The hidden persuaders

Guns don’t make laws, but gun lobbies damn well do

Robert Lewis June 13 1977

The hidden persuaders

Guns don’t make laws, but gun lobbies damn well do

Robert Lewis June 13 1977

The hidden persuaders

Guns don’t make laws, but gun lobbies damn well do


Robert Lewis

They look stiff, uneasy, obviously posing. This is an important moment, boys, sit up straight. The photographer from the Canadian Wildlife Federation presses the shutter-release on his camera, a flash reflects in Ron Basford’s window, and the picture is taken. Nobody smiles. It would not do to smile; this is a solemn occasion. Senior officials from the Canadian Wildlife Federation are meeting in the office of the Minister of Justice, with the Prime Minister, sporting a flower in his buttonhole, in attendance. This is the ceremonial highlight to a long, and remarkably successful, lobbying campaign, a campaign to reverse the government’s intentions, force the redrafting of legislation, and give us a new—and inadequate—gun control law. With the government reeling under the assault of the lobbies, here is Trudeau sitting among the lobbyists in Basford’s office; with 85% of Canadians, according to public opinion polls, calling for gun controls, here is Trudeau conceding that the government should be working more closely with opponents of strong controls. In the end, the government will write a new bill that anticipates all the major objections of the gun associations.

Remarkable. Remarkable, but not un-

usual. The scene in Basford’s office, one sunny day late last spring, underlined two rules of government that have never made it into the conventional political science texts. First rule: lobbying is the fourth— occasionally the senior—arm of government. Rule two: to the spoiled go the riches.

Lobbying in Ottawa is a $ 100 million-ayear industry that assumes various guises: associations permanently on guard for the special interests of their clients, hired guns on special assignment and ad hoc groups who gear up for a specific legislative fight. If Canadians wonder why politicians never seem to listen to them, the reason is that official Ottawa is too busy heeding special pleaders to hear the unorganized. The gun lobby is a classic illustration.

In February, 1976, the government introduced Bill C-83, in response to alarm over a series of tragic shooting deaths, and a general uneasy feeling that guns were too readily obtainable, not only by legitimate sportsmen, but by kooks and killers. There is, today, roughly one gun in circulation for every two Canadians. This first attempt to regulate rifles and shotguns since the 1920s proposed to require anyone who owned, or wanted to buy, either guns or ammunition to obtain two endorsements from established citizens in the community for the required license.

The $80-million-a-year gun industry responded in a way that was outraged and, sometimes, outrageous. Hunters and shooters in rural areas, who regarded themselves as law-abiding, were angry that they would now need a piece of paper to shoot gophers and hunt with their kids. They saw themselves as the targets of a campaign supposedly aimed at criminals. The bill’s more strident opponents put forth more implausible arguments. Some contended that because of the regulation of ammunition, fishermen using lead-shot sinkers without a license could be jailed. Liberal MPS, suitably prodded, came to Justice Minister Basford with a complaint that his bill could deprive gun-toting smugglers in their ridings of an essential tool of their trade. Even the usually unflappable Basford was astounded.

But outrage, while satisfying, does not change laws, so a campaign was mounted, coordinated from Ottawa by several national associations, including the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) the Shooting Federation of Canada, and Firearms for Responsible Ownership (FARO). They represented an estimated three million hunters and shooters.

Two of the key people in the lobby were Ken Brynaert, executive director of the CWF, and Bill Jones, the founder and mov-

ing spirit of FARO. They are quite different men. Brynaert (pronounced Brine-ert) is 51, a pleasant man, the father of four boys, an avid naturalist who likes nothing better than a weekend of fishing at his camp north of Ottawa. He doesn’t hunt or shoot, but 180,000 CWF members do (the figure

represents more than half the membership), and he works for them. Jones is 46, a brash, outspoken man who has a personal arsenal of 40 weapons. Angered by 1969 legislation requiring handgun owners to obtain permits to transport their weaponry, he established Firearms for Responsible Ownership, FARO became his fulltime occupation. He signed up 20,000 members (at five dollars annually each) and fired off broadsheets proclaiming; “Face it fellow Firearms enthusiasts . . . THEY WANT YOUR GUNS! ! !” In interviews Jones likened government spokesmen to fascist dictators, and liked to remind the boys that “demagoguery and despotism are cousins” and that “GUNS is a four-letter word.”

