Lobbying For Good

From Barry Campbell, something you don’t often see: a defense of lobbying and an explanation of how lobbying shapes better public policy:

The circumstances around the resignation of Jody Wilson Raybould have shone a light, and not a favourable one, on the lobbying by SNC Lavelin. That lobbying by SNC Lavelin of the PMO and anyone else who would take a call or a meeting about their issue, will inevitably be seen by many to be inappropriate or unseemly. It was not. It was perfectly legal, if all appropriate registrations were done under the relevant and already strict Federal lobbyist reporting requirements. It was certainly desperate and tenacious. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that when the dust settles and whatever the political consequence may be, there will be calls to further constrain lobbying of public officials. That would be a serious mistake.

Lobbying at its best is vital to the flow of information and ideas. It bridges a significant gap between the public sector and the private sector and can lead to more informed public policy decisions and better corporate decision making.

Lobbying is often attacked by the left as a way for powerful voices to “have their way with government”. Lately, the attack is coming from the right where libertarian voices have suggested that if government would only get out of the way (read deregulate everything), companies wouldn’t need to lobby anyone for favours. Both attacks are predictable and wrongheaded.

There are many examples where information provided to officials seeking to regulate this or that has resulted in more effective regulation. Without lobbying, officials and elected officials would only know what they knew when they got to the office and I would suggest that is very often not enough of a baseline for serious decisions. That’s why officials consult and take meetings.

When I was an MP, some wondered why I would ever meet with lobbyists. The answer was self-evident. If I never met anyone, I wouldn’t know anything other than what I already knew, which often wasn’t enough to help me understand complex issues. The strict lobby registration rules in Canada which require registration of most interactions with important public officials and provide a public record of same, are a pretty good check on what some worry about. The strict constraints and low permitted financial contribution rules are another check on the influence many worry about.

And lobbying can be a public good or accomplish much public good.
It was lobbying by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada of officials and MPs that resulted in the government agreeing to “right the wrong” and provide funding to thalidomide survivors. Lobbying can change policies to provide better support for workers, the elderly, charitable and cultural institutions.

Lobbying can result in better and appropriately targeted tax or regulatory policy that achieves important public policy goals while removing the risk of collateral damage. A public policy goal to eliminate a practice believed to be adversely impacting consumers, such as pay day lending, might initially paint too broad a brush ensnare legitimate players who want to play by a coherent set of rules that don’t blow up their business model. Lobbying by credit unions resulted in changes to the Bank Act so that credit unions could expand nationally and provide more competition at the retail level. Lobbying by financial institutions and emerging fintechs will shape a better financial services sector offering the choice that consumers want.

As officials think about public policy and ready recommendations to “take to the Minister”, they are informed by the consultations with and entreaties by corporate and other stakeholders. That is a good thing.

The SNC affair, and examples we hear all too often of the worst of lobbying practices engaged in sometimes to secure lucrative defence procurements, should not sully or further constrain the bulk of lobbying activity in Canada.

I have been a “lobbyist” for two decades and have never had a meeting with a Minister where he or she made a decision, then and there, to do something just because I asked. And I would never have that meeting (and it usually isn’t even ever required) without working first with the relevant departmental officials to do the tough slogging respectful of the job officials have to do to provide their bosses with the best and most informed advice.

I know, and the best lobbyists know, that effective lobbying isn’t about setting up a meeting with someone important. That the easy part. Effective lobbying requires the right ask, at the right time to the right audience. It is research based and considers how the ask can dovetail with the government’s priorities by solving a problem or making my client’s problem a problem government comes to understand they need to solve because by doing so they will accomplish a goal they have.

The problem can’t ever be putting relevant and contextual information in front of officials and decision makers. What they do with that information is their responsibility. To constrain the flow of information, between the public sector and the private sector and to close the door on that vital exchange will isolate public policy decision makers and inevitably lead to poorer decisions.

For more information, please contact:

Barry Campbell: barry@campbellstrategies.com
T: 416-368-7353 x 101