What is that Lobbying Law All About- And Will It Affect My Organization?
Here at COCo, we’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about Law 56, or the Lobby law—and we have had a lot of questions ourselves! For this month’s e-bulletin, we’ve read through a lot of the great material being produced, and tried to distill it into its most basic components. We hope this helps organizations understand what the law includes and the effects it would have- as well as the latest news, announced just this past week, that the government has requested an exhaustive consultation before the law goes to the National Assembly, in direct response to the outcry of community organizations since the law was announced.
Law 56 was brought forward this past spring, and is meant to replace an older law dated to 2002 regulating lobbying, a term generally understood as the attempt to influence policy or elected decision-makers in government. The original law was trying to address to a reality where private and corporate interests were able to drastically affect government policy while circumventing any form of democratic process, and it imposed heavy reporting standards for lobbyists. The biggest change contained in the latest version is to force all non-profit organizations, and anyone who works or volunteers in a non-profit, to register as a lobbyist, subject to the same standards. There is widespread resistance to the bill within the community sector, with groups pointing to the potentially enormous impacts the bill would have on administration, finances, transparency, and democratic participation.
One of the most core criticisms about Bill 56 is that there is a real and important difference between non-profit organizations and for-profit companies. The activities of community groups are part of a just and lively practice of democracy, and not another instance of the private market trying to exert influence on government. As the TRPOCB said , ‘the pharmaceutical industry and a mental heath support groups are far from the same; a hotel chain and a women’s shelter have very different interests”.
Those differences are reflected in the contrast between the practices of lobbyists and community groups. Lobby groups have an interest in being secretive about their work; community groups have the opposite. For a community group, pressuring the government to make a change requires having a public and widely advertised campaign that involves many people. In most cases, the registry would force groups to “make public” what was already a public campaign. In fact, that is just one way in which the law seems like it is targeting the wrong people: initially created to ensure that wealthy, powerful interests were accountable to democratic structures, it is now being used to hamper the activity of democratic structures themselves.
In addition to the ways the bill seems misguided, a number of coalitions and organizations have pointed out the following serious impacts the law would have on the community sector.
Impact on participation. All members, volunteers and directors of any NGO would
have to register independently as lobbyists and be potentially subject to enormous
fines if they failed to do so, or made mistakes in the reporting process. This poses a real threat to the participation of the community in civic life. Very few people would be able to take on the additional and significant administrative work (described in the table right, which you can click to expand), as part of their volunteer commitments, and would need to cease participation or risk financial penalties. Others could not register as lobbyists out of a need to protect their personal information—for example, the risk of providing detailed information on their work, address and location for people who work around issues of domestic violence would be extremely high.
Impact on capacity. Non-profits are already stretched thin, working with small staffs and many volunteers. The documentation required by the law is very cumbersome, and will require enormous amounts of time and energy from staff; and any errors in reporting could cost organizations dearly. No doubt, it would also create a strong incentive for organizations to cease or drastically diminish their attempts to criticize governments, and mobilize against harmful policy.
Impact on transparency. Many groups are arguing that this law would reduce transparency for actual lobby groups. By including thousands of NGO’s on the list, it would make lobbying in Quebec even harder to track.
The good news is that since February, an impressive number of community groups brought these concerns to the minister, signed petitions, and mobilized publicly against the law. Just this past week, the Minister responsible for access to information and the reform of democratic institutions, Jean-Marc Fournier, requested that the Lobbying Commission delay bringing the law to the National Assembly (otherwise slated for mid-January) and instead conduct an ‘exhaustive study’ about the inclusion of non-profits in the lobbying law, citing much the same concerns as community groups have raised over the past 8 months. The commission has agreed, but the practical details of how this study will be conducted has yet to be released.
Many groups have written in much more detail about the impacts of this law. Most of those are handily being collected by the RQ-ACA, and are all available here, as well as by RQGE. In particular, we really loved this video, which is subtitled in English, and this document, produced by the TRPOCB (in French)- they are great primers on why organizations should be worried. The recent announcement of the Minister can be found here.
If you are interested in mobilizing against the law, there are a number of avenues for you to do so— but with the recent announcement of a consultation with community groups before the law goes to the National Assembly, it isn’t clear yet what the best way is for groups to participate. The most important thing at this point is to keep an eye out for what the consultation will look like, and how to participate. Your sectorial coalition and the RQ-ACA, as well as the groups we named above, are good places to go for up to date, detailed information.
- Get clear on what the impacts would be on your group. The first document below, originally created to help organizations prepare to create depositions for the parliamentary hearings on the law, can equally help you figure out what the impacts would be for your group and communicate those concerns to the Commission during the consultation.
- Write a letter to your MNA. The RQOH (Québec Coalition of Housing Organizations) has created a template for their members, which could be easily adapted for organizations in other sectors. It is also included below.
- Push for a motion at city council. The RQOH (Québec Coalition of Housing Organizations) has created an example of a motion you could ask to be voted on at the municipal level.