Mr. Speaker, the purpose of the motion moved in the House today is to allow parliamentarians to discuss important proposals in Bill C-15 as soon as possible.
In fact, Bill C-15 reflects the excellent work accomplished by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology as part of its study of the Lobbyists Registration Act, and found in its 2001 report.
Earlier this week, the government followed through on a promise made by the Prime Minister to increase the confidence of Canadians in our public institutions. The government presented three supplementary elements of its eight point action plan on government ethics. The bill to amend the Lobbyists Registration Act is one of these elements.
The bill provides a clearer definition of lobbying; provisions to strengthen the enforcement of the Lobbyists Registration Act; simplified requirements for the registration and strengthened requirements for revoking registration through a single registration process for both corporations and non-profit organizations.
I will begin the debate by giving an outline of the current legislation. I will review what has happened since we followed up on the commitment that we made during our first mandate. Members will see that we have set up an effective and transparent system. Then, I will describe the bill, its impact on the lobbyists registration system in Canada, and its importance in the context of the eight point action plan.
Allow me to describe this system. The Lobbyists Registration Act is based on four major principles.
First, freedom of access to crown institutions is in the public interest.
Second, lobbying public office holders is a legitimate activity.
Third, it is advisable to give public office holders and the public the opportunity to know who is trying to influence crown institutions.
Fourth, a registration system for hired lobbyists should not impede freedom of access to crown institutions.
The act currently defines three categories of lobbyists. I want to point out that, in all cases, these are people who are paid to perform lobbying activities. They are not volunteers or people whose civic duties lead them to get involved in issues that are important to them.
The first type is the consultant lobbyist. These people are paid to lobby for their clients.
Then, there is the in-house lobbyist of a corporation. This is an employee of a business for whom lobbying for his employer is an important part of his duties.
Finally, there is the in-house lobbyist of an organization. This is an employee in a non-profit organization in which at least one employee performs lobbying activities. The total time spent on lobbying must be a significant part of the employee's duties.
In its current wording, the act specifically targets any attempts to influence the making, development or modification of legislative proposals, bills, resolutions, regulations and policies or programs of the Government of Canada. It also deals with attempts to influence the granting of subsidies, contributions or other federal financial benefits.
The act applies to lobbying as it relates to “public office holders” of the Government of Canada. These include my colleagues in the House of Commons, our staff, our colleagues in the Senate and their staff. They also include officials and employees of federal departments and agencies, and members of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
A lobbyists' code of conduct was developed in support of the act. This code sets out the standards of conduct lobbyists must follow in dealing with federal public office holders. In addition, the act specifies the nature of the information lobbyists must provide concerning clients, businesses or organizations whom they represent, as well as their activities.
This system is based on a government online model. I can say this because 98 out of 100 lobbyists register online.
Also, Canadians can consult the information posted on the lobbyists registration website. If they want to know who is lobbying which department or agency, and on which subject-matter, this information is available on the Internet. Such a system is a real success story.
While this system is successful, our government thought it was important to review it regularly. We made a commitment in this respect in the 1995 legislation, which resulted in a review in 2001.
The Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology looked at operation of the Lobbyists Registration Act and at how it could be improved. The committee heard testimonies and reached an important conclusion: the system is working well and has made lobbying activities at the federal level transparent.
Indeed, many of the committee's recommendations call for no changes to key aspects of the current system, and it made others that the government found to be quite thoughtful and constructive.
Like any amending bill, Bill C-15 contains a number of changes designed to update the wording of the enactment, and others to correct minor inconsistencies between the French and English texts.
This bill does, however, propose three major changes. The first one concerns the definition of what makes activities subject to registration under the act. My hon. colleagues will remember that, a moment ago, I mentioned that the existing legislation targets a specific type of action, namely an attempt to influence a public office holder. But what exactly does “attempting to influence” mean?
It may be difficult to define this concept and to enforce the legislation in that respect on the basis of experience to date. The thinking has always been that some individuals might not register as lobbyists because they do not see their lobbying activities as attempts to influence someone.
