Lobbying and the Public Interest

By Cote, Andre C. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Lobbying and the Public Interest


Cote, Andre C., Canadian Parliamentary Review


The term lobbying refers to communications by intermediaries for companies or organizations aimed at influencing public office holders in relation to public policy or administrative decisions in which their constituents have a particular interest. In a free and democratic society, certain fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression and the right of association, constitute the foundation of a complex interaction among government and individuals, social and economic stakeholders, and civil society groups and organizations. This article looks at certain provisions of the Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Act (Quebec) and asks whether there is any contradiction between lobbying and the public interest.

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In Le Petit Robert, under the term "interet" ("interest"), I came across a phrase that beautifully captures the essence of what I want to speak about. The dictionary attributes Balzac with writing, "The law of public interest (...) is destroyed by the law of private interest (...) which gives birth to selfishness."

I do not know whether Balzac thought that lobbying and the public interest are mutually exclusive. Personally, in a free and democratic society, I see no contradiction between the affirmation and promotion of special interests, and the identification by the government of what is to be decided in the general interest. There is no opposition in principle if the respective roles, duties and prerogatives of the players--lobbyist and public office-holder--are clearly understood and exercised correctly, and are respectful of the rights and prerogatives of the others affected by the decision.

While the existence of stakeholders with privileged access to the holders of power is as old as the exercise of power itself (consider, for instance, the courtiers surrounding the absolute monarch in olden days), it was not surprising to see that unofficial channels of communication to which certain kinds of intermediaries, with particular knowledge or skills, could facilitate access, developed and thrived, along with open and structured relations between the government and the governed, or the Administration and the administered.

Similarly, the enormous complexity of the political and administrative structures of the modern State and the level of political and government intervention in all areas of our individual and collective life have created a need for a new kind of expertise, and to make services providing strategic monitoring, situational analysis and interventions planning, of the capacities of analysis of the situations and planning of the interventions, as well as accompaniment and representation services, available to individuals or groups.

Internally, companies or special-interest groups may have to obtain the same services or develop the same skills if they are planning to express their interests or points of view to authorities in order to shape decisions that interest or matter to them.

This is essentially the field occupied by lobbying. I think it has become an inevitable reality in our modern-day society. Does this mean we must basically acknowledge that lobbying exists and support its development, or should we repress it as though it were a social shift or a perversion of the system? There is no simple answer to this question.

In any discussion of influence with government authorities, there is certainly a clearly established zone of proscription for anything having to do with corruption and influence peddling. If these atypical situations are excluded, we end up straight away discussing another issue, ensuring that government management procedures have a foundation of integrity, legality and credibility, and are carried out in compliance with the rights and prerogatives of the various social stakeholders.

If we look at the question from the point of view of the lobby groups or other entities which want to sway political or administrative decisions to their own benefit, lobbying can be seen as a way of exercising one's rights or of expressing one's views effectively within the framework of a free and democratic society.

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