House Call with Carol Hughes

Lobbyists have the government’s ear

Sometimes the workings of government aren’t quite as straight forward as we might like to think and on certain files it can become a question of whether the tail is the wagging dog, instead of the other way around. While it’s easy to think that the most important consideration for any government would be the people they are elected to serve, that isn’t always the case as lobbyists do all they can to affect policy well before items ever find their way to parliament.

Telecommunications is one area that lobbyists have had an influence on decision making to protect industry advantage. Proof of that is in the numbers and the government has met with individuals and groups representing the sector 565 times since taking office. In that same time, Bell, Rogers and Telus have received close to $50 million in subsidies and more than $700 million in contracts from the government. Not only are your telecom bills significant, but your tax dollars are helping these companies too. This is also a sector that hit $50 billion in revenues in 2018. Their lobbyists are clearly doing their job since it’s no secret that Canadians pay some of the highest cell phone rates in the world.

Despite New Democrats bringing that issue to parliament with a no-nonsense solution, the government voted down the proposal out of hand. The NDP motion recognized that telecommunication services in Canada cost more than most other countries in the world, leaving far too many Canadians with unaffordable, inadequate, or no service at all. It would have forced measures to make those services more affordable, including a price gap, abolishing data caps for broadband internet, and mandating the creation of unlimited data plans at affordable rates for wireless services. In addition to that, the motion sought to put an end to unfair sales and services practices by introducing a Telecom Consumers Bill of Rights. Most importantly it directed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to reverse their rural and remote broadband implementation policy, which condemns underserviced areas to years of substandard broadband and wireless services. 

But telecom isn’t the only sector where lobbyists undermine efforts to save Canadians money. The next big battleground will pit representatives of pharmaceutical and insurance companies against any pharmacare program that may be introduced in the coming years. Those efforts are well under way and if the actions of the Health Minister are any indication, they are going swimmingly for those opposed to the idea. In May, the Minister gave the keynote address at an event sponsored by groups that stand to lose the most if Ottawa delivers a comprehensive pharmacare regime for Canadians.

In both these cases, lobbyists are promoting the status quo which ends up costing people more, but there are other examples of how the influence of lobbyists carries too much weight for the government. The SNC-Lavalin scandal, the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and the $12 million grant to Loblaws to upgrade refrigerators are further proof of that. Of those, the actions of SNC Lavalin are the easiest to connect the dots on since the special prosecution agreement they sought was introduced at their request.

Despite overtures to limit the impact of lobbyists in Ottawa, these influencers are still gaining unprecedented access to the government and affecting decisions. While people are facing mounting costs and looking for relief that can be fostered by sound decision making from their government, lobbyists have shown time and again who really has the government’s ear.