Begging the government for dollars

Corporations and universities hiring lobbyists to get cash, but is it democratic?

Universities are increasingly hiring outside consultants to lobby the provincial and federal governments for funds. Mark Reimer

Lobbyists may get institutions the money they need for projects, but questions of transparency surround the practice of hiring advisers to beg for dollars.

Thanks to the fine art of lobbying, the University of Winnipeg received $746,500 last May from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. This money was used to develop a project to increase the enrolment of Aboriginal and new students.

One of the results was the Opportunity Fund program, which aims to build a $10 million endowment fund to help students achieve a post-secondary education.

Jennifer Rattray, the university’s executive director of government, indigenous and community affairs, said it is normal for universities to lobby governments.

“We do it all the time,” Rattray said, adding the university usually hires outside consultants to do the lobbying for them.

“They [lobbyists] facilitate and help you meet people you need to meet.”

Lobbying for universities requires much co-ordination.

“We meet with all levels of government as much as possible. It’s all about building relationships and holding conversations,” Rattray said.

Aside from government grants to finance programs, the university also lobbies for federal funding for research grants and infrastructure policy, such as the Spence Street bus corridor.

“Lobbying is an undemocratic means of influence,” said Duff Conacher, coordinator for Democracy Watch, a non-partisan citizen’s group that advocates democratic reform and government accountability.

“Democracy is supposed to be one person, one vote,” Conacher said. “No one should have more influence than anybody else over a politician.”

Conacher cites gift giving and wining and dining as examples where more influence can be attained by people who have more money.

Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (FCB), disagrees slightly.

“Lobbying is part of democracy, but it should be transparent,” Morrison said.

The FCB is a volunteer group concerned about Canadian identity and culture in the national media. They keep track of the Canadian broadcasting industry’s lobbying efforts on their web sites. While the Government of Canada lists this information on their website, other governments, such as Alberta, do not. Manitoba passed a lobbyist registration act last October.

“CanWest is in bad shape and Leonard Asper is popping up all over Ottawa,” Morrison said, referring to the fact Asper is asking the feds for funds.

Morrison is concerned about the CBC, which he said has been increasing its non-Canadian content to get more ratings, and, consequently, advertising funds.

“The best way to make money is to buy programs from outside of Canada and wrap it around Canadian ads,” Morrison said. “We’re concerned about what programs go on the air.”

The feds are noticing people are becoming increasingly weary of lobbyists. Recent changes to the federal Lobbying Act include monthly disclosures about any arranged communication between the lobbyist and a public office holder. This info can be found at the website for the federal Lobbying Commissioner,

Other changes include a ban on payment and activity as a result of lobbying and a five-year prohibition of former public office holders on lobbying the Government of Canada. The changes came into effect June 2008.

According to Pierre Ricard-Desjardins, director of operation in the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, there are about 5,000 active federal lobbyists.

Ricard-Desjardins said Crown corporations are exempted from the Act.

“It would be odd for people working for the Crown not being able to talk with people who are representative of their shareholders,” he said.

All lobbyists with the federal government are required to register online, which is free of charge.

Published in Volume 63, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 5, 2009)

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