Some of FARO’S wilder sallies might have embarrassed the Wildlife Federation, but they had a small embarrassment of their own. As a registered charitable organization, the CWF, along with 50,000 other associations inscribed on the rolls of Revenue Canada, is prohibited from “acts of a political nature,” or from “pressuring for change in the law.” Not surprisingly, when the lobby began to throw its weight around in Ottawa, Revenue wanted to know why it shouldn’t lift the group’s registration, which allows members to deduct a portion of the $10.50 annual fee from their taxes. The CWF argued that its efforts on behalf of huntin’ and shootin’ were merely part of a wider effort geared to environmental causes. The revenue department, showing a leniency that some Canadians have missed in their dealings with taxmen, accepted the explanation. During its gun campaign, the CWF membership increased by 56,000 members and brought in a tidy take of $588,000, some of which helped to finance the lobby.

The pressure was applied directly to MPS in two effective ways. First, they were haled before meetings abristle with gunowners, and questioned on their views about gun control. Some of the meetings were boisterous. At one, in Liberal Ross Milne’s constituency near Toronto, procontrol advocates refused to hear one of the prime opponents of control, former RCMP Commissioner L. H. Nicholson, who had offered his services to the Wildlife Federation in support of the cause. Nicholson stomped off in disgust. A few weeks later the local gun club invited him back; this time, there was a more suitable audience, and this time, it was MP Milne who was unmercifully heckled.

Another effective device was to threaten MPS with defeat if they backed the gun bill—an offer no MP in a marginal riding could afford to refuse.

By the time the control bill got to a House committee, it was in serious trouble. Even government members were opposing it. Ralph Goodale, a Liberal from rural Saskatchewan, formed a committee of backbenchers who proposed amendments to soften the legislation. Goodale’s patron, former justice minister (now transport minister) Otto Lang, joined in, with some qualifications. The Tories were eager allies of the lobby, and John Diefenbaker turned up at a CWF meeting.

Even NDP members, whose caucus supported the bill, moved under pressure. John Rodriguez, one of the House of Commons’ genuine left-wing voices, found his northern Ontario constituency of Nickel Belt in an uproar. One of his ardent supporters, a $l,000-a-year contributor, quit the party because Rodriguez supported gun controls. Subsequently, Rodriguez and two other NDP members—Arnold Peters from Timiskaming and Wally Firth from the Northwest Territories—made proposals to amend the legislation.

The meeting in Basford’s office last May was part of the campaign, and a symbol of how successfully it was going. The gathering was arranged by Joseph Guay, the Saint Boniface Liberal who was then government whip and is now minister in charge of Multiculturalism. Guay is a longtime supporter of the cwFand a political crony of the group’s treasurer, George Clavelle, whom he thoughtfully invited to Ottawa, along with executive director Brynaert and vice-president Guy Lesage, Prime Minister Trudeau and Justice Minister Basford listened attentively while this trio criticized the gun bill and complained that they had not been consulted when it was drawn up.

By fall, when the MPS returned from their summer recess, gun control as originally proposed was a dead duck. Prime Minister Trudeau himself gave the first public signal last September after a cabinet meeting—which Basford did not attendat Meach Lake. He conceded that “after the six months’ lobby, efforts would be made to be a little more discriminating in applying national policies . . . differently, in different parts of the country.”

A month later, a draft paragraph for the Throne Speech on gun control was thrown out. The search for a new bill was on, with the lobby riding shotgun on the process. Four months later, the legislation was ready, and it is now before parliament, as Bill C-5 Lit probably will pass, mainly because it meets virtually every objection raised by the gun associations. Gone are the licensing of all guns and ammunition and the requirement for sponsors for would-be shooters. In short, while newly purchased rifles and shotguns will be regulated for the first time since 1920, the 12 million guns already in the hands of Canadians will go untouched. The government will rely on court orders to remove guns from owners who are deemed unfit. British Columbia MP Stuart Leggatt, a strong supporter of tougher gun laws, groaned, “The silent majority lost because it had no focus. Any of the gun lobbies, including the Snipers’ Association, if there is one, can live with this legislation.” Basford expressed his own frustration with the lobby when he introduced his new bill. People who support tougher gun control laws, he said heatedly, “damn well better speak up now,” The tone was bitter, not surprised. No one with a knowledge of the lobbying system as it operates in Ottawa could have been surprised.

