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Lobbying firms can still land government contracts under Harper plan

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:50 p.m. January 13, 2006]

OTTAWA  — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's proposed reforms for lobbyists contains some major gaps that will still allow potential conflicts of interest to exist if his bill is passed, an ethics group says. 

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said Harper's proposal continues to allow lobbying firms to have communication or consulting divisions that receive government contracts. 

Currently, there is nothing that stops a firm from lobbying a department while at the same time accepting contracts for communications or polling work for the same department or minister. 

Former ethics counsellor Howard Wilson had ruled that these types of activities are okay provided there was a "Chinese wall" between the lobbying and other branch of the firm. 

Conacher calls the Chinese wall theory "a complete joke" when it comes to the lobbying industry. 

"When you're a contractor with the government, you get clearance to look at government documents that are often secret," said Conacher.

"If you're tied in with others in your same company or another company who are lobbying on those same issues, then obviously those secret documents are of interest to the lobbying side of your company and that's a recipe for corruption."

Harper is promising a number of reforms to lobbying, including a five-year ban that will stop cabinet ministers, ministerial staff and senior government officials from leaving government and joining the lobbying firms. 

However, numerous lobbyists are helping out on Harper's campaign and working in his war room. 

In the leaders' debate, Harper was criticized for the presence of lobbyists on his campaign. 

"Mr. Harper chose to mention lobbyists in his remark and we certainly know the Liberal Party has very close relationships with lobbyists," said NDP Leader Jack Layton, "but I think Mr. Harper, what you're saying would be a lot more credible if your war room and your campaign weren't filled with corporate lobbyists as they are. 

"That's something that you're going to have to explain."

Harper in response said he had no problem with lobbyists being involved in politics, "but they can't get privileged access to contracts."

Conacher said allowing lobbying firms to have consultants or communications divisions is the same as allowing lobbyists to have privilege access to contracts. 

"It's a big gap in Harper's package," he said. 

When asked what Harper meant when he said lobbyists can't get privilege access to contracts, William Stairs, a spokesman for Harper, said "what he means is that people should not be able to use government experience .. as a springboard into the private sector to make lots of money."

"What we want to try and change is this idea that people can leave government office, go to work for a minister and then say, 'alright, I'm now going to go work for a lobbying firm and my value for that firm is that I can open doors for them and that I know things and I know who to call etc.' That's the idea."

Stairs was not part of the discussions of the lobbying reforms and could not offer an explanation as to why the gap on lobbying firms getting government contracts was not addressed by the party in its accountability platform. 

The Liberals also have not addressed this issue, but the NDP is promising to prohibit "business, including their owners, partners, employees or subsidiaries" from simultaneous lobbying and providing consulting advice. 

Conacher said he would like to have the NDP proposal go even farther and prevent lobbying firms from having any relationship "with any other entities that gets government contracts." Essentially this would mean lobbying firms can only engage in lobbying, effectively a Chinese island 

After the election, Democracy Watch plans to launch a formal complaint regarding lobbyists participating in the campaigns of the Liberals and the Conservatives

Conacher said the complaints are aimed at getting clear rulings on what the lines are for the involvement of lobbyists in political parties. 

Lobbyists that are paid to work on both campaigns have deregistered from their lobbying activities, but most will probably reregister after the election. 

"We don't believe the deregistering and reregistering is a proper interpretation of the rules," Conacher said.

: Related Links

> Harper's use of lobbyists criticized
> Harper defends lobbyists

> ElectionWatch

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