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Gordon Cameron

Buyer beware on lobbyist registry

As I have previously revealed in this space, I’m a former lobbyist, so it only seems natural for me to wade into the current debate about the creation of a Hamilton lobbyist registry.

At the time, I was duly registered with the province using a system that only required me to declare who I was working for, the issues I was working on and which individuals/ministries/agencies I was likely to be talking to. Who I met with and what we discussed was never publicly recorded. The City of Toronto’s registry does require lobbyists to identify not only their issues and employers, but who they contacted, how they did it (phone, e-mail, meeting…) and when they did it.

Both systems do manage to shed some light on who’s meeting with whom and as a journalist and open government fan I think that’s fantastic. But before the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a registry of its own, it’s important to understand what a registry will and won’t do for residents.

First off, lobbyist registries don’t provide smoking guns, only circumstantial evidence. If members of council took meetings with a lobbyist before a crucial vote all it proves is that the meetings happened. Did someone take a bribe? Was there compelling new information presented? Or was the argument so convincing that the councillor decided to change his or her vote? Only those in the meeting will know for sure (and as far as I’m aware, there is no jurisdiction in the world that publishes minutes of private meetings with public officials).

Secondly, it may not show you who is actually behind any given lobbying effort. If you saw a registration for a group calling itself “Citizens for a Better Hamilton,” would you immediately know where they stood on the issues? If they were listed as lobbying on transit you couldn’t tell from the registry if they were for an expansion of the system or for shutting it down completely.

Further, under existing registries you are not required to reveal where your organization gets its funding. How would your opinion of the fictitious “Citizens for a Better Hamilton” change if you found out it was funded by a company that makes LRTs or the petroleum industry?

Finally, those intent on either fostering or engaging in corruption will find a way to do so regardless of what controls are put in place. While most of the public officials and lobbyists I’ve met over the years are honourable folks, there are rotten apples in both barrels. It wouldn’t take much imagination for a politician to accept bribes while out walking the dog or for a lobbyist to arrange to have his or her kid on the same soccer team as a city official so they could meet informally without drawing suspicion.

These drawbacks aren’t reasons to scrap the idea of the registry entirely, but rather a warning that a registry isn’t the cure-all for all of Hamilton’s perceived political ills.

Gordon Cameron is Group Managing Editor for Hamilton Community News

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