On June 11, 2013, the Lobbyists Commissioner of Québec (Commissioner), Mr. François Casgrain, made public his annual activity report for 2012-2013 entitled "La transparence, j’y vois, j’y gagne"1. This report is the 11th activity report of the Office of the Commissioner. In his introduction, the Commissioner mentions the particular context of the tabling of this report in the Assemblée nationale du Québec, i.e. the public's crisis of confidence in their institutions, which is now reaching acute levels in Québec. According to the Commissioner, transparency is one of the ways to restore Québecers' trust in their public institutions.
In his message, the Commissioner tries to demonstrate the importance given to ethics and transparency in influential communications with public office holders.
The activity report also comes in the wake of the Commissioner's proposed amendments to the Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Act (hereinafter the Lobbying Act) submitted in the spring of 20122. The purpose of these amendments is to fully achieve the objectives of transparency and sound lobbying practices sought by the Act. The Commissioner's proposals are currently being studied by the Committee on Institutions in the Assemblée nationale du Québec.
Summary of achievements and developments in lobbying in Québec
1. Adherence to and compliance with the Lobbying Act
Since the Lobbying Act was passed in 2002, the degree of sensitivity of all parties concerned with the need for transparency in influential communications with public institutions has grown slowly but surely.
Whether it is the number of lobbyists registered in Québec's Lobbyists Registry (Registry)3 or the number of information requests from lobbyists registered in the Registry, public office holders, journalists or citizens, it is clear that parties on all sides are aware of the need for transparency and ethics in relations involving public institutions4.
The data shows that the parties are increasingly concerned and wish to comply with the Lobbying Act and the Code of Conduct for Lobbyists (Code of Conduct).
2. Increased awareness of the different parties involved in lobbying activities
One of the Commissioner's objectives was to increase awareness among public office holders of the different issues of the Lobbying Act and the Code of Conduct. In the past year, 1416 people participated in the 70 training and awareness activities organized by the Office of the Commissioner. More specifically, no fewer than 828 parliamentary, government and municipal office holders took part in the awareness activities offered to them.
Conferences and workshops were also offered to 445 lobbyists in order to make them aware of their duties and obligations when communicating with public office holders in an effort to influence them.
Thanks to these awareness initiatives, some public office holders now send a form to the persons with whom they meet to inquire as to whether or not they engage in lobbying in compliance with the Lobbying Act.
The Commissioner's tour of the regions of Québec is also part of this awareness campaign. The purpose of the tour is to make public office holders aware of the different issues of the Lobbying Act and the Code of Conduct, to demystify the Lobbying Act among lobbyists and, finally, to raise public awareness of these efforts in order to increase their trust in their democratic institutions.
Another measure designed to increase transparency in lobbying is the list of new registrations in the Lobbyists Registry, which is made public weekly. At present, 125 deputies of the National Assembly and 108 journalists receive this list published by the Office of the Commissioner.
3. Monitoring and control of lobbying activities
For the 2012-2013 year, the Commissioner and his team engaged in no fewer than 593 monitoring and control activities. In addition, the number of reports made by citizens, public office holders or lobbyists concerning situations deemed to be contrary to the Lobbying Act or to the Code of Conduct has increased significantly.
Fifteen breaches of the Lobbying Act were reported, but considering the one-year limitation period currently in force, most of these violations were not brought before the courts. The Commissioner issued notices for breaches of the Lobbying Act or to the Code of Conduct and he conducted an extensive awareness campaign aimed particularly at parties who deal with engineering firms (e.g. municipalities, regional county municipalities, and metropolitan communities).
Interestingly, media coverage is prompting the Office of the Commissioner to conduct verifications. Last year, 269 verifications were made in response to situations reported by the media.
In addition to construction and engineering, the Commissioner specifically targeted a number of other sectors. Information technology companies, telecommunications companies, mining companies, forestry, oil and gas industries, as well as businesses involved in land, maritime and air transportation all came under the Commissioner's scrutiny. There are currently only four cases before the courts5.
4. Fostering a better understanding of the Lobbying Act and the Code of Conduct
The Inquiry Commission on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry chaired by the Honourable France Charbonneau (Charbonneau Commission) significantly marked the 2012-2013 period. For example, concerning municipal contract management, the Commissioner is still trying to raise awareness among public office holders of the Act to amend various legislative provisions principally with regard to the awarding process for contracts made by municipal bodies and of the legal obligation of municipal institutions to adopt a contract management policy containing provisions on compliance with the Lobbying Act.
With this in mind, the Secrétariat du Conseil du trésor, in partnership with the Office of the Commissioner, created a toolbox to effectively protect the integrity of public contracts. This toolbox is designed for public office holders and seeks to properly equip the different parties concerned, such as contract managers, so that they can prevent situations deemed unethical and contrary to integrity.
5. Tabling of the Commissioner's report on proposed legislative amendments
Following a thorough analysis of the Lobbying Act, the Commissioner identified various problems concerning the interpretation of certain provisions of the Act and its implementation. The Commissioner made 105 recommendations to respond to these problems and proposed that a new act be drafted. These recommendations are now before the Committee on Institutions.
The tabling of the 2012-2013 activity report is in the same vein as the public report recently issued by the federal Commissioner of Lobbying. (See our previous Bulletin published on June 25, 2013.)
At both the provincial and federal levels, the monitoring and control of lobbying is receiving special attention from the commissioners. Admittedly, in Québec, the emphasis is primarily on education and awareness. In this era of the Charbonneau Commission, it appears that the Office of the Lobbyists Commissioner of Québec will be more active than ever and will strive in the coming years to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act in order to restore Québecers' trust in their public institutions. However, it seems clear that the Commissioner will only be able to extend its reach if the legislature modifies the Act in order to give him broader powers.