Ever since the Magna Carta granted citizens the right to petition their overlords, special interests have been making their pitches to politicians. Businessmen first started gathering in outer lobbies of Westminister 300 years ago to press for privileges from MPS on their way to vote and, doing so, gave birth to the term that is synonymous with intrigue, cigars and Courvoisier. In Canada, the first pressure group was mounted by manufacturers who got together in 1858 to demand higher tariffs. Fifteen years later, the first organized labor delegation met with Sir John A. Macdonald.

The offspring of these sturdy and demanding broods have been with us ever since and now Ottawa is awash with “associations” whose representatives come calling to oppose, support or dismantle legislation. In response to more complex forms of government, a new species has sprung up at the side of these traditional groups—the Ottawa consultants. Their clients are corporations who want advice on government policy and access to policy makers. The consultants concentrate on senior civil servants, the bureaucrats who make key recommendations to government, and they all talk the same jargon-laden language, the strange tongues of the Harvard Business School and Washington’s Brookings Institute, where recommendations “impact,” instead of affect, policy, where clients “interface” instead of meet, and departments allot “man years” to projects rather than people.

Consultants do not like to be called lobbyists. They equivocate, complain, sometimes threaten lawsuits when the label is applied to them. Lobbying, after all, is something Americans do. Here in Canada, according to conventional wisdom, it is the elected representatives who make the key decisions in the public sector not shadowy figures on the edge of parliament.

A nice theory, but the fact is that lobbyists, by any name, are a major force in Canadian politics. When York University political behaviorist Robert Presthus undertook an exhaustive survey of the art, he concluded, "One is hard pressed indeed to think of any social interest that is not represented by one or another organized group.”

In fact, the Canadian system encourages the proliferation of special interest pushers. “There is nothing wrong with lobbies,” says Toronto management consultant Bruce Light. “The main problem with the bureaucracy is that it doesn’t have the facts.” Bill Lee, the former Liberal ministerial aide and campaign organizer for Pierre Trudeau in the 1968 election, gets calls at his Ottawa consulting firm from civil servants inviting submission from Lee’s corporate clients on proposed legislation. The bureaucrats even ask him about what’s going on in other departments. In turn, Lee and his Executive Consultants Ltd. are well placed to tap the old boy network and advise clients on making their case before legislation is drafted and approved by cabinet. By the time a bill reaches committee it is too late.

There is even what amounts to a lobby of lobbyists, the Institute of Association Executives, based on Bay Street in Toronto. IAE is a social club which, typically, offers discount room rates at major hotel chains to its 1,200 members (dues are $75a-year). But since lobbyists are not required to register, as they are in Washington, IAE’S membership is one of the few clues to the size of the Ottawa lobby: its “chapter” in the capital has 304 members. They include the leaders of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the Canadian Manufacturers Association, the Canadian Medical Association and groups representing drug companies, grocery makers, travel agents and chemical companies.

Many of the consultants, with their corporate contracts running up to $100,000 a year, are former senior civil servants or exaides to cabinet ministers. Like the rest of them, Lee insists, “We don’t represent clients. We produce strategy on dealing with government for them. We’re selling knowledge of the government process.”

In a system where information is king, company executives are eager to pay. Lee and his five partners have sold or marketed their services to such concerns as Ashland Oil, one of the participants in the proposed Kitimat, BC, oil facility, the Mining Association of Canada, and Maclean-Hunter Limited, during debate on legislation dealing with Canadian content of magazines and border television stations. Executive Consultants also has worked for the Grocery Products Manufacturers Association, the industry’s Ottawa-based lobby headed by Ernie Steele, a former deputy minister and member of the exclusive Five Lakes Fishing Club along with two other former deputy ministers, Simon Reisman and James Grandy. “Bureaucrats,” says Lee, “are quite willing to hear what effects legislation will have, particularly if any jobs will be lost. That impacts because they know the political masters don’t like that very much.”

