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Yes, Let's Reopen the Debate on Lobbying LimitsYes, Let's Reopen the Debate on Lobbying Limits

Yes, Let's Reopen the Debate on Lobbying Limits

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Topics: Leadership, Vocation, Institutions, Work, Government, Civil Discourse
Yes, Let's Reopen the Debate on Lobbying Limits May 11, 2016  |  By Janet Epp Buckingham
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“Who lobbies for the lobbyists? Should we credit the Association of Good People Who Just Want to Serve? People for the Ethical Treatment of Former Hill Staffers?” I won’t lobby for lobbyists. But I will take issue with Andrew Coyne, in the National Post last week, painting unfairly an important vocation. Arguing in favour of limits on lobbying opportunities for those exiting political office, Coyne gives politicians and their staffers the sarcasm treatment. “How,” he asks, “can we expect good people to go into politics if we are unwilling to let them trade on their connections immediately afterward? To Coyne, lobbyists are leeches on the Canadian economy. He pictures lobbyists slinking in the shadows of Parliament, seeking to curry favour with the political elite in order to benefit a “large corporation or trade association.” Some lobbyists do trade on their past public life for personal benefit. They are grist for the pundit’s mill. But lobbyists usually do not have hearts of unbending evil. You might even find some “Good People Who Just Want to Serve”, quietly pursuing honourable ends. Access, for instance. Our government is a huge regulatory machine. Most Canadians have no idea how it works, how to access benefits, or who to contact if they have a problem. What the average Canadian sees of the government system is less than the tip of the iceberg. And we don’t know what we don’t know. I run a small internship program in Ottawa, the Laurentian Leadership Centre, and I place students in internships in political offices, international NGOs and Canadian NGOs in Ottawa. Students get a crash course in Canadian government. Some of my students stay on and work in Ottawa, some in political offices. After two or three years on Parliament Hill, they know how to get things done, both in political offices and with the bureaucracy. I hear their frustration at businesses and NGOs that come to Ottawa to meet with politicians and are completely unprepared. They see pathways for individuals and organizations to better access government services. When my students enter the “lobbying industry,” it can mean that they are helping educate the public about accessing government. Lobbying can also be a pursuit of transparency, even justice. Lobbyists can ensure stakeholders know about important legislation being considered. And yes, lobbyists can help craft messages that are persuasive and effective. To Coyne’s primary argument, I side with Policy Options: a five-year "cooling off" period makes no sense. Those involved in the political system have spent years developing expertise in how the system works. It makes sense that when they leave, they put that expertise to work for the benefit of others, both in Ottawa and across the country. So let’s reopen the debate on lobbying limits. Yes, it erodes public confidence for a Cabinet Minister to resign for a lobbying job and immediately lobby former colleagues. But, too, many gifted and honourable politicians and staffers lost their jobs in the last election, and could now make excellent contributions in government relations. Surely rules can be crafted that both honour experience and protect the public trust. Andrew Coyne is right: there is more to life post-politics than lobbying. But it is a more honourable profession than he allows.

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