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Rules Are NOT Made to Be Broken! An Interview with Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner

Forum recently met with Lynn Morrison, the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, to find out more about the rules governing how associations should be dealing with government officials.

Opposition Leaders’ Expenses Review & Accountability Act, the Public Sector Expenses Review Act, and the Public Service of Ontario Act, as well as the Lobbyists Registration Act.

Forum: We really appreciate your making time for the Trillium Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Executives. We understand that you were appointed to your position just last spring. May we ask how you got into this line of business?

Morrison: I was appointed Integrity Commissioner on April 13, 2010, but had been Acting Commissioner for three years before that, having been with the office as Director since 1988, when the office was created.

Forum: I’m not sure that all of our members are fully aware of everything that your office is responsible for. Could you give us a bird’s-eye view?

Morrison: The Office of the Integrity Commissioner exists to encourage high ethical standards in provincial public life and to promote public confidence in government institutions. Over the last two decades, the Legislature has assigned us a number of responsibilities, ranging from advising MPPs and ministerial staff on conflicts of interest, to reviewing expense claims for travel and hospitality of certain public officials, to lobbyist registration and to investigating disclosure of wrongdoing by public servants.

Forum: Which is the most important act that association executives need to worry about when trying to influence government? Would that be the Lobbyist Registration Act?

Morrison: I believe that it’s important for your members to be familiar with the legislative framework of all mandates.  That would include the Members’ Integrity Act, the Cabinet Ministers’ and Opposition Leaders’ Expenses Review & Accountability Act, the Public Sector Expenses Review Act, and the Public Service of Ontario Act, as well as the Lobbyists Registration Act.

Forum: Looking just at the Lobbyists Registration Act, what are the key things that a new executive director of a nonprofit organization needs to know in order not to run afoul of the act?

Morrison: The best place to start, apart from the act itself, is the guide and FAQs that we’ve posted on our website at www.oico.on.ca. The guide provides an explanation of the act in layman’s terms, while the FAQs assist with how to comply with the legislation.

Forum: So what is lobbying?

Morrison: Lobbying is when an individual is paid to communicate with a public office holder in an attempt to influence a legislative proposal by an December 2010 Quarter 4 FORUM 17 MPP; the introduction, passage, defeat or amendment of a bill; the making or amendment of a regulation; the development, amendment or termination of a policy or program; a decision about privatization or outsourcing; or the awarding of any grant, contribution or other financial benefit. If a consultant lobbyist is involved, awarding contracts and arranging meetings are also caught.

Forum: So it’s only when an association hires a consultant that they have to worry about the registry?

Morrison: No, the act applies to inhouse lobbyists as well. For example, the executive director of an association or not-for-profit organization must file a registration for the organization if staff either individually or collectively spend a “significant part of their duties” lobbying. Note that this is different from for-profit corporations and partnerships, where “in-house lobbyists” (the term the act uses in that case) must file a personal registration for their activities if lobbying forms a “significant part of their duties.”

Forum: What’s this “significant part of duties”? How do you know what’s significant?

Morrison: “Significant part of their duties” means that the accumulation of lobbying activities over a three-month period must reach 20 per cent of either an individual employee’s time or the combined times of multiple employees. This definition applies to time actually spent lobbying, not creating research papers, etc. Assuming a five-day work week over a three-month period, a lobbyist employee (or group of employees, as the case may be) would have to be lobbying a minimum of four days per month to reach the 20 per cent threshold.

Forum: The definition you gave for lobbying sounds pretty all-encompassing. Maybe we should have asked, what doesn’t count as lobbying?

Morrison: Public submissions to legislative committees, responses to information requests from public officials and certain other activities are excluded. The efforts of volunteers also don’t come under the act. The act and guide have a complete list of the exclusions.

Forum: What’s should an association do once it passes the 20 per cent threshold?

Morrison: The executive director (or “senior officer”) has to file a return with my office within 30 days of reaching that 20 per cent threshold. In addition to basics like the contact information for the organization and in-house lobbyists, the returns must itemize such things as government funding received by the organization, previous and anticipated lobbying activities by topic and ministry or MPP and communication techniques used. Again, there’s a complete listing in the act and guide. It is important to note that there’s no requirement to report specific meetings as there is under the federal legislation.

Forum: Does an association have to register if it relies entirely on an outside firm?

Morrison: No, in that case the responsibility to register rests with the consultant lobbyist (assuming they meet the definition). The association may, however, want to confirm that their consultant has actually registered. This can be done by searching for the firm by name on the online registry. The search feature is pretty powerful. If you want to review the lobbying activities of other associations, type in “association” or “society” in the lobbyist employer field.

Forum: What are the consequences if an association fails to do what it’s supposed to?

Morrison: The act sets out a number of offences subject to fines of up to $25,000. Apart from any legal liability, however, organizations should think about the potential damage to their reputation.

Forum: You mentioned the Public Service of Ontario Act. What’s that about?

Morrison: The Public Service of Ontario Act gave us two additional mandates. The first one is providing advice to ministers’ staff with respect to conflict of interest, political activity and post-service. The second mandate is the disclosure of wrongdoing by current and former public servants.

Forum: All this legislation and the recent headlines seem to paint lobbying as a negative force. What’s your view?

Morrison: I believe that lobbying has a role in our democracy — government can be complex — as long as it is done ethically and in a transparent manner. The Lobbyist Registry provides that transparency.

Forum: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Morrison: We want the public and organizations such as the CSAE to know that we’re here. We’re happy to answer questions at any time at 416-327-4053 or by email at lobbyist.mail@oico.on.ca. I’m grateful to CSAE Trillium for helping me reach out to your members.

This article was originally published in the December 2010 CSAE Trillium Chapter FORUM E-Newsmagazine http://www.csae.com/Chapters/Trillium/Newsletter.aspx

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