BY: MITCHELL THOMPSON
The Federal government has attempted to stop revolving door practices by banning officials from working for companies that they had dealings with in their final year in office. However Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch argues that the ban is ineffective and full of loopholes.
Duff Conacher, professor at the University of Toronto and Co-founder of Democracy Watch—an Ottawa-based, non-profit advocate for government accountability—says these loopholes have resulted in “all sorts of very bad decision making that abuses the public interest and the public.”
Imagine a politician who has a choice between something that helps the public, but leads to no personal gain, and something that helps a corporation, which will land him a cozy and well-paying job post-politics. Which do you think the politician is going to choose?
This is known as the revolving door, where politicians make decisions based on their career interests, rather than the interest of the public and as a result, government and industry become largely interchangeable. It’s a practice that basically tells voters to go fuck themselves.
The revolving door is when politicians make decisions based on their career interests, rather than the interest of the public and as a result, government and industry become largely interchangeable. It’s a practice that basically tells voters to go fuck themselves.
Photo By: Kriegaffe from music video “Relentless”, 2003
The Star says the current Federal Accountability Act and subsequent Conflict of Interest Act attempted to curtail this, by banning “former federal office holders from doing work for any person or organization with which the office holder had ‘significant official dealings’ before leaving government.” However, Conacher says, “there’s more loopholes than there are rules.”
Conacher says “what defines real and significant or official dealings is not a hard line,” and as a result, companies have found a way around regulation.
Conacher says that because of this, “the company can lobby on the issue without lobbying you as a minister, like on the back of a golf course and they say, ‘don’t worry we’ll take care of you, if you do this for us.’ The company can lobby the department, or they can lobby other ministers and have them pass on the message to you.”
Further problems concern the definition of “before.” The current ban only applies to real and significant dealings done in that federal office holder’s last year in office. Conacher says “if the dealings had taken place in that period of one year, the official can’t work for that company. The idea is that the company couldn’t have secured the official a job in one year, but it’s not sufficient.”
It’s been almost a decade since this revolving door legislation was cemented into law. In that time, industry has adapted to the law and has also found loopholes in the one-year ban. Because of this, Conacher says, “If you’re dealing with a significant file with a company and it ends twelve months and one day before you leave, you shouldn’t be able to take a job with that company for at least three years—if not five.”
Conacher says this is particularly true “because, when you have significant dealings, you develop a relationship with that lobbyist, you get to know them and you know for certain whether your policies are beneficial to them or not. It’s incredibly dangerous to say ‘oh we’ll just kill your last year, but everything else is wide open’.” As a result, the company is capable of making arrangements for a job post-politics and maintaining their influence over that official, meaning the one-year ban is a very minor obstacle.
The one-year-ban currently in legislation is a very minor obstacle, and is inconsistent with the five-year-lobbying-ban for companies that the office holder had significant dealings with. Many have taken advantage of this loophole that has been left unchecked:
Stephen Maher writes in The Post that “the Accountability Act that the Tories brought in created the office of the lobbying commissioner, and imposed a five-year ban on lobbying by former ministers. The Tories passed the law with the help of the NDP, but NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says that the government has not acted in the spirit of the law,” by allowing these loopholes to remain unchecked.
According to Maher, Angus said that because of this, the revolving door currently in place means that “You’re bringing in people from industries that are heavily lobbying the government…They get to sit in the prime minister’s office, play key roles, then they step out again, back into industry. The revolving door creates the impression that access is based on who you know in the PMO. And this is something that Stephen Harper said he was going to change.” Maher writes that the purpose of the Act was to “stop insiders from moving freely back and forth from government to the lobbying industry [and other business positions],” and thereby preventing the industry from influencing that politician’s decisions.
There are also problems with the act’s inconsistency, which allows companies to get around certain provisions that endanger their practices. For example, one-year work-ban is inconsistent with the five-year-lobbying-ban for companies that the office holder had significant dealings with. Conacher says the “five year ban on lobbying [is there] for a reason, because they think that within five years there’ll be a political turnover.” This inconsistency allows companies to take advantage of the official’s position in office, simply by hiring them in a slightly different capacity, such as for consulting rather than lobbying, after dealing with them prior to the one-year period.
See Chuck Strahl, who oversaw CSIS while it was targeting anti-pipeline demonstrators. After retiring from the review committee, Strawl took a job with Enbridge, Canada’s largest pipeline company.
