What Is Lobbying?

Lobbying is the process through which individuals and groups articulate their interests and press them upon governmental decision makers in order to influence the determination of public policy. Any citizen who attempts to influence a public policy decision is engaged in lobbying and may be considered a lobbyist, but generally lobbyists are thought of as individuals who "for compensation" assist others to represent their concerns to government.

The term "lobbying" is almost exclusively associated with politics and public policymaking, perhaps because it originated in political life. Both Washington and Westminster claim to be the birthplace of the term because at both Congress and Parliament, individuals anxious to influence legislation gathered in the lobbies leading to the legislative chambers in order to appeal personally to the lawmakers as they entered the chamber to debate and vote.


Lobbying is as ancient as the art of politics, but it first attracted widespread public interest and concern at the end of the 19th century when crusading journalists and reformers exposed its extensive abuse and corrupt application in American politics. By 1890 Massachusetts proclaimed an anti-lobbying act which served as a model for the legislation of Maryland (1900), Wisconsin (1905) and a few of the other states.

Based upon the publicity principle it required counsel and other legislative agents to register with the sergeant-at-arms giving the names and addresses of their employers and the date, term and character of their employment. Lobby regulations were passed in nine other states in the single year of 1907. Improper lobbying was a felony in California, Georgia, Utah, Tennessee, Oregon, Montana and Arizona, though it was to be 1946 before similar measures were taken at the federal level.

Lobbying has been a part of Canadian politics from the earliest colonial period. The grants, monopolies and concessions that made possible the early voyages of Cartier, Gilbert, Frobisher, Hudson and others were obtained through lobbying at court; the decisions that favoured the family compact and the Chateau Clique were the result of lobbying the British Cabinet and Parliament.

Once responsible government was attained, and then Confederation, lobbyists turned their attention to the federal and provincial governments. At first they focused on the political party, the legislature and the government of the day, but as government became more complex and its influence extended into virtually every aspect of social and economic life, lobbyists came to pay more attention to the bureaucracy and the Cabinet than to the legislature and to political parties. This is generally the case today, though in recent years the restoration to Parliament of a more significant voice in policy debate has encouraged some lobbyists to attempt to influence Members of Parliament as well as ministers and officials.

What Lobbyists Do

Popular stereotype depicts the lobbyist as a well-dressed, cigar-smoking individual who corrupts public officials in order to obtain their support for the schemes of moneyed interests. This figure can certainly be found in the many scandals - from the Pacific Scandal onwards - that Canada, in common with other political systems, has experienced. But few lobbyists work to achieve their ends through venal lobbying. The great majority earn their salaries by applying their knowledge of how policy is made and how to obtain access to the policy processes.

When we describe what lobbyists do we must first remember that knowledge is their chief tool; knowledge about the substance of policy and also about the policy process. Expert knowledge is the key that opens the door to government offices and permits the lobbyists to exercise influence, for in many instances government lacks expertise of its own and has few other sources of information.

Policy-process information is also valuable since knowing who does what, and where, helps the lobbyist make the best use of the information he or she possesses. For example, the experienced lobbyist will know what minor technical problems can be handled by which junior officials, and where and when to take major policy issues to senior public servants and ministers. He or she will know which problems can be resolved with a single telephone call, and which will require the formation of coalitions of interests and the building of supportive public opinion that can be expressed through "grass-roots lobbying."

The lobbyist's knowledge is brought to bear in one or other of three ways: by representing interests to government, by providing a "dating" service, or by "mapping" decision processes for clients. Representation involves articulating to officials, politicians and sometimes the general public the needs and views of particular interests. The permanent employees of trade associations and other pressure groups spend a great deal of time in this sort of activity. The "dating" service puts clients in touch with appropriate officials and advises them on how best to present their case. "Mapping" services are more elaborate and expensive since the lobbyist has to help the client develop a strategy for taking the proposal through the entire decision process.

Projects and Policy Change

Most lobbyists seldom tackle broad policy issues. Rather they work on a "project basis"; they are concerned with helping their clients obtain such things as government supply contracts, industrial incentive grants, licences, access to natural resources or minor regulatory changes. Nor does this have to involve influence peddling. Instead, in the words of one lobbyist, it is the "dull, repetitive, time-consuming and expensive" task of advising clients as to how to apply for grants and submit proposals. These routine activities would not necessitate the establishment of lobbying concerns were it not that the public service has become extremely complex and regulation quite baffling for those who do not work regularly with government.

When it does occur, lobbying for policy change is a time-consuming and expensive business, often taking many years to accomplish and engaging participants on an international basis. The tobacco industry and the health lobby, for example, have locked horns for more than 30 years over the regulation of tobacco products. Each side has formed coalitions with like-minded organizations, in Canada and internationally; cultivated grass-roots support; lobbied directly - using lobbying firms as well as associations - with ministers and civil servants; financed research in support of their claims, and taken one another, and the government, to court. Millions of dollars have been spent; hundreds of ordinary citizens have been drawn into the debate; numerous lobbyists have devoted their careers to the issue and still it is not resolved. It probably will not be resolved for many years to come.

