Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to join in the debate on referring Bill C-15, an act to amend the Lobbyists Registration Act, to committee before second reading.
I want to take a bigger picture view in our debate over Bill C-15. Quite rightly, some of this debate has centred on the details of the bill but a lot has focused on the entire subject of the ethics of lobbying. That is easy to understand. The entire notion of lobbying is linked to questions of how decisions are made in government.
Having said that, it makes sense to talk a bit about the realities of lobbying. It makes sense to comment on how Bill C-15 and the entire lobbyists registration system works to build transparency and trust in our system of government.
Let us start with one basic reality. Lobbying is a fact of life for government and it is not an inherently bad thing. It is lobbying when my constituents contact me about legislation or about their opinions on government programs. It is lobbying when a business in my riding contacts me about the impacts of a decision on its interests and on the jobs of the people I represent. It is lobbying when a community organization of whatever kind gets in touch with me to comment on government policies.
The simple fact is government decisions affect many aspects of everyone's lives. In a healthy democracy governments should not make decisions in a vacuum. Lobbying happens when people try to bring information relating to government choices to those of us who can do something with that information. When people say “lobbying is bad” , what are they really saying? They must be suggesting that people in the public service, or cabinet or even in Parliament are so knowledgeable about every possible impact of every single law, or regulation, or policy or program that we do not need to hear from anyone else. They must be suggesting that we should make decisions with no outside contact. Not so.
People who are involved with making decisions in government need to hear from people who have different perspectives and who have other information and insights. It does not make sense to say that decision makers and the people who help develop the ideas for them should be off in some ivory tower somewhere. That is why lobbying is a reality for government and always will be.
I have just responded to the kind of black and white rhetoric we have already heard on this issue. I know that when pressed opposition members will admit that lobbying is a basic fact of government life and a legitimate and routinely useful one. In fact I think we also share the belief that this issue is not whether lobbying is good or bad, but how to bring transparency to that lobbying. It is about doing what makes sense and what is necessary to ensure that Canadians know who is in touch with public office holders, whether elected ones or officials. That is what the existing Lobbyists Registration Act does. That is why Bill C-15 will enable it to do even better.
Our government took a system that it inherited from the Mulroney era and brought it in line with what Canadians wanted, expected and deserved. We took a system that did far too little to end the days of deals behind closed doors between people who could operate with little transparency and brought it into the light.
That is why we have a system that deals with people who are paid to lobby, not those who are fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens with an interest in public policy. Our focus is where it deserves to be. It is on people who are paid lobbyists, whether they are consultants lobbying on behalf of someone else or lobbyists who are regular employees of a business, an association or a non-profit group.
After promising Canadians that we would do this in the 1993 election campaign, we came to Parliament in 1995 to improve the lobbyists registration system that we inherited and to improve it considerably.
The Lobbyists Registration Act that Parliament passed in 1995 and came into force in 1996 was built around four principles. The first principle states that free and open access to government is an important matter of public interest. The second principle recognizes that lobbying public officer holders is a legitimate activity. The third principle makes clear the desirability of public office holders and the public being able to know who is attempting to influence government. The fourth principle points out that a system of registration of paid lobbyists should not impede free and open access to government.
The idea is to throw light on lobbying, to show who is lobbying whom and about what. The public has a right to know these things because public policy and public choices affect them. This approach underlines the fact that if everyone can see what is going on, including lobbyists on all sides of an issue, then lobbying is not something that takes place in the shadows, but something that is legitimate enough to take place in the open.
For instance, I note that the member for Red Deer, the new Alliance environment critic, recently explained why his party opposed Kyoto. I quote from the National Post of April 5. He said, “I think it will help our fundraising”. The Canadian public would like to know who is lobbying the Alliance Party on this issue.
Of course, it is not good enough for people to register and for the information to be available. It has to be as easily and readily accessible as possible. This is one of the real strengths of the process that our government brought in. If a person wants to know who is lobbying who and about what, it is all on the Internet now.
The lobbyists registration system was one of the first federal activities to move online. All these forms are there and approximately 98% of registrations take place online. That is not just a question of making it easy as possible for lobbyists to register. It is an important step that makes it easier for Canadians to look up lobbyist information.
Does the system work? Yes, it does. That is what the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology said when it reviewed the act last year. Let me quote from the report to the House, it says that the act:
--provides precisely the kind of transparency for which it was created... we can find out who is lobbying what department and exactly what they are discussing.
Could the system work better? Yes, it could. This is the point of Bill C-15. It draws on the advice of the standing committee. It draws on related study and research. It fits with the overall commitment of the Prime Minister to enhance the trust of Canadians in our public institutions through his eight-point action plan on government ethics.
I suggest that my hon. colleague should take a real look at lobbying in Canada, recognize the issue is transparency and support a bill that will take a solid piece of legislation and make it stronger still.