Ottawa

Now that Chretien has promised reform, it's even chillier in Ottawa this winter for a lobbying industry accustomed to close relationships with government

THE Government Policy Consultants' advertisement hanging over the airport escalator is simple and direct: Ottawa is a government town and visiting businessmen will need the firm's help to get through the bureaucratic maze.

There are scores of companies like GPC in this beautiful, ice-encrusted city, where lobbyists, politicians, and civil servants have long enjoyed symbiotic, even warm, relationships.

In the 1980s, lavish parties bringing industry, lobbyists, and government officials together were followed by next-day dealmaking. Daily phone calls between some officials and lobbyists became the norm.

Such closeness, however, led to scandals during the last government. Now a new administration has arrived with the announced intention of shining a light on policymaking and restoring public trust in government.

To do that, Prime Minister Jean Chretien is expected to:

* Enact reforms that require disclosure by lobbyists about which ministry and department is being lobbied, on what issue, and for which client.

* Create a new code of conduct for both public officials and lobbyists.

* Appoint an ethics counselor to advise public servants and lobbyists on the new code and the reforms to current law.

Times are particularly tough for the lobbyists the Liberal government associates with former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mr. Chretien has made it clear that those lobbyists are now persona non grata.

No government minister will return their phone calls or be seen talking to them on the street. The action has even cooled at swanky Hy's restaurant on Queen Street, a once-popular spot for officials and lobbyists to meet for power lunches.

``We're not going to tolerate selling influence, selling access,'' says John Nunziata, a 10-year Liberal member of parliament. ``Those kinds of activities have been run out of town.''

Former Prime Minister John Turner, a Liberal like Chretien, put it a tad differently at Chretien's swearing-in ceremony: ``I hope they [lobbyists] stashed it [money] away because the pipe is turned off.''

On assuming office, Chretien quickly got the industry's attention by nixing a megabuck plan to privatize Toronto's Pearson airport, along with another big deal to build a fleet of sea-going EH-101 helicopters. Half a dozen of Ottawa's top lobbying firms had worked on Pearson. Liberals said both deals were too heavily influenced by the lobbyists and not in the public's best interest.

Many insiders agree that the seamy side of lobbying may be stifled. But they suspect that more disclosure will not blunt the lobbying industry's influence on public policy.

Some critics suggest that Chretien's recent decision to lower taxes on cigarettes to counter smuggling is evidence that the Liberal government is itself quite susceptible to being influenced by powerful industry lobbyists. The Liberal Party received $65,187 from tobacco interests in 1992.

``The Liberal government's decision concerning tobacco taxes is analogous to the Conservative government's decision to extend drug patent protection in December 1992,'' says Duff Conacher, coordinator for the Ottawa-based Democracy Watch.

``Both governments were subject to intense lobbying by corporate interests. Both have benefited from large corporate donations,'' he adds.

Canada's distillers seem to agree with Mr. Conacher, having launched a very large lobbying effort of their own to get Ottawa to reduce taxes on alcohol products.

``The government may say `we won't be listening to lobbyists,' but I don't think it will affect these firms much at all,'' says industry watchdog John Chenier, publisher of the weekly Lobby Monitor newsletter. ``This is an activist government - a government [that business] wants to watch and which it may feel it must influence at times. In many ways, this will create added incentive to get lobbying help.''

Will the reforms that shed light on lobbyists activities help clean up the excesses? Sure, Conacher and Mr. Chenier say. But will they deflect lobbyists' impact on public policy? ``Not a hoot,'' Chenier says.

``There may be more disclosure [by lobbyists], but it won't have much impact beyond that,'' says Bruce Campbell, a longtime aide to a conservative senator. ``The Liberals aren't trying to reinvent government, they're trying to win back public support.''

Chenier adds that cut off from the ministers, the lobby industry will focus all of its energies on mid-level civil servants, trying to define the parameters of debate and the scope of issues before they reach the ministerial level.

Government MPs become incensed when they hear that some people think their reforms may not affect lobbying's impact on policymaking.

``There will be a difference,'' insists Don Boudria, a Liberal point man on lobbying. ``But look, there is no `thou shalt not meet lobbyists.' People have a right to petition their government. These guys with their flow charts and graphs are welcome to meet with me - just so long as they don't expect special treatment.''

Ottawa's government-business relationship is indeed changing, settling into a slower pace. The heady days and fast-growth of the 1980s, when lobbying grew into a $200 million (Canadian; US$148 million) industry, are now gone.

Today there are about 700 so-called ``hired gun'' lobbyists who consult for a fee. There are another 2,300 lobbyists working for trade associations and other groups.

Unlike Washington, D.C., which has its ``K'' street of lawyer lobbyists, Canada has no central locale for its own. But a few top lobbyists in their gleaming office towers opposite the neo-gothic spires of Parliament Hill complain that the government and news media have turned their profession into a whipping boy.

``Who likes to go home and have your granddaughter ask you if you really are a slime bucket because she just read that in the newspaper,'' asks William Neville, often called the ``dean'' of Ottawa lobbyists. ``Around here, `lobbyist' is a pejorative word.''

Mr. Neville admits that he used to chat regularly on the phone with Mr. Mulroney, but says he never used his friendship to gain favors for clients. He draws a distinction between ``direct advocacy'' - lobbying government officials on behalf of clients - and the low-profile ``advise and monitor'' approach he pioneered in the 1960s.

This approach involves probing the layers of government for detailed information about policymaking in process, and then carefully prepping clients on what action to take and which officials to talk to. Many companies used Neville's approach until Mulroney's election in 1984, when the ``old-boy'' approach of the 1950s made a comeback, Chenier says.

While some firms may soon fail because their principals were too close to the last government, no one should think lobbyists are being wiped out. Though some lobbyists are fighting the reforms, others say they will add a needed sense of legitimacy.

``The changes are forcing the whole industry to take more seriously the public-policy process - and that's a good thing,'' says Michael Coates, Hill & Knowlton's chief in Ottawa. ``These days, somebody's comparative advantage depends on what they know, not who they know.''

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