On the same day the federal lobbying watchdog appealed to Ottawa to provide more funding, the Quebec lobbying commissioner echoed calls by his predecessors and beckoned the provincial government to strengthen, expand and simplify the province’s lobby laws.
“Sixteen years after the adoption of the Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Act, it is time to consolidate the framework rules around lobbying so that stakeholders have more buy-in,” said Jean-François Routhier, who was appointed as the Commissioner of Lobbying on October 2017. “The law must be modernized, even completely rethought.”
A 2017 Quebec Court of Appeal decision that acquitted the politician David Cliche who was accused of breaking the lobbying legislation spurred more trepidation. Cliche, a former Parti Québécois MNA from 1994 to 2002, was found guilty of six infractions of Quebec’s lobbying law by Quebec Superior Court in March 2016, and was fined $3,000.
The commissioner refrains from commenting on the impact the decision is expected to have in the 2017-18 annual report, tabled this week. But it is notable that the appeal court decision is the only decision in the annual report that has several paragraphs devoted to it.
Former lobby commissioner François Casgrain, who retired last year due to poor health, was not as discreet when the decision was released. “The Quebec appeal court decision basically held that the opinion of the commissioner over one of the provisions (of the law) no longer applies,” noted Casgrain. “Unless there are changes to the law there will be significant challenges, including further legal challenges, challenges that try to avoid transparency from really being applied.”
Four successive provincial governments promised over the years to shore up lobby laws, and none have kept their word. The latest effort, Bill 56, is languishing since November 2015, and is unlikely ever to get off the ground.
Bill 56, also referred to as the Lobbying Transparency Act, proposes wholescale changes. It revises the definitions of lobbyists, makes each in-house lobbyist individually responsible for filing a return, requires registration before lobbying commences, moves to quarterly reporting of lobbying activities, imposes new obligations on public office holders, makes the commissioner responsible for the registry, empowers the commissioner to impose monetary administrative penalties, and provides for substantially higher fines upon conviction.
More controversially, Bill 56 makes it mandatory for all for-profit and non-profit businesses and organizations to register online before approaching any government department or individual holding public office to lobby for support, financial or otherwise – and that has raised the ire of the non-profit sector who want to be excluded from the bill.
Routhier has all but admitted in the latest annual report (available in French only) that Bill 56 is dead in the water in light of the upcoming provincial elections scheduled for this fall. Nevertheless he intends to table a policy statement based on international best practices at the beginning of the next legislative session.
Routhier also believes that more must be done to increase education and outreach efforts to ensure all lobbyists and public office holders understand lobbying rules and to maintain a high level of transparency for the public – a position too held by federal lobbying commissioner Nancy Belanger.
As of March 31, 2018, there were 13,129 registered Quebec lobbyists, an increase of 8 per cent over the preceding year, with 3,099 registering for the first time. In fiscal 2017-18, 37 cases were brought to the attention of the commissioner, 27 cases were opened by the office, and 14 investigations were concluded, 10 of which were in breach of the Act.