized

[PoliticsWatch Updated 1:00 p.m. December 12, 2005]

OTTAWA  — On November 4, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper unveiled his Federal Accountability Act before a room filled with journalists, MPs and staffers on Parliament Hill. 

At the time, his party was issuing a daily barrage of accusations in the House of Commons about Liberal lobbyists and a culture of entitlement prevailing in the nation's capital. 

The Conservatives had been pinning the government down in question period on a daily basis on what appears to be a revolving door that sees people go into government and then leaving, using their contacts to launch lucrative careers lobbying the government they once worked for.

In that speech, Harper made a very strong statement about what things would be like in a Conservative government that sent shockwaves through Ottawa.

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

"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." 

Tough talk, indeed, from the opposition leader. It was the exclamation mark on Harper's entire ethics package.

But what did it mean? 

While Harper's speech sounded like anyone working on Parliament Hill would be unable to enter the lobbying industry, a closer look at the proposed accountability act shows the commitment is actually much milder. 

Currently there is a cooling-off period of two years for ministers and one-year for most public office holders. 

Harper is promising to extend to five years the cooling-off period for those leaving politics and going into lobbying. But that only includes cabinet ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public servants.

"His promise, their policy does not goes as far as his speech," says Duff Conacher of the public interest group Democracy Watch.

MPs and hill staffers that Harper referred to in his speech are effectively free to move from politics to lobbying as long they or their bosses don't make it to cabinet.

"The speech was rhetoric," said Conacher. 

And Conacher is not a harsh critic of the Conservatives. In fact he says the Tories' overall ethics package addresses 52 of the 65 key gaps in federal government ethics.

But one area where there is apparently no difference between the Harper Tories and the Martin Liberals is the use of lobbyists in the election campaign. 

The Hill media has made much about lobbyists Charles Bird operating the Liberals' Ontario campaign and Cyrus Reporter working in Martin's war room, but overlooked in it all is the use of lobbyists involved in the Conservative campaign. 

A little more than three weeks after Harper warned those looking to cash in to make other plans, four Ottawa lobbyists deregistered from lobbying for their impressive list of clients to take a seat in the Conservative war room. 

"To have lobbyists working inside their war room I don't think it meets the standard that's in the ethics rules," Conacher said. 

"To say, 'Okay I'm a lobbyist. I'm deciding to go into the war room. I am a lobbyist, I'll deregister as soon as I start and I'll make the decision as a lobbyist. I will go in and do this for 55 days, then I will become a lobbyist again right away and quite possibly be lobbying the same person I've been working for.'

"And to say that's fine, I don't think the rules add up to that."

Conacher said he believes lobbyists working on the election campaign violate existing ethics rules in Ottawa. 

But although there have been rules in place since the late 1980s, rules surrounding the lobbyist registration act and code of conduct have not been vigorously enforced. 

"Our position is the lobbyist code of conduct and the cabinet code both make it illegal for lobbyists to do this," he said. 

"The lobbyist code of conduct says you can't put any public office holder in a conflict of interest."

Conacher said this includes incumbent MPs. And for Conacher it makes no difference whether the lobbyist is working on the campaign trail for the party in power or not. 

But William Stairs, a spokesman for Harper, said the Tory leader's promise was only meant to crackdown on those who try to profit from being in government. 

"Mr. Harper's position hasn't changed," he said. "What is wrong is when people go from government to lobbying and they use their position in government or they've joined government in order to gain the experience and contacts necessary to allow them to go into the lobbying business and make all kinds of money.

Stairs said the lobbyists in the Tory war room, who are being paid on a retainer, are not using government to profit personally. 

"They have their own careers and they've put them (on hold) temporarily to help the Conservative cause. Then they go back into their businesses. It's no different than other people who have different careers who come and help out."

But Conacher disagrees and argues that puts an unfair onus on the governing party because the opposition party could just as easily be in power at the end of the campaign. 

"If you look at that situation overall, you have to say you can't just hold the ex-ruling party to the one standard," he said.

"We have to draw the line somewhere, but we also have a right to freedom of association under the Charter. And where is the balance? I think the balance is you just can't be on the deep inside at the top of the power ladder of a party as a lobbyist -- ever."

"And that means for the opposition parties and for the government."

Lobbyists in the Tory War Room

Ken Boessenkool: Works at Hill and Knowlton where he deregistered for three clients on the first day of the campaign. His clients include the Canadian Association of Income Funds. Boessenkool was a senior policy advisor to Harper from 2002 until last year. 

Lisa McAdam: Works at Strategy Corp. where she had eight clients before deregistering on the first day of the election campaign. This included Bell Globemedia and Rx&D. McAdam worked for Preston Manning when he was opposition leader. 

Yaroslav Baran: A lobbyist for Tactix Government Consulting Inc., who deregistered lobbying for his seven clients four days before the election campaign began. His clients included the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, Investment Dealers Association of Canada and the Canadian Automobile Association. Baran worked in the Alliance and Conservative communication shop up until last year. 

Sandra Buckler: Works for GPC and also deregistered four days before the campaign began. Her 14 clients at the time included Power Financial Corp., Royal Lepage Relocation Service, Coca-Cola, CN and Rogers Wireless. Buckler has been spinning daily for the Tories on the morning edition of CBC News' Politics program. She worked for Tom Siddon when he was defence minister in Kim Campbell's cabinet in 1993. 

Others Helping Out on the Campaign

There are other Conservatives who are helping out on the national campaign who are not being paid but are volunteering "for the Conservative cause," according to Stairs. Conacher argues it doesn't matter whether the lobbyists are in the war room or volunteering, they shouldn't be involved. 

Geoff Norquay: Harper's former director of communications, who found employment with Earnscliffe in the fall, the firm that is closely associated with Prime Minister Paul Martin's inner circle. 

Tim Powers: Lobbyist with Summa Strategies, who his among the chief spin doctors for the Tories on television. 

Goldy Hyder: Works at Hill and Knowlton where his clients include Rx&D and the Canadian Association of Income Funds. 

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