Torrance Wylie, head of Public Affairs International, includes among his clients 3M, Monsanto and Labatt’s. He is a former senior official of the Liberal Party and a confidant of the party’s chief electoral officer, Senator Keith Davey. One of Wiley’s four partners, Duncan Edmonds, once worked for Paul Martin when he was external affairs minister. “I will resist the designation of representing clients,” says Wylie. “They’ve got to do that for themselves. We provide information for their interface with government.” Wylie also takes on government contracts, once as an adviser to Bryce Mackasey on the Post Office and currently for Consumer Affairs on attempts to involve the private sector in the department’s Box 99 consumer complaints division.

One of the best-known Ottawa consult-

ing firms is Reisman and Grandy Ltd., a partnership formed after the two ex-deputy ministers left the government, Simon Reisman from Finance, Jim Grandy from Trade and Commerce. Reisman and Grandy acted for Lockheed during the successful corporation lobby to win the billion-dollar contract for long-range patrol planes last year. The prompt move by this duo into consulting from government, along with John Turner’s metamorphosis on Bay Street, prompted the Trudeau government to proclaim new guidelines, known as the Turner-Reisman amendment, for politicians and bureaucrats taking private industry jobs.

There are as well solo operators on the loose in Ottawa as representatives of their corporations. Claude Neon, the big billboard advertising firm, last year assigned Bill Leckie, vice-president corporate relations, to the Ottawa bureau. Leckie, an old advertising acquaintance of Davey, shows up at Liberal Party meetings and recently has been making his pitch at the energy department for a planned media conservation campaign.

The biggest and most consistent winner of the ongoing interest groups in Ottawa is big business. When asked about the effectiveness of the Bay Street lobbyists, one minister’s aide replied only half in jest, “Oh, we put them in the cabinet.” The Liberals have withdrawn and introduced their Competition Bill on mergers and monopolies so many times since 1971 in the face of corporate pressure that it has had more numbers than much-traded pro hockey player Orland Kurtenbach. The lineup against the policy is a who’s who of corporate Canada. W. T. Stanbury, a professor of policy analysis at the University of British Columbia, concludes in an upcoming book (Business Interests And The Reform Of Canadian Competition Policy, to be published this summer by Metheun): “Producer interests almost always dominate consumer interests.” Reflecting on a decade of efforts by six different ministers to get a competition policy through parliament, Stanbury observes: “Business as a pressure group was able to delay the legisation, split it into pieces and make it more amendable and less protective of consumer interests.”

The Consumers’ Association of Canada has been an effective lobby for tougher laws on hazardous and faulty products and is currently being courted by Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Tony Abbott. But with its headquarters’ resources devoted to publishing a consumers magazine, the association is a disappointment to officials who favor more consumer activism. There is an additional perceptual problem in that Abbott is a former Brascan executive and, as a past president of the Retail Council, was a harsh critic of the competition policy he now espouses. Already he has modified a bill on borrowing and savings after listening to protests from bankers and major lenders, and hacked off mandatory rust standards for new cars when the industry resisted.

The absence of an important lobby representing noncommercial interests, in fact, is the biggest gap in the Ottawa scene today. There is the National Anti-Poverty Organization for poor people, but it is grossly under-funded and its executive director, Marjorie Härtling, is a one-woman band. Andy Roman, formerly a lawyer with the Consumers Association, has recently established the Public Interest Advocacy Centre to represent causes before various regulatory agencies. His most prominent case was advocating the interests of consumers during hearings on the fifth consecutive application by Bell Canada for a rate increase. Again, Roman operates on a shoestring with one secretary and the consumer affairs department, which gave the centre a $100,000 grant last year, has told him to look for funding elsewhere.

In short, many lobbies are mounted on behalf of worthwhile projects, and many lobbies are well-heeled, well-organized, and well-advised, but the two phenomena seldom coincide. Much more frequently, as in the case of the gun lobby, a special interest group uses its political connections and organizational clout to promote legislative changes that are at best dubious, and at worst suspect. If politics is the art of the possible, lobbying is the art of greasing the skids to make the possible probable.^