One of the unfortunate developments in the last few years has been the labelling of business associations as “lobbyists” – a shorthand term used by both the media and politicians, which leads to misunderstanding about the role of associations in the policy process.
The word “lobbyist,” in the vernacular sense, now refers to just about anyone who talks to government. While communicating to bring about policy reform has always required registration, the Federal Accountability Act (FAA) now requires monthly reports on any communication between business associations and senior level federal public servants and parliamentarians. This new requirement is based on the assumption that any policy discussion is effectively “lobbying” – that is, it is promoting private gain – and thus must be reported.
This mislabelling is leading to less and less dialogue between governments and industry at a critical time in the evolution of our economy. It is precisely this kind of dialogue that is needed to ensure that governments develop initiatives to grow our economy and to improve employment levels and the standard of living of Canadians.
Of course, business associations “lobby” for particular policies. But, there are several reasons why the word “lobbying” is an inaccurate overall description of what business associations do.
First, the work of business associations is transparent, and is focused on developing policies to improve the competitiveness or operation of a sector as a whole, rather than on benefiting a single company or individual. In fact, the dynamics within associations strongly deter them from supporting a particular project for a particular company. A business association’s work must be totally transparent to its members, and is often to the public as well, as meetings with governments and policy and advocacy positions are chronicled in its newsletter and on its website.
Second, business associations are an important contributor to the policy process of governments and Parliament. When governments develop environmental, health, safety or economic policies, they often have no idea what the impact will be on the economy or a particular sector. For that reason, they work through associations to understand the issues facing those sectors, and how to design policies that achieve government objectives, while maintaining a healthy sector or economy. It is this kind of collaboration that most associations focus on often in partnership with other sectors, stakeholders and NGOs.
However, the FAA has effectively chilled all bilateral and multilateral communications between business associations, the public service and parliamentarians. This not only makes it harder for business associations to do their jobs, but forces governments and public officials to become more insulated from business realities and to suffer from a lack of robust, open dialogue on key issues facing the country.
Third, a large part of association work is not lobbying, but rather developing policy consensus among members and improving a sector’s performance. In fact, many associations, such as those representing the mining, forestry and chemistry industries, focus the bulk of their time on assisting their members in responding to societal expectations around health, safety, environmental protection, product stewardship and corporate accountability. (This is certainly the case with the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, which has focused much of the last 26 years on developing Responsible Care, a sustainability initiative which companies must adhere to in order to retain their association membership.)
Yes, eventually, business associations will advocate for governments to implement certain policies, but that advocacy will be approved by a board representing numerous companies and often involves discussion with NGOs and other stakeholders.
In conclusion, it is time to move beyond the “lobbyist” stereotype. It must be understood that business associations play a vital role in the policy process, and are of significant value to governments in determining how policies affect the economy and society. The “chill” that measures such as the FAA have put on the interactions of government and business is undermining our country’s ability to excel. If we want to tackle key issues such as environmental performance, energy policy, employment and our fiscal situation, the interaction of government and business has to improve. To do that, we need to move beyond the stereotype of “the lobbyist” and review the mechanisms that discourage healthy policy discussion and debate.
Richard Paton is president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. Previously, he served as a deputy secretary of the Treasury Board, and as a senior public servant in a variety of federal departments.