MLA’s motions to improve Alberta Lobbyist Act rejected by committee

A committee of MLAs reviewing the Lobbyist Act voted against changes proposed by Alberta’s ethics commissioner including the establishment of a communications registry to track meetings between lobbyists and public office holders. 

Committee member Drew Barnes, the independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, introduced 13 motions for the committee to consider at meetings on April 26 and last Wednesday.  About half were based on recommendations made by Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler. 

The only motion accepted by the committee was a recommendation government “take into account the importance of public transparency” when changing the act. Under law, the act must be reviewed every five years. 

Legislative assembly staff will now prepare a report for the government based on what recommendations the committee heard from stakeholders, including Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler, during the seven-month review.

The committee rejected two of those recommendations that included removing an exemption for in-house lobbying by non-profit groups except for charities and community service organizations. 

Barnes and the NDP minority will each prepare their own dissenting reports. The government will ultimately decide what it will accept when moving forward with changes to the act. 

Tim Gerwing, communications director for the UCP Caucus, defended the decision by UCP committee members to vote against nearly every one of Barnes’s motions. 

“Many of the recommendations presented … were unclear and, if adopted, would create mountains of burdensome red tape,” Gerwing wrote. 

“Others, meanwhile, already exist, like recommending a ‘cooling off’ period for former government staff.

“Ultimately, Alberta’s Lobbyist Act is one of the most stringent in the country, and the committee felt that these recommendations made by an independent MLA were not constructive toward improving it.”

Missed opportunity

Barnes, an Alberta legislature veteran who was kicked out of the UCP caucus nearly a year ago, said he is disappointed about what happened. 

“We missed a chance from that committee … to send a signal to the premier and cabinet that it’s time to better protect taxpayer dollars and increase transparency,” he said. 

In addition to establishing a communications registry to track contacts between government officials and lobbyists, Barnes’s motions included establishing a requirement for lobbyists to publicly file each month on the hours they spend lobbying and the changes in funding that resulted from that activity; lowering the annual number of hours of lobbying that requires someone to register as an organization lobbyist from 50 to 20; and introducing a requirement for lobbyists to disclose gifts, favours or benefits offered to a public office holder above a certain dollar amount. 

Barnes introduced additional motions that were not addressed by the ethics commissioner. They include mandating a cooling-off period before former public office holders can lobby the government. He suggested a time frame ranging from one to five years could be appropriate. 

Barnes is concerned about the close relationship between Premier Jason Kenney’s office and some firms who regularly lobby his government like Wellington Advocacy. 

“What I’m hearing is a revolving door now between the lobbyists and the premier’s office, and access a lot of times is only granted by the premier through a lobbyist,” Barnes said.

“That is not the best way to protect hard-earned taxpayer dollars. That is not the best way to increase transparency for all 4.4 million Albertans. And the committee failed in turning those recommendations down.”

Nick Koolsbergen founded Wellington Advocacy in the spring of 2019 after serving as Kenney’s chief of staff in opposition and leading the UCP’s successful campaign in the 2019 provincial election.

Since then, several people who worked in the Kenney government have joined Wellington Advocacy including Brittany Baltimore, former press secretary and executive director of the UCP Caucus, Clancy Bouwman, Kenney’s executive assistant for three years, and Katy Merrifield, Kenney’s executive director for communications for the first year and a half of the UCP government. 

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