Who is lobbying whom?

For the first time in New Brunswick’s history you can find out who is trying to influence public policy and government decision-making. The Lobbyists’ Registration Act took effect on April 1st, 28 years after the federal government’s version was first enacted.

In yet another example of the Liberal government’s penny wise and pound foolish efforts to cut costs it has created a mashup of the lobbyists’ registry, the Right to Information and Privacy Commissioner’s functions and the Conflict of Interest Commissioner’s job and assigned it to the new Integrity Commissioner, retired judge Alexandre Deschênes .

The lobbyists’ registry was first promised by former Premier Shawn Graham in 2007, but he never acted on it. Ironically, Mr. Graham is one of the lobbyists that now appears in the new registry with Fornebu Lumber, Molson Coors, CP Homes and AKD International listed as his clients.

Fortuitously, an evaluation of federal and provincial lobbyist registries was published last month by the Shareholder Association for Research and Education. Where did New Brunswick rank? Dead last, with a score of 2 out of a possible 11 points. Québec ranked first with a score of 6.5 and the federal government placed second at 5.5. PEI is the only provincial jurisdiction without a lobbyists’ registry, thought it has passed legislation to create one.

Our registry, like the 1989 version of the federal one, could be called the business card list, because it requires so little information, it could all fit on a business card.

For example, there is no requirement for the lobbyist to disclose the aim of their lobbying activity, just the general objectives. Doug Tyler, a former cabinet minister in McKenna’s government, is lobbying for J.D. Irivng, and lists as his objective to: “work in partnership with local communities and the Province of NB to support the NB Forest Industry”. Occasionally an entry contains more specificity. Maurice Robichaud, Frank McKenna’s former Communications Director, says he is working to assist the Springhill Group of Companies to obtain a permit for a quarry development. Some entries contain no objectives whatsoever. If you are looking for the particulars about which bills, laws or regulations a lobbyist is attempting to influence, you won’t find it here.

The federal government requires lobbyists to disclose who they are communicating with on a monthly ba
sis. You won’t find this in New Brunswick’s case. Ditto for how much lobbyists are being paid, as is the requirement in Québec.

As the one province in Canada that, in my opinion, is more susceptible to lobbying than any other, our registry and the legislation should be among the best in the country, not the worst.

Essentially, the New Brunswick lobbyists’ registry tells us who is lobbying for whom. Medavie Health Services, which is taking over the management of our Extra-Mural Hospital program, has registered two lobbyists. Red Bull, the energy drink manufacturer, has a registered lobbyist, as does MBDA Missle Systems, a subsidiary of AirBus. Curiously, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Labatts have hired the same lobbyist. These are among the more intriguing entries that stood out to me.

The Integrity Commissioner was not specifically given a budget for establishing and running the lobbyists’ registry, rather he is relying on what is available from the combined budgets of the former Right to Information and Conflict of Interest Commissioners. This needs to change, as the website is bare bones.

The registry is no more than a collection of on-line forms filled out by the lobbyists. It is not searchable by subject and difficult to search by company. You have to enter the organization name exactly as it appears in the registry. If the lobbyist is not a consultant, but an employee of the organization for which they are lobbying, you can’t search by the organization’s name at all.

Retired Judge Deschênes was a formidable jurist of considerable reputation. He now has his hands full as an Officer of the Legislature that is serving as a watchdog over MLA conflict of interest, the Right to Information and Privacy Act, and the Lobbyists’ Registry. It makes me think of Roger Melanson, who is now the Minister responsible for the Treasury Board, Trade Policy, Post-Secondary Education, and for Aboriginal Affairs.

When it comes to governance, the Premier has piled on the responsibilities of multiple departments for single Ministers that undermine their ability to do their jobs and be accountable to the Legislature for the work of their departments. His propensity to do this has now reached into the work of our independent Legislative Officers. This does not represent good governance or excellence in pubic administration. But it is good governance and excellent public administration that we so desperately need.

David Coon is the leader of the Green Party and the MLA for Fredericton South.