Mr. Speaker, Canada has achieved remarkable success as a free, open and prosperous democracy. We can be proud of our reputation as one of the best countries in the world to live in. We have world-class cities, and I would be remiss if I did not mention my own city, Vancouver, which was recently ranked the sixth most livable city in the world out of the top 140.
Many have played a crucial role in the success of our country, including our public service, which was recently ranked as the most effective in the world. That was the finding of the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index, which is a joint project of Oxford University and the U.K. Institute for Government.
The public service operates as part of the executive in a well-functioning system that consists of a number of important components. These include the legislature, the judiciary, civil society actors and lobbyists. In fact, legitimate lobbying has played a key role in ensuring that the government remains responsive to the needs of Canadians.
The public perception of lobbying is often negative, but lobbying is not about influence peddling or bribery. Lobbying is the process through which individuals and groups articulate their interests to parliamentarians and to government in order to inform public policy or decision-making. In fact, I have learned that they also educate, because they are deeply knowledgeable about their subject, and I as a parliamentarian may not be that deeply knowledgeable about so many subjects.
Many interest groups, such as non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups, have government relations staff or consultants who speak with the government on their behalf.
Take the environmental movement. Many of these organizations lobby or hire lobbyists to advocate for a range of causes, such as reducing greenhouse gases, conserving our wildlife and protecting our lakes and rivers. These lobbying efforts help government to develop policy that better reflects the views and interests of Canadians. This is an important aspect of lobbying that is often forgotten.
Clearly, lobbying, when done ethically and transparently, is a legitimate and fundamental part of our democratic system. We cannot ignore the significant contribution from good and ethical co-operation among diverse interests. It can lead to the collaborative development of sound policy that reflects the expectations and needs of Canadians.
Furthermore, individuals, organizations and businesses can and should communicate their opinions and ideas to government decision-makers and policy-makers. The challenge for us as lawmakers is establishing clear rules to ensure that lobbying is done openly. That is why the Lobbying Act is so important.
The purpose of the act is ensure transparency in lobbyists' activities without restricting access to government institutions. It requires lobbyists to register and report their lobbying activities every month. That includes communications with designated public office holders. That information is available online in a public registry maintained by the Commissioner of Lobbying.
The bill before us today proposes two changes to the act as it stands now.
The first amendment would require all corporations and organizations that lobby the government to disclose all funds received from foreign nationals, non-resident corporations and non-resident organizations. The act currently requires any entity that lobbies the government, whether domestic or foreign, to register with the office of the Commissioner of Lobbying. The act also currently requires corporations to disclose their parent company and subsidiaries, which may include foreign companies.
Second, Bill CC-278 would also expand the types of activities that lobbyists must report as “grassroots communications”. As it now stands under the act, lobbyists must identify the techniques they use to communicate with public office holders, including whether they use grassroots communication. Under the Act, “grassroots communication” means appealing to the public directly or through mass media to try to persuade them to communicate directly with a public office holder to influence their opinion.
Bill C-278 would expand the definition of grassroots communication to include situations where lobbyists are encouraging the public or organizations to undertake activities that could indirectly influence public office holders.
Any proposal to amend the Lobbying Act should be assessed against the principles of the legislation itself, which state, first, that free and open access to government is an important matter of public interest; second, that lobbying public office holders is a legitimate activity; third, that it is desirable that public office holders and the public be able to know who is engaged in lobbying activities; and fourth, that a system for the registration of paid lobbyists should not impede free and open access to government.
The amendments proposed by Bill C-278 could increase the reporting burden on lobbyists. They could also generate additional costs for the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying to implement the changes to the registry and to monitor compliance. It is important that any amendments to the Lobbying Act respect the principles of the act, which seek to strike a balance between transparency and ensuring that the compliance burden imposed on lobbyists is reasonable and fair.
I welcome consideration of any measures to improve transparency in lobbying. Our government is committed to raising the bar on openness and transparency in government. For example, our government was the first to open the door for Canadians to see cabinet ministers' mandate letters, which under previous governments were kept secret. We publicly report on how far we have come in keeping the promises we made, and government departments track the outcomes of their programs with indicators and then publish the results online for public scrutiny. We have an open data portal, which makes vast amount of government data accessible, and we have taken this data portal from being a pilot project to being a permanent program.
We are also trying to take the idea of open by default to a deeper level through a pilot portal that provides public access to internal working documents. We recently proposed important changes to the Access to Information Act, such as mandatory proactive publication for 240 government institutions as well as ministers' offices.
Accomplishments like these are what led Canada to being elected chair of the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee for 2018-19. Our track record on openness and transparency speaks for itself.
Make no mistake; we are committed to the continuous improvement of the Lobbying Act, and we welcome this debate on the subject. I encourage all members to look carefully at these proposals with a view to balancing the interests of all stakeholders, the rights of lobbyists to advocate, the rights of those they represent, and the rights of Canadians to know how their government does business.