Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre and lobbyist Jenni Byrne. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his brother and lobbyist Gurratan. Employment minister Randy Boissonnault and his friend, business associate and lobbyist Kirsten Poon. Lobbyists have been at the centre of some of the fiercest question period debates this year.

Party leaders have been throwing out accusations while trying to distance themselves from lobbyists and their high-powered clients. 

But it’s not so easy to do. Lobbyists are intricately involved in daily operations in Ottawa, and experts agree that lobbying has become a key way for companies and organizations to get the ear of government.

A lobbyist's job is to help influence important policy and funding decisions, and knowing the right people on Parliament Hill can be the difference between an unread email and a meeting with a public office holder.

In many cases, it is the most powerful and well-resourced clients that can hire the most well-connected lobbyists to make their case.

Someone who used to work in government has a built-in advantage, said Guy Giorno, a lobbying law expert with Fasken and former chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. “You know people in positions. They know you. They'll take your calls, they'll respond to you.” 

A new network analysis by the IJF sheds more light on just who knows whom in federal politics. The analysis includes advisors, staffers, relatives, colleagues and business partners and was based on publicly available records, social media and previously reported relationships. 

It found that many former staffers and advisers for Canada’s Conservative and Liberal leaders are now lobbyists.

There were almost no connections found between lobbying firms and the offices of the party leaders of the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois, both of which have the smallest organizational structures out of Canada’s five major parties.

Parker Lund, a director of communications for the Liberal Party of Canada, said in an emailed statement that the party is "committed to the strongest standards in federal politics for openness and transparency with political fundraising events.” 

He said the party does this by allowing journalists to cover the events and holding the events in public spaces.

He also criticized Poilievre for his connections to Byrne and “closed-door fundraisers with lobbyists.”

Poilievre’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Alex Wellstead was a press secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office from 2020 to 2022. Now he lobbies in Ontario as a director of public affairs and government relations for Novartis, a pharmaceutical company.

Working in politics can make someone well-suited to government relations. “Politics and government is a unique language unto itself. And a lot of corporations, a lot of industry, need those translators,” he said.

While it is common for former public office holders to become lobbyists, conflict-of-interest laws prohibit certain former politicians from lobbying their former federal colleagues for at least five years. 

Just as former government employees “can't take their laptops with them or their silverware,” Giorno said, why should they “be able to immediately go out the door with this valuable network of contacts, which you've accumulated at taxpayers’ expense while you're taking a job?” 

But just because they can’t lobby personally, it doesn’t mean they can’t work in government relations. 

“I can’t lobby,” said Adam Vaughan, a principal at the lobby firm Navigator who previously served as a parliamentary secretary to the prime minister and was an MP until 2021. 

But, he said, “I can have conversations with my [former] colleagues and certainly have political conversations about them and ask them what they’re up to and give them advice.”

Vaughan said his work could include shaping policy briefs or preparing clients for parliamentary committees, but he wouldn’t be the one meeting with the minister. 

While people like Vaughan are prohibited from lobbying their former colleagues, Canada’s Lobbying Act makes no mention of lobbying prohibitions based on personal relationships, Giorno said. 

The Lobbyist Code of Conduct does tell lobbyists that they shouldn’t be lobbying a public office holder with whom they have a relationship, but if they breach the code, very little happens. 

“You don't go to jail, you don't get fined, you can't be charged. You could be written up in a report, whereas, in other jurisdictions, if you break the conflict-of-interest rules for lobbyists, you're breaking the law,” Giorno said.

Stéphanie Yates, a communications professor at University of Québec at Montreal, noted that while much of the focus in the research about the “revolving door” between lobbying and public sector work is on public servants that become lobbyists, an opposite career trajectory can also influence government decisions. 

A lobbyist who becomes a public office holder can “bring with her the culture, the interests, the world view of the industry, within the public administration.”  

She said while there is no way to regulate that without regulating the free movement of people between careers, she advocated for transparency as a way to be vigilant about potential private influence in the public sector.

Giorno agrees that transparency is an important part of keeping tabs on the lobbying industry. 

“The fact that we're having this dialogue at all is proof that transparency works. We know who the lobbyist is, because it's made transparent, and that's a good thing.”  

Publicly posting meetings and communications on registries that allow for monitoring and vigilance from the public and the media are important elements of lobbying transparency, Yates said.  

“Lobbyists have a strange reputation,” Vaughan said, and there are “lots of reasons for that. There’s good and bad lobbyists. And there’s good ways to lobby and bad ways to lobby.”

It isn’t hard, Wellstead said, to follow lobbying rules. “It’s easy to look at bad apples and say, ‘That happens everywhere.’ But that’s not the case. The vast, vast majority, I’ve seen from former colleagues or people now in industry, understand the rules. They play by [them] and don’t see too much of an issue.”

“Helping, you know, dairy farmers or food banks or arts organizations access government effectively is good for democracy,” Vaughan said. 

“And it relies on both the politician and the lobbyist to obey rules and behave within the norms. But having a quick conversation and getting to a better decision faster helps everybody, right? And so that’s part of what you do as an ex-MP in a space like I’m in. You just help the system work effectively.”

While lobbyists should do everything in their power to make sure they lobby ethically, Giorno said, public office holders should also be careful and proactively check whether the people they’re meeting with are registered to lobby, and whether they’re following the rules of the code or the Act.

Giorno and Yates both advocated for public office holders to take on the responsibility of proactively disclosing relationships and meetings with lobbyists. 

“Meeting with lobbyists or being lobbied is not some personal activity you undertake,” Giorno said. “You're accountable to the people of Canada for what you do with your job.”

“They have every right to know who you're meeting with.”

How we did this story

The IJF examined federal and provincial lobbyist registrations, lobbyist communication reports available at the federal level and in B.C., social media profiles and posts, lobbying firm websites and previous media reporting to identify connections between lobbyists and the leaders of Canada’s five largest federal parties.

The analysis only considered staffers who currently hold or formerly held senior roles in the offices or campaigns of the party leaders. Positions classified as senior for this analysis included roles such as special advisors, directors, managers and senior press secretaries.

A current or former lobbyist was counted as a friend of a given party leader if previously described as such in existing reports by other media outlets.
Analysis: Carly Penrose, Kate Schneider, Liv Chug | Graphics: Kate Schneider, Daniel Nass