Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-278, an act to amend the Lobbying Act (reporting obligations).
The purpose of the Lobbying Act is to achieve a balance in maintaining the transparency of lobbying activities and ensuring free and open access to government. To that end, the Lobbying Act is based on four key principles.
First is that free and open access to government is an important matter of public interest.
Second is that lobbying public office holders is a legitimate activity.
Third, it is desirable that public office holders and the public be able to know who is engaged in lobbying activities.
Fourth, the system of registration of paid lobbyists should not impede free and open access to government.
I would like to take this opportunity to go over the main features of this legislation. The Lobbying Act requires anyone who lobbies federal public office holders to register with the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada.
All lobbyists are obligated under the act to report on lobbying activities, including communications with designated public office holders, on a monthly basis. This information is published on the Internet on the public registry maintained by the Commissioner of Lobbying.
The Lobbying Act identifies two types of lobbyists. A consultant lobbyist is an individual who, for payment, communicates with public office holders on behalf of any person or organization.
The Lobbying Act lists activities that are considered to be lobbying when carried out in return for payment. Generally speaking, they include communication with a public office holder in respect of the amendment of any act, regulation, policy or program of the federal government, the awarding of a financial benefit such as a grant or contribution, and, in some cases, the awarding of a government contract.
In addition, for a consultant lobbyist, arranging a meeting between a public office holder and any other person constitutes lobbying.
The commissioner has provided additional interpretation on what must be reported. In-house and consultant lobbyists must report all oral and arranged communications with designated public office holders relating to financial benefits, even when initiated by public officer holders. Likewise, consultant lobbyists must report oral and arranged communications with designated public office holders relating to a contract regardless of who initiated the communication.
For the purposes of the Lobbying Act, communications include oral, written and local communications. Examples of oral communication with a public office holder include organized meetings, telephone calls and informal verbal communications. Letters and emails are examples of written communication with a public office holder. Lobbyists' appeals to the public through letter-writing and email campaigns, advertising, websites or social media are examples of local communication.
Currently, under the act, grassroots communication means appealing to the public directly or through mass media to persuade them to communicate directly with a public office holder to influence their opinion.
Some types of communication do not require registration. These include, for example, inquiries to obtain publicly available information and general inquiries about the terms and conditions of programs and application processes.
Registration is also not required for participation in government-initiated activities such as consultations, hearings, round tables or like-minded activities where transparency is comparable to that of a parliamentary committee, with participants, proceedings and decisions readily made public. The same goes for the preparation and presentation of briefings to parliamentary committees.
The bill before us today would require organizations and corporations that lobby the government to report on funds received from foreign nationals, non-resident corporations and non-resident organizations. This bill would also expand the types of activities that lobbyists must report as grass roots communications.
The proposed bill will expand the definition of grassroots communications to require lobbyists to also disclose if they are encouraging the public or organizations to undertake activities that could indirectly influence public office holders.
When we consider the bill against the principles of the act, which have sought to strike a balance between transparency and ensuring that the compliance burden imposed on lobbyists is reasonable and fair, important concerns become apparent.
For example, lobbyists can face steep penalties for violating the Lobbying Act. Filing a false return can result in a $200,000 fine or two years in jail. As such, it is crucial that the reporting obligations under the act remain clear so that lobbyists are able to comply with the legislation. We believe the proposed bill does the exact opposite.
In addition, the bill's amendments would increase the compliance burden on lobbyists and the enforcement burden on the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying. The limited impact of the bill in terms of transparency must be weighed against these potential costs.
The Lobbying Act makes it possible for Canadians to know who is talking to public office holders and whose interests they represent. I am open to improving the act, but I think that, in this case, the cons of the proposed amendments outweigh the potential pros. That is why I encourage all members to vote against this bill.