More transparency and ‘a lot of work’: B.C.’s new lobbying law

By Shannon Waters January 18, 2021

In spring 2020, when businesses around the world were working to adapt to “the new normal,” lobbyists in B.C. were learning how to comply with new reporting requirements implemented under the province’s Lobbyists Transparency Act.

The act, introduced by the NDP government in October 2018, overhauled how organizations lobbying in the province must report on their activities, most notably by requiring lobbyists to file monthly reports on their activities.

“In the previous lobbyist registry, we reported what we thought we might do — now we report what we do, and I think that’s a really good improvement,” Kim Haakstad, vice-president of government relations at Global Public Affairs and president of the B.C. chapter of the Public Affairs Association of Canada, told BC Today. “It’s a lot of work.”

The monthly activity reports must relay specific information about the senior public office holders lobbyists communicated or met with, the subjects discussed, and any gifts given or promised to those lobbying targets. Any political donations must also be disclosed.

The new requirements affect lobbyists differently, Haakstad said. For firms with large, multinational clients, the requirement to disclose all funding received from any level of government can be arduous. “Any information that’s very hard to obtain makes it hard to be compliant,” Haakstad said.

But it’s smaller organizations who don’t typically hire professional lobbyists — instead opting to register staff to lobby on the organization’s behalf — that are facing the biggest burden under the act, Haakstad said.

The reformed law also ended reporting exemptions for those lobbying less than 100 hours per year.

“For small organizations, non-profits and charities, it is a significant administrative burden that is really creating challenges for them,” she said, adding that some organizations are building internal check-in processes to regularly flag potential lobbying activity.

“You want to almost over-report in order to ensure that you’re compliant,” she said.

More than 4,900 activity reports already filed
Haakstad and other lobbyists that spoke to BC Today lauded B.C.’s Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists (ORL) — helmed by Michael McEvoy, who also serves as the province’s information and privacy commissioner — for being proactive about getting information on the new rules out to the lobbying community at a particularly challenging time.

Haakstad said the ORL “worked quite hard in the lead-up” to the act’s implementation to “make sure that organizations who never thought of themselves as lobbying or lobbyists” were aware of their new responsibilities.

“But in the middle of all of that, everything shut down,” she said. The ORL implemented a four-month transition period from June 15 to September 15, 2020, to allow struggling firms and organizations to get comfortable with the new rules before falling in line.

“People were still trying to figure it out [in September] and then [there was] an election,” Haakstad said. “I think we’re still really all adjusting to the new act, but I do think that the volume of reporting is positive because it shows that people are focused on compliance.”

In just a few months, the lobbying registrar has amassed over 4,900 monthly activity reports.

The ORL held a series of virtual information sessions to get lobbyists up to speed and launched a well-populated and often updated FAQ site. But the new requirements still “aren’t 100 per cent clear,” according to Haakstad.

“There’s a lot of subject to interpretation and trying to figure it out,” she said, a sentiment that was echoed by other lobbyists who spoke to BC Today on background.

B.C. now has more transparency around who is lobbying who and on what issues, but Haakstad isn’t convinced the new law will do more to catch anyone trying to bend the rules.

“The people who register are showing that they want to be compliant,” she told BC Today. “By asking for more detail, you’re not going to weed out bad actors from those who want to be compliant. It’s really people who don’t report at all [that are the issue].”

In order to compile and publish all of the newly reportable information, the ORL licensed Ottawa’s lobbyist registry and spent $500,000 getting the new system set up.