Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Registering Lobbyists Will Shine a Light on Back Room Deals

Shady backroom deal-makers love to operate under the cover of darkness.  Openness and transparency are the friends of an engaged citizenry, while backroom deal-makers avoid accountability by scuttling away to dark corners for secret meetings.

In the recent provincial by-election in Sudbury, we saw first-hand how exposing backroom deals to the light of day can have an impact.  Former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier blew the whistle on senior Party officials who made what he thought were inappropriate overtures to him to drop out of the by-election race.  Had Olivier remained silent, it’s doubtful that these problematic backroom practices would have ever been exposed. 

For others who might think of speaking out on matters of local importance, silence is often ultimately deemed the safest course to take.  By speaking out, citizens expose themselves to all sorts of repercussions, from appearing offside on a popular issue, to experiencing full-blown smear campaigns orchestrated by rivals.  Deep-pocketed opponents have even been known to threaten and file lawsuits in order to silence engaged citizens who are expressing an opinion as part of a public process.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – known as “SLAPPS” – have forced citizens and non-governmental organizations to rethink their public opposition to development projects being reviewed by authorities like the Ontario Municipal Board or the Environmental Review Tribunal.  Often, SLAPP lawsuits have no merit, and are filed only to silence opponents.  After the public process unfolds to the satisfaction of the corporate bully, the suits are quietly dropped.

In December, the government of Ontario re-introduced a bill to curtail SLAPP’s.  Anti-SLAPP legislation would better protect citizens from vexatious lawsuits, while continuing to allow valid defamation suits to proceed to trial.   While this initiative enjoys broad public support, there are some who are nevertheless concerned that citizens and grassroots environmental organizations might gain the upper hand over multinational corporations. 

Resolute Forest Products has been quietly lobbying the provincial government to kill the anti-SLAPP bill.  Resolute, which in May 2013 filed a $7 million defamation suit against Greenpeace and two of its directors, has paid a number of different lobbyists to meet with provincial officials over the past two years.  We know this because in 1999, the Province of Ontario became the first province to require lobbyists to register and record their meetings with elected officials. 

In the interests of openness and transparency, the federal government has a similar registry for lobbyists. 

What about Ontario’s municipal governments?

Currently, municipalities aren’t required to register and record the activities of lobbyists, although Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton have created registries on their own initiatives.  While lobbying is a legitimate activity, citizens would clearly benefit from knowing exactly who is trying to influence our elected officials, and about what.

Two large northern-based organizations comprised of municipal council members, the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), have been urging the Province to amend or kill the anti-SLAPP bill.  Using extremist language to suggest that foreign-funded environmental groups are attacking the North’s economy and way of life, FONOM and NOMA’s opposition to anti-SLAPP actually runs counter to the interests of northern citizens who want to actively and fearlessly engage in public processes to improve their communities.

It’s unknown whether northern municipal politicians have met with corporate lobbyists who have urged them to oppose anti-SLAPP legislation.  Without the benefit of lobbyist registries at our City Halls, northern Ontarians are left in the dark about what discussions are taking place between paid lobbyists and our elected officials.   Municipal politicians who are concerned about accountability should demand transparency and shine a light on secretive backroom deals by requiring the details of lobbying efforts be made public.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in print as "Registering lobbyists brings transparency", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, March 7, 2015. 

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