A HUNGER FOR HONEST GOVERNMENT GRIPS THE NATION’S CAPITAL
A CLEAN SLATE
A HUNGER FOR HONEST GOVERNMENT GRIPS THE NATION’S CAPITAL
As Mitchell Sharp walks along the streets of Ottawa on his way to his new office as the Liberal government’s unofficial ethics ad-
viser, passers-by stop him to deliver a special message. By Sharp’s own account, they tell him that, thank God, finally the people in power are interested in doing the right thing. It is a sign, says Sharp, of a hunger for a change in the way that
Ottawa does business. Jean Chrétien and the Liberals won last month’s federal election partly because they understood that yearning for honest government. Now, says Sharp, it is up to them to deliver—to demonstrate that “influence peddling won’t work.”
Meeting those expectations requires change on a number of
fronts: a tighter leash on lobbyists, better conflict-of-interest rules for cabinet ministers and senior public servants, less patronage and fewer perks for members of Parliament. As new MPs arrived on Parliament Hill last week, finding their offices and declaring, as Alberta Reformer Ken Epp did, that “we came here to fix Ottawa,” government officials were already planning legislation on how best to keep the Liber-
als’ election promises on ethics when the new Parliament begins work on Jan. 17. At the same time, some senior Liberals say that they may review about 650 appointments that the former Conservative government made during its dying days. Critics contend that up to 500 of those appointments smacked of patronage.
Chrétien hired Sharp at the token salary of $1 a year because he wanted advice from his 82-yearold mentor on a range of issues, not just how to clean up government. But Sharp, a senior civil servant in the 1950s and a cabinet minister for 13 years (1963-1976), has quickly become the government’s ethics guru. In the days following the Oct. 25 election, he checked the credentials of potential cabinet ministers for Chrétien, and since then at least one new MP has paid Sharp a visit to make sure that the newcomer’s affairs are on the up and up.
The first thing the government has to do, says Sharp, may be the simplest: issue a statement making clear that attitudes towards power and influence in Ottawa will change. “What the public has to know is that you can’t buy influence,” Sharp said during an interview last week in his spartan office just down the hall from Chrétien’s own quarters in the Langevin Block, across Wellington Street from the Parliament Buildings. Sharp has been in and around politics for a long time but still, he says, “What I’ve heard about the lobbying that went on in the past few years shocked me.”
One of the shady practices, sources say, worked as follows: a company that called a minister’s office would be told that it could
best make its case if it hired a particular lobbyist. A special task force of the Ontario Provincial Police has been investigating such practices for more than two years, although no charges have so far been laid. Its mandate, Chief Supt. Earl Gibson told Maclean’s last week, is to “deal with matters where there may have been either officials of the government or political representatives of the government that were involved in wrongdoing.” From their perches in the modern office towers that ring Parliament Hill, even lobbyists admit that the Mulroney years did not show their industry—which by some estimates has ballooned to a $100 million-a-year
business—at its best. “Have there been practices in the past nine years that have not been particularly good?” asked David MacNaughton, president of Hill and Knowlton Canada, the nation’s biggest government relations firm. “The answer is yes.” Hill and Knowlton has one of the industry’s longest pedigrees and certainly its most complex bloodlines. MacNaughton is a Liberal, while company chairman Allan Gregg is a Tory who brought Decima Research, the Tory polling company, into the Hill and Knowlton fold. The firm’s Ottawa roster includes Joe Thornley, secretary-treasurer of the federal Liberal party; Michael Coates, one of Kim Campbell’s election strategists; and Rick Anderson, one of Reform Leader Preston Manning’s top campaign aides. It is a company that prides itself on having all the right connections all the time, although MacNaughton insists that it never piggybacks on its ties to the party in office. “What we are selling,” he said last week, “is what we know, not who we know.”
Still, what gave the industry such a bad name in recent years is that some Ottawa lobbyists sold not only their knowledge of how the federal government works—but also their personal ties to Tory ministers and their connections to Brian Mulroney himself. Immediately after the 1984 federal election, Frank Moores, former Newfoundland premier and an old friend of Mulroney, set up office in Ottawa, and along with other Tories like Mulroney chum Patrick MacAdam, built up a blue-chip client list for his firm, Government Consultants International. Fred Doucet, another Mulroney pal, also set up shop, running the Government Business Consulting Group. It was Doucet’s firm that lobbied for Paxport, the main company involved in the controversial privatization plan for Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, a deal that, ironically, helped to scuttle the Tories’ re-election effort.
