10/7/10

Paid lobbyists, the public sector, and golden opportunities

Health Minister Deb Matthews wants to legislate a prohibition on public sector organizations hiring lobbyists. 

Matthew's legislation would amend the lobbyists' registry to prevent private consultants from registering to lobby government on behalf of a publicly-funded institution, the Toronto Sun reports.  Matthews wants the legislation before Christmas. 

Public sector organizations using funds from government to hire lobbyists to help them get more money from government does sound odd.  Even the Ontario Hospital Association says hospital board chairs and CEOs should be the ones speaking to the government on behalf of their facilities. It's been their policy for five years.

Except, what about all the for-profit corporations that hire lobbyists by the boatload?  Won't they get a leg up on the non-profit public sector organizations? 

Professional lobbyists bring insider knowledge and (very importantly) government contacts.  It's hard to see hospital CEOs and board chairs bringing the same to the table.  Especially not for community, northern, or rural hospitals (i.e. the hospitals facing the greatest funding pressure).  And public sector organizations have a responsibility to make their case for adequate funding. 

Certainly the money paid to the lobbyists is tiny relative to the budgets of hospitals and universities.  There's a lot of talk about directing this money back into front line care -- but it's so small that it won't go very far.

From my experience,  government officials Hate (with a capital H) even the quiet pressure they get from public sector organizations for better funding.  So I don't think they will mind separating these organizations from professional advice and assistance.  Far from it.  

When the Community Care Access Centres pushed the Tories for better funding, the Tories simply took them over and shut down the pressure.  A funding squeeze and huge service cuts followed.  The current Liberal government has also cowed public sector organizations -- albeit in a more subtle way. 

But no one is going to prevent giant corporations from doing whatever it takes to get more government cash.  And my guess is that the hiring of paid lobbyists may be the least of what goes on.

Meanwhile, public sector organizations already tip-toe around the government, trying not to offend them. Even while they cut services due to inadequate government funding. The hospitals are a case in point.

More restrictions on public sector lobbying will tilt the playing field further in favour of the corporations.  In the long run, that may well help the corporations privatize more public sector work.

On a final point, Randall Denley at the Ottawa Citizen offers an interesting comment on the issue:


It is interesting how easily panicked McGuinty was on this issue. This use of public money to lobby the government wasn’t exactly a secret. When the Chiarelli issue became public here in 2007 (Chiarelli worked as a lobbyist for Algonguin College -- DA), the government didn’t rush to ban lobbyists. It’s indicative of just how spooked this government has become by its low poll numbers.

dallan@cupe.ca

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