Noah Fry, a political scientist from Moncton, says New Brunswick has one of the weakest lobbyist registries in the country.Submitted

Noah Fry wants to know why New Brunswick’s lobbyist registry has fizzled.

The political scientist from Moncton and PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., says since the registry’s introduction seven years ago, it has proven to be one of the weakest, ineffective examples across the country, governed by an integrity commissioner who doesn’t even file annual reports.

“Most registries emerge and evolve based on scandals, but in New Brunswick it fizzled,” Fry told Brunswick News in an interview. “It was the second-last province to adopt a lobbyist regime. And it’s only a registry. Some other provinces and the federal government have an additional expectation that a lobbyist would report meetings with public officials. That’s just not a thing in New Brunswick.”

Lobbyist registries allow the public to view reports and statistics related to private firms seeking an audience with public officials, such as a cabinet member or premier. The idea is to provide transparency about who could possibly be influencing government policy.

In a peer-reviewed paper of Fry’s, published in the Journal of New Brunswick Studies, the academic argues New Brunswick has a weak registry because there isn’t enough business diversity in the province.

Large employers are few, and there isn’t enough pressure from industry itself to create a better registry that would let the businesses see what other competitors are doing, he said.

“In New Brunswick, we don’t know who’s being accessed, how often, because the legislation is weak,” Fry said. “We only know there are lobbyists in New Brunswick who have registered. And you only need to register if you perform a critical number of hours as a lobbyist, three months. So a lot of lobbying can be done without needing to report yourself to the lobbyist registry.”

Another weakness: there’s little that can be done if someone breaks the law.

“There’s no way for the integrity commissioner to investigate and fine individuals who are violating the act,” Fry said. “They can report violations to the RCMP but they can’t conduct an investigation themselves and I doubt they have the resources to do it anyway. So it makes it a de facto honour system among lobbyists in the province.”

Commissioner hasn’t filed annual reports

New Brunswick’s lobbyist registry is the responsibility of Integrity Commissioner Charles Murray.

Since being hired for the role on Jan. 1, 2020, for a seven-year term, Murray hasn’t filed an annual report to the legislature, which is a requirement by law.

Nor has he appeared before the legislature’s all-party standing committee on procedure, privileges and legislative officers, which was made an annual duty on March 23, 2023, when the members passed a special motion.

Other independent officers of the legislature appeared before the committee over the last year, but Murray didn’t.

In an interview, Murray said he missed one scheduled appearance because he was sick in February and the second one, in March, was cancelled by the politicians themselves (he doesn’t know why).

For the first two years as the full-time integrity commissioner, he was also acting ombud, effectively doing two jobs at once.

He said with the House adjourned and a provincial election to be held no later than Oct. 21, he doubts he’ll be called to appear until a new government takes the reins.

Instead, the commissioner plans on meeting with newly elected politicians in late fall, where he can present a catch-up report that summarizes the last four years of his office’s activities.

He also plans to present recommendations to them on how to strengthen the legislation that he oversees.

“I very much believe that we are here to administer the law that we have, not the law we wish we have,” Murray told Brunswick News. “I don’t believe in colouring outside those lines. That said, there’s an opportunity every five years or so to respectfully point out to the legislative assembly some areas of the law that could be, in our opinion, strengthened and improved. That’s just our advice we give to them, and after that, it’s up to them whether they want to do that or not.”

The lawyer added that he’s learned over the years that the appetite for change is highest right after an election and lowest right before one.

Murray agreed the lobbyist registry had been neglected, but the bulk of what his office does is to ensure politicians don’t violate the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act.

Twice a year, the commissioner meets with every MLA privately – all 49 – to review their personal finances, everything from their credit card balances to their business holdings, to make sure they are not in a conflict of interest with their public duties. If they are cabinet ministers, the scrutiny is even tougher.

As for the lack of annual reports, Murray said, early on, the pandemic put that work on ice.

“My original thought was I was going to meet with the committee and say to them, ‘this is how my predecessor Alexandre Deschênes did the report. How do you want it?’ It’s fine to meet a statutory obligation, but I’d like the reports to be relevant, I’d like them to be readable, I’d like them to be helpful,” the officer said. “It’s to say, ‘look, let’s not just tick off the statutory obligation box here, let’s have a meaningful communication.’ But where that meeting didn’t happen, that kind of froze my process.”

But Murray said he’s given up on the idea the committee will meet any time soon. He’s had individual conversations with committee members and believes he now knows what they want.

Part of what he’ll ask for, if the politicians want a stronger registry, is a bigger budget. Of all the independent officers of the legislature, Murray has the fewest staff – it’s just him and an assistant – and the smallest budget, $350,000 annually.

One of those politicians on the committee is Green party Leader David Coon.

He says he’s talked to Murray privately about the need to have a stronger lobbyist registry and he’s impatient for the committee to meet so he can ask questions of the commissioner in public.

“The history of this lobbyist registry is ridiculous,” Coon told Brunswick News. “It’s unacceptable that the lobbyist registry remains in a barebones form on a website, run by Service New Brunswick. It should be so much more.”

Fry, meanwhile, said it was up to the politicians on the committee to ensure they call regular meetings, ask for annual reports and seek answers on the lobbyist registry.

“Political willpower still does matter. If the Higgs government or a different government in the future wants to make this a priority, they could.”

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 19, 2024 at 06:29

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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