The buzz in Ottawa last week about federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz’s status as the government’s most lobbied minister in 2012 seemed at best naive.
Agriculture is one of the most political portfolios in government with dozens of farm groups and food sector corporate interests anxious to make sure the minister and his department understand their point of view.
The industry structure and internal divisions make the minister a prime lobbyist target.
The alternative to lobbyists, whether farm groups, corporate hired guns, consumers or individuals, is for government to make decisions in a vacuum of ideology or presumption about what is needed. It’s not a good idea.
Of course, ideology and presumption about what is needed helps decide who ministers and bureaucrats see and what message they accept, but it has always been thus.
At least these days, lobbying is a relatively transparent business. Lobbyists register and tell us who they see and when. It’s hardly a scandal of backroom dealing.
It also is clear that lobbyists, no matter how powerful or close to the government of the day, don’t always get their way.
An example is Canadian Food Inspection Agency briefing notes prepared for president George Da Pont in preparation for late 2011 industry lobbying on impending food safety legislation and veterinary drug approvals.
The documents, obtained by Ottawa access-to-information researcher Ken Rubin, indicate that as Agriculture Canada was developing what became the 2012 Safe Food for Canadians Act, lobbyists from the Canadian National Millers Association, Loblaw Companies and Maple Leaf Foods were lining up to try to influence final decisions.
They initially made their arguments to CFIA, knowing the information would make its way to Ritz.
The federal government agreed on their general point about the need to consolidate legislation and simplify food safety regulations. Da Pont was advised to indicate to lobbyists the direction of the federal plan, including tighter controls on food tampering, common safety control systems and consistent inspection rules for domestic and imported food. Farm groups got the same signals.
Da Pont was also advised to promise that the industry would be offered draft proposals for comment once decisions were made.
However, the department did not budge when it came to a key recommendation from several industry lobbyists that the new Food Act be moved from Agriculture Canada to Health Canada.
And according to the documents, when the National Cattle Feeders’ Association met with Da Pont in late 2011 to argue for a faster veterinary drug approval process to keep pace with rules in the United States, they were told it as a Health Canada file.
It illustrates a key truth: lobbyists get access to make their arguments but they don’t always get their way.
Governments and ministers, whether Ritz or Liberal and Progressive Conservative predecessors, have an obligation to listen to industry views. Industry or farmers pay big bucks to make sure that happens.
The advice from different groups is often contradictory (think exporters and supply management) and there either is compromise or one argument wins the day.
However, being lobbied doesn’t mean being bossed around or bought.