Press Progress reports that “Stephen Harper, tapped [Strahl] in June 2012 to chair the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the watchdog of Canada’s spy agency…The Vancouver Observer discovered that Strahl and his consultancy company, Chuck Strahl Consulting Inc.[signed a contract with] Enbridge,this is the same Enbridge that works with Canada’s spy agency (the one Strahl watches over) … to tackle “threats” to pipeline projects, such as the proposed Northern Gateway. This has involved spying on environmental groups.” The CBC notes that “Strahl was not alone on SIRC when it came to ties with the oil, gas and pipeline industries. Denis Losier sits on the board of directors of Enbridge New Brunswick, and Yves Fortier was previously on the board of TransCanada Pipelines.” This may prompt you to think that there ‘are just a few bad apples’, but keep in mind that there are only 5 members of SIRC, with the CBC identifying it as the “five-member Security Intelligence Review Committee,” three of whom had connections to the oil industry.
Of the five members of SIRC, which acted as monitors for CSIS while they spied on environmentalists, three of them worked with the oil industry, including Strahl, who at the time, chaired the committee. Yet, due to the loopholes in the conflict of interest and federal accountability acts, all of this was perfectly legal.
Former Cabinet Minister Chuck Strahl seems to have taken advantage of this loophole as he began working for Enbridge right after he left government, even though Enbridge had been and still is lobbying the federal government for their pipeline.
Photo by: Adrian Wyld
Conacher says “Strahl, who was appointed to SIRC, Security Intelligence Review Committee was working for Enbridge right after he left government, even though Enbridge had been and still is lobbying the federal government for their pipeline, while Strahl was at the cabinet table. Strahl was with the Security Intelligence Review Committee which is reviewing CSIS and the RCMP while working with oil and gas companies on trying to stop environmental activists from blocking pipelines.”
The CBC reports that “In his resignation letter, Strahl said he had checked with the ethics commissioner about his activities outside of SIRC and was always found to be in compliance with the rules.” Though Strahl is no longer working with SIRC, when asked about C-51 and the possibilities of abuse, Strahl, as an expert, said in an interview that “there’s no need for greater oversight.”
Here, Enbridge took advantage of a few of the loopholes, they influenced Strahl indirectly and then hired him for “consulting and contract work,” rather than as a lobbyist. The Ethics Commissioner’s ruling as it concerns Strahl was also dependent on a loophole regarding the terms of Strahl’s SIRC employment with the CBC noting that “the SIRC chairmanship is considered a part-time appointment, which exempts Strahl from many of the specific restrictions imposed by the Conflict of Interest Act,” Enbridge hired him after his cooling off period as a minister, making it legal, so long as he does not work as a lobbyist. The CBC reports that the lobbying ban applies “to all public office holders, which [also] forbids him from using his current position, or information that isn’t available to the general public, to influence any decision that could further private interests.”
The CBC reports that NDP Natural Resources Critic, Nathan “Cullen acknowledges that, as a former minister, Strahl is currently barred from lobbying the federal government under the cooling-off provisions put in place by the Conservatives in 2006, but warns that ‘vague guidelines’ could allow him to ‘skirt the rules and lobby the province, even on a federal pipeline issue’.”
The CBC reports that “The lawyer for Forestethics, iconic Canadian attorney Clayton Ruby, says ‘if the government wanted effective oversight of its spy service, it would start by paying the watchdogs as full-time jobs, and like judges, members should be banned from taking outside employment.At the very least, all of them should be banned from lobbying’.” Here, Ruby recognizes the effect the revolving door has had on policies and has called for stronger laws that ban officials from taking work with companies to mitigate their influence.
Conacher takes a more muted tone and wants a more consistent law that leaves fewer loopholes. He argues that by taking the five-year-ban that currently applies to lobbying and to make it for all post-politics work will help to eliminate the revolving door.
Conacher says that “even if [that post-politics work is] not within that one year period, if there wasn’t a turnover—the official [who takes work with a company they dealt with while in office] is violating that general rule of not taking advantage of your position in office. The five year lobbying ban is based on [preventing] that and all of the other rules should be based on that as well.”
By applying the five-year-ban to all post-politics work, the law would be more consistent and corporate influence would be easier to prevent. The politician would have less to offer the company due to the turnover and demand would shrink for politicians who can be used as puppets for private interest.
Photo By: Kriegaffe from music video “Relentless”, 2003