When the Auditor General of Ontario criticized Ontario's hospitals for using provincial funding to hire lobbyists a few weeks ago, it seemed as though government, opposition parties, media, and political commentators all had something to say about it.
Jim Coyle in the Toronto Star linked the hospitals' lobbying efforts to a culture at Queen's Park: "If you don’t know the secret password into the key offices at Queen’s Park — or can’t hire someone who does — you’re left holding the short straw."
Lobbying is so common at Queen's Park that it is very hard to imagine anyone ending it overnight. To end the culture of lobbying would require a whole new philosophy of government. That's not happening "immediately".
It's not just bad news for hospitals. It's bad news for air and water as well. If you care about clean water, you should care about lobbying. Here's why:
Lobbying and environmental regulation go hand in hand
That doesn't mean they should go hand in hand. But that's how things work in Ontario today. Want a permit to pollute? Hire a lobbyist to help with the process. Want regulations favourable to your entire industry? Create an entire "association" to represent your interests at Queen's Park. (For example: Cement Day at Queen's Park was November 30, 2009; "Meet the Miners Day" at Queen's Park was March 25, 2009).
"Pay to play" is all-too common
Earlier this week, the NDP released data showing that some Ontario utilities were spending thousands of dollars to support Liberal party fundraising efforts. Municipally-owned utilities buy tickets to partisan fundraising events, then defend it as a cost of doing business:
The utility viewed the Liberal fundraisers as necessary networking events, said Essex Power President and CEO Ray Tracey.
"It's really to understand the direction of the government and... ensuring that if we're going to be making investments we can be sure that there's a commitment to these (green energy) programs," said Tracey.
Who's to blame? The utilities that divert funds to partisan coffers? Or the government that discloses important policy information only to those who pay an entrance fee?
Such "networking" events are very common. Government, political parties, or industry associations host conferences, speeches, and receptions and charge entrance fees far greater than anything an ordinary individual could afford to pay. (For example: In March 2010, the Minister of Energy was the keynote speaker at an energy industry conference where passes typically cost about $1,000 and tickets to his speech were $195.)
The government itself joins (and funds) lobby associations
Ontario government-funded entities are often members of lobby associations; those associations, in turn, lobby the Ontario government. Ontario Power Generation is a member of the Canadian Nuclear Association, as well as the CANDU Owners Group (also a CNA member). The Ministries of Agriculture, Energy and Industry are "funding organizations" of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association. The OSEA, in turn, is a member of the Green Energy Act Alliance, whose mandate was to campaign for the recently-passed Green Energy and Green Economy Act.
The government is simultaneously eliminating public access to decision-makers
Last week we wrote about Ontario's Open for Business policy, which could be subtitled "Closed for the Public". The new Open for Business Act eliminates most of the public participation and public appeal rights that individuals need to help protect their local environment. Prior to that, there were other rollbacks such as the elimination of intervenor funding for the public during environmental assessments.
Solution?The only "solution" currently on the table is Bill 119, An Act to amend the Lobbyists Registration Act. This Bill passed first reading in early October. It prohibits consultant-lobbyists from lobbying on behalf of public entities. But it won't solve the problem.
Bill 119 doesn't stop publicly-funded organizations from keeping lobbyists on staff; it only stops them from retaining consultants who lobby on their behalf. More importantly, it doesn't limit the ability of the private sector to lobby and it doesn't discourage Ministers from saving key policy information for private events.
Until we have more meaningful conversations about who gets access to decision-makers, how they get access, and what is said behind closed doors, we have no assurance that wise decisions are being made. In the meantime, we continue to see beach postings, drinking water advisories, and fish consumption warnings that remind us we can do better. We continue to see habitat destruction, lake filling, and new pollution permits that make current problems worse. And we see ordinary people who care about their water left outside in the cold.