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Lobbying loophole leaves B.C. government wide open to ethical problems: expert

Revolving door lobbying means a different kind of cash for access under the BC NDP, researcher says.
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BC NDP efforts to reduce corporate influence over government haven't gone far enough, a researcher says

The BC NDP government ended the “wild west” of political campaign financing after it came to power in 2017, but left the door wide open to lobbying by party friends and insiders.

“So corporate money has moved that way,” said Daniel Gold, who studied the history and regulation of lobbying for a doctorate in constitutional law and public policy at the University of Ottawa.

Just as the corporate money moved to lobbying, so did party insiders.

Former BC NDP president Craig Keating joined two former party executive directors at the Vancouver office of a Seattle-based lobbying firm, Strategies 360, and registered April 7 to lobby for marijuana farmer Tantalus Labs. Former Ministry of Health communications executive director Jeffrey Ferrier is now a senior vice-president at Hill and Knowlton, where he registered on behalf of COVID-19 vaccine-maker AstraZeneca.

Gold authored the doctoral thesis “Lobbying Regulation in Canada and the United States: Political Influence, Democratic Norms and Charter Rights” in 2020. He analyzed the history and ethics of lobbying, as well as the lobbying and campaign donations axis.

“They're both ways of influencing political figures and, in many ways, they work together,” Gold said. “So if you give a donation, then you get access to politicians. And once you have access to politicians, you can raise your concern. The politician [that] feels indebted to you is more likely to take your concerns seriously.”

In 2017, Premier John Horgan’s party fulfilled a campaign promise to ban corporate and union donations, and set an annual cap for individuals. They also strengthened lobbying regulations, but did not go far enough to close the revolving door, Gold said.

“They've left, maybe deliberately, maybe accidentally, a lot of loopholes out. And the revolving door issue is maybe one of the biggest ones.”

Certain senior public office holders, such as cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, are banned from lobbying for two years after they leave government. But other public employees, who may have worked even closer with key decision makers, are allowed to become lobbyists after they quit, with no cooling-off period. Ferrier falls in the latter category, because he officially worked in Government Communications and Public Engagement, not directly under Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Gold said the revolving door ban should be a full-term of government, rather than just two years. “We have to take account for that, and when we don't, we end up with situations like this.”

Keating entered the lucrative lobbying industry when he exited the party presidency last December after eight years. That’s something that would be frowned upon federally, where the code of conduct says a former party executive is in a conflict of interest when a sense of obligation exists with a public office holder that the lobbyist helped elect.

B.C. doesn’t have a standalone code of conduct. The lobbying registrar unsuccessfully proposed in 2013 that it be built into the law. The BC Liberal government and the BC NDP one that followed didn’t agree. Instead, a lobbyist need only pledge to follow guidelines set by a trade group. In Keating’s case, that’s the Public Affairs Association of Canada.

“The [Lobbyists’] Code of Conduct doesn't stop everything, but at least tells you there are boundaries and encourages people to stick within those boundaries, and B C's failure to enact a code of conduct or, or take that code of conduct and turn into regulation and some other form has has left this loophole,” Gold said.

Keating joined Strategies 360 almost a year after former BC NDP executive director Raj Sihota became a vice-president for the firm. Michael Gardiner was already there. The president of the Canadian division is another former BC NDP executive director who managed Horgan’s winning leadership campaign. One of Gardiner’s clients is also one of the government’s biggest suppliers, Telus.

The number of former party officials now working for Strategies 360 echoes an earlier era. After Mike Harcourt led the BC NDP to victory in 1991, the core of his campaign team, Ron Johnson and Shane Lunny, opened ad agency Now Communications Group. The firm continues to this day, regularly scoring government advertising contracts.

More than 30 years later, lobbying has gained power while traditional, mass-media advertising is diminished amid media fragmentation and the rise of social media and micro-targeted campaigns.

Keating and Ferrier aren’t the only party insiders who benefited from the lobbying revolving door. Horgan’s former speechwriter, Danielle Dalzell, joined Earnscliffe Strategies in 2020. Jean-Marc Prevost became associate vice-president in 2021 of Counsel Public Affairs after working as senior communications director for the Ministry of Health. His job included writing scripts for Dr. Bonnie Henry. One of Prevost’s first clients was AstraZeneca contractor Emergent BioSolutions.

Horgan himself has benefited from the revolving door. After the BC NDP fell from power in 2001, Horgan and fellow out-of-work political aides John Heaney and Ian Reid formed the IdeaWorks consultancy. They helped casino clients successfully lobby Vancouver city hall to overturn its ban on slot machines.

“The influence, the combination of lobbying, combined with sort of public pressure has changed, you're no longer trying to get all the public behind something unless it's a really big thing,” Gold said. "Mostly, you're just trying to get the key decision makers and maybe a few key supporters behind something, and you can do that without the public ever seeing what it is. You can do that just by specifically targeting that person.”

Ultimately, Gold said, lobbying is a core tenet of the democratic process. But it is also corrosive to democracy.

“If you think about the interactions, you know, we elect a government every four years, whereas the lobbyists might be into the same office once a month, sometimes once a week, raising their concerns and, I'd say, massaging the output of government.”