Beware the Lobby Bubble, Mr. Trudeau

In Ottawa there has always been a level of disconnect between the issues that really matter to Canadians and the issues that seem important to Canadian politicians working on Parliament Hill.  

In the United States this phenomenon is called “beltway politics” where the issues being debated by politicians within the boundaries of Highway 495, which forms a beltway around Washington, D.C., have relatively little importance to anybody outside the beltway.

Spend too long in the beltway and strange things can happen. For instance, a president can speak passionately on the issue of climate change, but hem and haw over whether to approve an oil pipeline that will lock in massive amounts of new greenhouse gas emissions. 

Nobody knows more about this inside political game than the lobbyists. Lobbyists are the people paid by corporations, and to a much lesser extent non-profit organizations, to ensure government policies and decisions by politicians are of the most benefit to those paying them. Lobbyists (at least the good ones) know that their most powerful strategy is to control the flow of information politicians receive on important issues. 

If you control the information, you control the questions that are raised and debated and ultimately you have good odds of controlling the final outcome.

So for instance, if a story comes out in the popular press questioning the safety of new oil pipelines, lobbyists for the oil companies will work their tails off to ensure that political representatives and government staff are provided the “real facts” on pipeline safety in the country. Outside of reactive type work like this, it is the job of the lobbyist to meet as often as possible with politicians and government staff to provide an ongoing stream of new and “helpful” information.  

This constant barrage of information over time can actually create what myself and many others call the “lobby bubble” — a soundproof barrier of information created around politicians and government staff that is almost impenetrable to outside influence. 

Canada's new Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau has just come off the election trail where he has spent hundreds of hours talking to Canadians about what is important to them. Trudeau has also made many promises that reflect the needs and wants of the electorate. Trudeau right now is more in touch with Canadians than he will likely ever be in his term as prime minister, because the moment he steps into the PMO the lobby bubble will begin to form. 

The flow of information to Trudeau is about to shift from things he heard in the streets of Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal, to things he heard at a meeting he just had with representatives from the oil industry, health industry, insurance industry, agricultural industry and so on.

If you think I am over dramatizing the situation, think for a second about the logistics alone. How often does the average Canadian get to fly to Ottawa and sit down face-to-face with the prime minister to discuss their concerns about a new pipeline planned to run through their backyard? 

Now how often do you think the lobbyist with the office down the street from Parliament Hill, whose well-compensated full-time job is to lobby Members of Parliament, will get to meet with Trudeau and his staff over the coming years?

Heck, I would be happy to bet that most Ottawa lobbyists will have more drinks with Liberal government staffers in the next year than the number of everyday Canadians who will get to sit down face-to-face with the prime minister to voice their concerns over the next four-year term. That's a bet I would happily lose if this didn't turn out to be the case. 

Take for instance TransCanada Pipelines, the main proponent behind the Keystone XL and the Energy East pipelines. According to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, TransCanada has 18 company officials currently registered in the lobbyist database. And then there is the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an association supported by oil companies like TransCanada to also lobby the government. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers currently has a whopping 32 registered lobbyists.

This is just a small sample of the corporate lobbyists that work everyday on Parliament Hill to help fill the lobby bubble with new information. You can go here and take a look at the lobbyist registry yourself to get a better idea of just how large the lobby sector is in Ottawa.

As the old saying goes: “If you don't like what your government is doing you have the opportunity to vote them out every four years.”

And that is of course a very true statement, but for the other 1,459 days between elections, if the lobbyists and the companies they represent don't like what their government is doing, they can just meet face-to-face with whoever is in charge.

That's a pretty raw deal for voters and it does not have to be this way.

Next up in this series, I will discuss ways Trudeau can avoid the lobby bubble, or even pop it if he felt so obliged.  

Image: Justin Trudeau via Flickr