The Hobgoblins under the Lobbyist Bridge


Lobbyist cartoonLobbyist. For some, the word conjures frightening images of nefarious trolls and ogres in Armani suits lurking under the bridges and in the woods in the dark night, snatching unwary politicians and dragging them down to whatever hell the gullible and naive descend to (a hell cleverly paved with gold and champagne flutes).

The very word itself is printed in bold and in colour in some comments, just in case you might miss it and the boogeyman-thrill the hiss of the word gives. Lobbyisssst… my precioussss….

That’s in part because the popular impression of lobbying derives from watching American TV news, and sitcoms. In the USA, the lobbying industry has been likened to a shadow government, pulling the strings of the legislators while filling their pockets with cash. Lobbyists there seem to be able to buy votes with impunity and openly. It’s not the same everywhere, however.

For others, the word simply refers to someone doing a job, like a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist… in fact a lawyer could be called a lobbyist with a law degree (we’ve seen lawyers acting as lobbyists on behalf of their clients in front of council many times). And like any other profession, lobbyists have a role to play in public life and government.

Lobbyist cartoonWhile lobbyists often get a bad rap in the media because of their association with corporate interests, they also represent many smaller commercial concerns and NGOs. Some represent non-profit groups, charities, environmental agencies, health agencies and even private schools. Lobbyists helped change the smoking laws in Ontario to prevent smoking in public places, bars and restaurants. Lobbyists helped change the pesticide use laws to prohibit toxic chemicals from being used on public property. So clearly they’re not all bad, and in fact are often important to the governance process.

Lobbyists play an important role in bringing issues and challenges to the political forefront. How much they actually influence municipal governments is difficult to assess.

“The defence of lobbying is that it is not only an inevitable part of life but a necessary and positive one. It is simply a modern professional embodiment of the ancient right of people to petition their rulers, and, by extension, to seek the advice and support of others to help them do so. Modern governments are responsible for a vast range of policy areas which involves drafting and implementing detailed and intricate laws and regulations. On their own they cannot hope to keep abreast of all the information and opinions they need to take into account. Lobbying is a means of providing them with the raw material they need to make informed decisions which reflect different interests in their societies.”
Trevor Morris & Simon Goldsworthy: PR Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Because of the negative connotations associated with the term, lobbyists often prefer to call themselves “public affairs” practitioners.

“There is some confusion over the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘public affairs’. Some authorities argue that there are subtle differences between the two, suggesting the lobbying is process of speaking with political actors, whilst public affairs refers to the complete process. The term lobbyist is often eschewed by consultants because of its shady undertones. However, in this fact sheet (and all others) the terms will be used interchangeably.”
www.publicaffairslinks.co.uk/

Others try to highlight their difference with the term “advocates” rather than lobbyist. A rose by any other name… Others have called lobbying “advocacy journalism“. The American League of Lobbyists has in its code of ethics this statement:

Lobbying is an integral part of our nation’s democratic process and is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Government officials are continuously making public policy decisions that affect the vital interests of individuals, corporations, labor organizations, religious groups, charitable institutions and other entities. Public officials need to receive factual information from affected interests and to know such parties’ views in order to make informed policy judgments. In exercising their rights to try to influence public policy, interests often choose to employ professional representatives to monitor developments and advocate their positions, or to use lobbyists through their membership in trade associations and other membership organizations. Tens of thousands of men and women now are professional lobbyists and represent virtually every type of interest.

Why do companies or groups use lobbyists? Because not everyone is calm and confident as a speaker, is comfortable doing public presentations, has the time to research and meet with everyone. When you can’t do the job yourself, you hire a carpenter to fix the stairs, a mechanic to fix your car, an electrician to put in new lighting. Same principle.

The unfathomable paranoia over lobbyists is likely more driven by petty partisan politics than by any actual threat they pose to democracy. The word is used to scare small children, but like all ghost stories, it proves a risible threat in the sockdolager of rational thought.

Five years ago, Collingwood council considered creating a lobbyist registry. Staff report 2008-05 (April 7, 2008) noted

Some of the options may be viewed as solutions to problems that Collingwood, as a much smaller municipality, does not encounter.

In other words, some members of council were looking to fix what wasn’t broken. I wrote a humorous piece about that discussion, a few days later on my old blog.

The issue brewed and stewed like a fart in a crowded elevator on a long trip to the penthouse, until June 23, 2008, when Coun. Edwards moved and I seconded a motion to dump the idea. It passed (5-4? I don’t recall – the EB story isn’t online). I also wrote about that, more seriously, on my old blog. Back then I wrote:

It was one of those ‘bubble ideas’ – ideas that sound good at election time and make great sound bites, but are fragile shells, ill-conceived plans, hollow of substance.

The idea seemed to have been buried in the post-election kitty litter with the rest of the impractical proposals, but up it came last April in a staff report (C2008-05). But that initial discussion had no conclusion (or rather debate was truncated before we arrived at one), and left to simmer for a few months.

I thought the issue had died its deserving death, but no, it continues to rise from the grave every now and then like one of those tired old internet hoaxes about Bill Gates giving you $100 to forward this email to everyone in your contact list. Someone always seems to be able to spin a conspiracy in which a lobbyist plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We need a website that debunks these political myths like Snopes.com does internet myths.

This is a small town. We can figure this out without the need for any more layers of bureaucracy or red tape.

We don’t need a lobbyist registry anymore than we need a spaceport, an aquarium or a bronze statue of a former mayor in front of the library. Like I wrote in 2008, this would put a wall between politicians and the people they represent, and flies in the face of the often-promised-but-seldom-delivered “open, accountable and transparent” government.