Lobbying Sector

A diverse lobbying "industry" has evolved to meet these various needs. Although we do not know how many lobbyists actually work in Ottawa and the provincial capitals, we do know that the majority are salaried employees of interest groups, corporations and unions. Law firms and public relations firms frequently engage in lobbying.

The lobbying firms that often attract media attention are a relatively small part of the community. Many of these firms consist of only one or two people who work on a narrowly defined range of issues; certain types of procurement, for example. The high-profile firms are the ones most likely to undertake major campaigns in a variety of issue areas. They will have connections across the country and internationally. Several are organized on a multi-national basis. A few are "vertically integrated." That is, they not only undertake the kinds of lobbying that have been described above, but they also own agencies that can provide clients with advertising, public relations and polling support.

Public Suspicion

Even though it is generally above-board and frequently makes a positive contribution to government, lobbying has aroused growing public suspicion in the last two decades. This concern is rooted in a growing awareness of the role interest groups and lobbying firms have come to play in the policy process. There is an appreciation on the one hand that political parties have lost much of their traditional capacity to satisfy individual and local needs, and on the other that access to decision makers is increasingly hard to obtain.

Those with the time or money to form interest groups or to hire lobbyists have a competitive edge in the struggle to obtain access to the process. Not surprisingly, fears have grown that inequities are becoming entrenched in the policy process, giving the wealthy - particularly corporations - a degree of access denied to ordinary citizens. In addition to the problem of equity a succession of scandals have suggested that the policy process is easily subverted, prompting reformers to argue that lobby regulation is necessary to ensure openness in government, and making "integrity" an issue in virtually every election.

Registration and Oversight

Election promises led to the Lobbyists Registration Act (Revised Statutes of Canada, 1985, c. 44 [4th. Supp]) which required lobbyists to register. An electronic data base was established and lobbyists working on a consulting basis were required to identify their clients, the agencies they were approaching and the object of lobbying. Lobbyists working for associations or corporations were asked only to identify themselves and their employers. Critics found these information requirements too modest; the sanctions imposed on those who did not register, inadequate, and the investigative powers of the Registrar too limited. The fact that the Registrar is a public servant, and thus subject to influence by the government of the day, also drew criticism from those who felt that the administration of the registry should be at arm's length from the government.

The Act provided for a formal review of its effectiveness, and this took place in two stages. The first was conducted early in 1993 by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Government Operations, chaired by Felix Holtman. Its report was not acted upon before the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lost power in the 1993 election. Some of its proposals, however, did make their way into a draft bill which was presented by the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the fall of 1994 and examined by a sub-committee of the Standing Committee on Industry, which was chaired by Paul Zed. Both committees held extensive hearings. A revised bill was introduced and passed in 1995.

The Act recognizes three categories of lobbyists: those who are "consultant lobbyists" and those who are "in-house lobbyists" either for corporations or for organizations. Consultant lobbyists are required to file more information than the others. They must report lobbying "undertakings" within 10 days of their start, and alterations to the undertaking within 30 days. When the lobby is completed it must be reported within 10 days. The names of clients - including, where relevant, the names of organizations participating in a coalition - must be filed, and the names of individuals or organizations that "direct or control" them or directly benefit from the lobby. The object of the lobby - be it a grant, contract, policy etc. - must be identified, along with the names of the government agencies that are to be approached.

In response to complaints that some government agencies were subsidizing lobbies in order to enhance their own programs, lobbyists are required to report any government funding received by the client and its source. Contingency fees - that is, fees that are contingent upon successful completion of a lobby - are not banned, despite arguments by critics that they encourage corruption, but they must be reported. Similarly, lobbyists are required to indicate their communication techniques, including grass-roots lobbying. In-house lobbyists must report similar information about their employers, but are required to file a return only once a year, unless there is a significant change in their responsibilities. The Act also provided that an Ethics Counsellor, attached to the Prime Minister's Office, should be responsible for developing a set of ethical guidelines for lobbyists. Draft guidelines have been developed.

As this account of lobbying suggests, the oversight of lobbying activity has developed quite considerably in the last 20 years. The first version of the Act was dubbed the "business card bill" by one opposition member because it asked for so little information. The second version of the Act is more searching in its information requirements, particularly of in-house lobbyists. At the federal level there is a good deal of information now available concerning lobbying activities, and that information is circulated to the media and general public by the Lobbyists Registration Branch. There are still deficiencies, however. For example, officials are not required to keep formal records of their contacts with lobbyists, and there is some scope for lobbyists to avoid registration by claiming that they are merely responding to requests for information from officials. The Registrar's powers of investigation are still very limited, and he or she still does not have independence of the government of the day.


It has to be emphasized that "registration" is not "regulation." However, there are the beginnings of a regulatory regime. Corrupt practices, such as bribery, are prohibited by the Criminal Code. It is illegal for Members of Parliament to take payment to represent interests. The creation of a set of ethical guidelines under the revised Act can be seen as a step toward establishing a regulatory framework covering the day-to-day conduct of lobbying. We can expect the rough and tumble of political life to offer up opportunities for reformers to take these first steps further and to elaborate the rules governing lobbying.