At nearly every stop during the election campaign, Chrétien made a point of talking about how he would bring back the ideal of public service and end an era where politicians and their friends appeared to be serving themselves. None of his friends and school chums, he flatly promised, would be setting up shop as lobbyists. But since the election, Liberals have become hot property in the government relations business, as its practitioners prefer to call their industry. Some firms make sure they always have the bases covered and have not had to scramble to get a Liberal on the letterhead. Industry sources say that even where Liberals have long been involved in a firm, they will now gain higher profiles.
Having the right connections is vital even if lobbyists are playing by the book and not selling themselves as fixers who can solve a problem with a single phone call. Sean Moore, editor of The Lobby Monitor, an Ottawa newsletter that covers the industry, says knowing the right people in government means having access to valuable information. Knowing what a government thinks, how it intends to act and what its priorities are can be priceless to a company seeking government help or a contract.
If information makes the lobbying business work, a lack of information makes it nervous. The lobbyists know that Chrétien intends to regulate them somehow, but as Sean Moore notes, they more than anyone else realize that it is the details that count. In their Red Book of election vows, the Liberals promised to abide by the report last spring of an all-party Commons committee on lobbying. It recommended changes to the current law, which says only that lobbyists must register with the government. That register, says Sharp, is little more than an advertisement for companies: pick a firm with an impressive client list and sign up.
Ontario MP Don Boudria, the senior Liberal on the committee, said that lobbyists should be forced to reveal exactly what they are lobbying for and who in government they are dealing with, as the report recommended. In addition, Boudria would like to see them declare their fees to the ethics commissioner that Chrétien has pledged to appoint. The commissioner would have the power to disclose what the fees were if that was in the public interest. Acting on that promise has an additional attraction for the cash-strapped government: it would be cheap. Notes Boudria: “It’s an easy thing for the government to deliver on.”
But all the talk about regulating lobbyists misses the central point about past excesses, says Hill and Knowlton’s Rick Anderson. “There are always people operating at the margins,” he noted. “The amazing thing is that their friends
OTTAWA’S REVOLVING DOOR
The capital’s most powerful lobbyists are scrambling to adjust to a radically altered political landscape. Examples:
• GOVERNMENT CONSULTANTS INTERNATIONAL: President Gary Ouellet, an old friend of Brian Mulroney, is making perhaps the most radical change: he is leaving to work as a production manager for a touring magic show. Many of the partners in the firm, founded by Mulroney friend and former Newfoundland premier Frank Moores, are also leaving to start a new company untainted by Tory connections.
• GOVERNMENT BUSINESS CONSULTING GROUP: Chief executive officer Fred Doucet, another longtime Mulroney friend, has brought in former Trudeau minister Jean-Jacques Blais as president.
• GPC GOVERNMENT POLICY CONSULTANTS: President Jon Johnson, a former Mulroney aide, recruited longtime Liberal strategist Torrance Wylie as chairman.
• EARNSCLIFFE STRATEGY GROUP:
Liberal Michael Robinson will take on a higher profile, while Mulroney friends Harry Near and Bill Fox will be less visible.
• HILL AND KNOWLTON: Liberals Joe Thornley and David Miller will have bigger roles; Tories Michael Coates and Sharon Andrews will be less prominent.
in government let them get away with it.” Sharp made the same point when he said that honesty in government starts with the government itself. “You have to get at it from the government side,” he stressed. Last month’s election results, say sources in the lobbying business, including some Tories, has already made a difference because Chrétien has spoken out so forcefully on the need for new ethical standards. What one Ottawa lobbyist called the “buccaneer” style of trading on influence has already gone out of fashion.
Still, winning back public trust will take more than just reforming the way lobbyists work and the way ministers handle themselves. Donna Dasko, a pollster with Environics Research in Toronto, says the roots of public cynicism and distaste for politics run deep. Canadians share with citizens of other Western democracies a mistrust of politicians born of elements as diverse as deficits and governments that fail to keep their promises. Politicians of all stripes say that trust can be restored with less generous pensions for MPs, less patronage, and a House of Commons that is less partisan and more constructive. Herb Gray, the Liberal House leader, said last week that he is working on a package of reforms to give MPs more muscle. “It’s important,” he said, “responding to public concerns about our institutions, to move on it fairly soon.” The same concerns are pushing Chrétien’s government to move quickly on restoring a sense of public trust to Ottawa.
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