The standing committee recommended that the registrar of lobbyists, the office of the ethics counsellor and the justice department hold more extensive consultations on this matter. This was done, and the bill is proposing a major change.
Generally speaking, we are proposing that any communications between a public office holder and an individual who contacts this public office holder as part of his or her job be considered as lobbying. This individual is then required to register as a lobbyist.
We will not have to worry about possible hairsplitting on whether something was or was not an intent to influence. If it is a communication by a person paid to lobby with a public office holder, it is lobbying.
In order to avoid being too broad in scope, the bill clearly indicates that simple requests concerning facts or requests for information, such as those that any citizen may reasonably submit to his member of Parliament or to a federal employee, will not require registration.
For example, it will not be necessary to register if we phone Environment Canada to find out what the weather will be.
We are also proposing to implement a related change recommended by the standing committee. Under the existing act, if a public office holder initiates contact, the contacted person does not need to register. The committee saw this situation as a possible loophole that goes against the transparency that we are seeking. The government agrees and would like to eliminate this loophole.
So, regardless of who initiates contact, registration is mandatory.
Ultimately, these changes will make it less confusing for those who must register. They will ensure that the compliance rate of those who work under this legislation, and we believe this rate is already high, will be even higher. These changes will further increase transparency.
The second series of important changes relates to the registration process. One of these changes deals with the various systems that currently exist for people who lobby as in-house lobbyists for a corporation or as in-house lobbyists for a non-profit organization.
In the case of a corporation, if an employee spends at least 20% of his time lobbying, then that employee must register. In the case of a non-profit organization, only the senior officer must register if the time spent lobbying by any of his employees amounts to 20% of the work done by a single employee.
Some of the witnesses who appeared before the standing committee did not want to see a change to the system for businesses. They seemed to be concerned that businesses would face administrative burdens.
But another study was conducted later on. It involved counsel working for large corporations. It showed support for a change toward a more consistent approach with respect to all in-house lobbyists. We suggest that Parliament take that approach.
Whether the organization is for profit or not, if employees spend collectively at least 20% of their time lobbying, then this organization is required to register.
As far as we are concerned, what matters is that the chief executive officer or another officer registers on behalf of the organization. Yes, the names of those normally engaged in lobbying would be specified, but the chief executive officer would the one signing the registration and the one answerable before the law for compliance with the Lobbyists Registration Act.
This kind of accountability will undoubtedly help increase the transparency of the system.
The second of this series of changes concerns the rules governing how often registration information is to be updated.
Here, we are proposing a new registration system, which is once again in keeping with the recommendations of the standing committee.
At present, the various categories of lobbyists are subject to different requirements and timeframes. If Parliament agrees, and I think it will, a single system will apply.
All lobbyists will be required to renew and update their registration at least every six months; otherwise, it will be cancelled. They will also have to update their registration more frequently if their clients or the purpose of their lobbying activities changes. But in this way, the information will be updated more regularly.
The third major change that I want to mention is a new requirement for the ethics counsellor and for the counsellor's staff.
Bill C-15 contains a proposal for a new provision in the Lobbyists Registration Act. If the ethics counsellor investigates a possible offence under the lobbyists' code of conduct, and discovers a possible offence under another act, the counsellor would be required to inform the police of it, so that they may take action.
In closing, the purpose of these amendments is to take a system that works well right now and make it work even better in the future. Indeed, when Canadians want to find out who is lobbying which department about what issue, they will be able to find this information on-line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Our government is proud of how it has handled this issue. We said that we would take steps to shed light on lobbying in Ottawa, and that is what we have done. And we have done so in a manner that respects the legitimate role that lobbying plays, as well as the public interest in this activity. We have now taken another step in this regard.
Bill C-15 will give Canada a lobbying registration system that is clearer, more transparent and more enforceable. It will be one of the most rigorous systems in the world. It will make up one of the key elements of the eight-point action plan, which, as the Prime Minister mentioned, will help win the trust of Canadians.
I hope that the committee will be able to study the bill as soon as possible.