Although the term ‘lobbyist’ often equates in the public mind with graft, sleaze and kickbacks, in political Ottawa, as in most political towns, lobbyists are essential.
How else do politicians and bureaucrats know what the broader public needs or wants?
Lobbyists are not just shills for the rich and privileged or Gucci-suit denizens with pockets bulging with cash or favours to bestow.
They also are advocates for the food banks, rural infrastructure and farmers.
So despite the negative image, lobbyists are key to the political system.
And they have to be on the ground in Ottawa to have an effect.
For more than 75 years, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and its predecessors have been in the Ottawa political trenches, influencing policy at the ground level and often at the political level.
Occasional political lobbying blitzes by farm groups with no permanent Ottawa presence have almost no lasting impact. They can create an occasional burst of coverage or political attention but that soon disappears.
So what makes a good lobbyist in a hyper-partisan political town like Ottawa? What is effective lobbying?
The CFA and its generations of employees has been a fine example of working often behind the scenes to make policy and regulations better.
Today, being sociable and attending the endless cocktail parties to meet politicians and bureaucrats is one requirement.
A former CPR lobbyist memorably told a retirement party at the National Press Club a decade or so ago that he regretted he had only one liver to donate to his company. It isn’t just the booze these days. It also is networking, crafting messages to satisfy the intended audience and being visible.
It also helps if you are not seen as simply a partisan, although some former partisans have made a good living on Parliament Hill as lobbyists.
So what makes a good lobbyist in Ottawa these days?
For half a decade, former Grain Growers of Canada executive director Richard Phillips has met that test.
For years, he has been judged one of the most influential lobbyists by The Hill Times, a parliamentary Ottawa newspaper that cares about such things.
The Saskatchewan farmer, former Canadian Foodgrains Bank worker and Liberal operative has been in Ottawa for six years and many of the Grain Grower agenda items have been achieved. He is popular across parties despite the clear connection between the Grain Grower agenda and the Conservatives.
Phillips has connections with both Conservatives and Liberals, has friends across all parties and has been a relentless presence at receptions and lobby opportunities.
Much of the Grain Grower agenda has been accomplished, likely more because the Conservative government agreed with its anti-monopoly and pro-trade ideology than because of any particular policy advocacy.
However, being on-side with the government on some issues does not guarantee success on all files.
When Phillips and Grain Growers called for more research investment or a tempering of reductions in business risk management programs in this year’s Growing Forward federal-provincial deal, they were brushed aside by the government as wrongheaded.
“It’s not like we won every battle,” Phillips said. “You pick your fights and do what you can.”
He has illustrated the potential of effective lobbying in Ottawa.