At the time this article was written
Normand Cherry represented Saint-Laurent in the Quebec National Assembly
A committee of the Quebec National Assembly
is presently considering the registration of lobbyists and the regulation of
lobbying. This task inevitably involves questions of definition. Are trade
unions lobbies? Are parliamentarians lobbyists or instruments of lobbyists?
These issues were discussed at a symposium organized by Le Courier
parlementaire in Montreal on May 22, 1997. In this article, based on a
presentation at the symposium, the author reflects on some of these questions
based on his experience as a trade unionist, a member of the Assembly and a
My views are no doubt influenced by my long
association with the union movement. I was a Canadair employee for 35 years and
President of Local 712 of the International Association of Machinists and
Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) from 1969 to 1989. When I was elected to the Quebec
Legislature and named to Cabinet in 1989, I found myself on the other side of
the fence. This allows me to speak about lobbying from a number of different
Strictly speaking, unions are not lobbyists.
They are interest groups that do their own lobbying, using their own resources,
without intermediaries. When a group of workers, a union or a labour
confederation wants to exert pressure on a minister or the government, it must
make itself heard from the outside.
I remember many times in my capacity as
union representative I tried to influence government policy. For example, when
the federal government put Canadair up for sale, it did not ensure that the
process was carried out properly. I was called upon on behalf of the
employees–and practically on behalf of the company, (which could hardly criticize
its sole shareholder) to make representations to the government.
The same thing happened again when the
federal government was reluctant to give the F-18 maintenance contract to
Canadair (then owned by Bombardier and which was in danger of losing its advantage
to Bristol Aerospace Ltd), and again in a matter in which my union’s interests
were less at stake when I intervened to have the Space Agency located in
One each occasion, I asked to meet with my
MNA, who was also Premier of Quebec. I asked him to intervene to protect a
Quebec industry that happened to be the main industry in his constituency.
When I became Minister of Labour I had to
reposition myself, with regard to lobbyists, who had ceased being my allies or
my adversaries in a labour relations context and become parties toward whom I
had positive feelings.
When the government proposes new legislation
or regulations, particularly when it takes the trouble to submit its proposal
to public consultation through a parliamentary committee, a pulse-taking
process ensues. Experienced consultants are mobilized and ordinary
representatives of interest groups, swing into action. They become extremely
useful sources of information for ministers and the government. They are openly
solicited, and the opinions they express allow decision-makers to better grasp
the issues, refine their approaches, and often refocus their efforts. As
Minister I found I could learn something new about issues or simply obtain
additional information. Most often you learn more from what lobbyists
consciously or unconsciously leave unsaid. During consideration of the
principle of a bill, and particularly during clause-by-clause consideration in
committee the cat is let out of the bag. Confrontation among the views of
various stakeholders reveals their individual strategies. These presentations
are not major diplomatic negotiations but all issues involve their share of
manoeuvring, with which ministers must learn to deal.
Let me turn now to the question of whether
parliamentarians are instruments of lobbyists or lobbyists themselves. I have
no problem with the idea of members as lobbyist just as I do not object to the
idea that union leaders have to lobby. Elected representatives are, first and
foremost, legislators, although they are not the ones who draft legislation.
Bills are usually brought to them ready-made by the Executive Branch. While
members of a given party often vote together, it is nevertheless true that
parliamentarians are jointly responsible for passing legislation. But they also
carry out many other duties, which the television cameras could not show even
if the broadcasting rules permitted it, because these duties are most often
performed outside legislative assemblies. These duties are often grouped
together under the heading of being "facilitators". This summarizes a
host of other descriptions used to define this aspect of parliamentarians’
duties as intermediaries between the government and the public. They are
mediators, ombudspersons, community leaders, information officers, social
workers, promoters, development officers, and out-and-out lobbyists.
One basic concern is to ensure that
government departments give their constituencies fair consideration. From this
perspective, elected representatives become regional development officers, busy
emphasizing to public-sector decision-makers their constituencies’ needs in all
fields in which the government is active. This activity can occasionally be
seen, in the form of questions, interventions when budget votes are being
considered, and speeches during major debates when Parliaments are opened and
budgets tabled. Usually, however, it takes place outside legislative
assemblies, in meetings with ministers, officials, political advisors, and
agency heads. Elected representatives are in contact with representatives of
local communities (municipalities and Regional County Municipalities), interest
groups and individuals that solicit their help as representatives or guides
through the labyrinth of government red tape.
Innumerable examples could be given. A
business considering the possibility of setting up operations in Quebec, once
in touch with the MLA, can then rely on that person’s services to obtain
information, make or re-establish a contact, or solve a problem. MNAs are also
interested in businesses that might leave Quebec for another province.
Parliamentarians trust that they can be of
use to their constituents and their fellow citizens in general; but can they
themselves be used by lobbyists? As a former president of a machinists’ union,
I believe I have some idea of the different shades of meaning among a tool, an
instrument, and a machine. A tool is an object used to do work; an instrument
is also used to perform operations, but is larger or more complex; a machine is
used for more sophisticated manufacturing. All three, however, are objects that
are handled, used, or run.
Lobbyists who approach parliamentarians in
order to advance the interests of their clients may have an attraction for and
a feeling of using an instrument in order to achieve their objectives, but
there are surely not many parliamentarians who accept this passive role. In his
memoirs, one former MNA told how, in 1966, the then Government House Leader had
told his new colleagues to take precautions in their new duties. Far be it from
me to put lobbyists in either of the categories of persons against which that
warning was issued (contractors and "shady ladies"); but elected
representatives can undeniably let themselves be drawn into all sorts of causes.
I think parliamentarians know quite well–or will quickly learn–how the system
works and why they are solicited. If they decide to sponsor a cause, after
taking care to examine the interests involved, they do so by choice, in full
awareness, because the cause is a valid one. Are parliamentarians used by
lobbyists? I think not. Rather, they are co-operators, in whose own best
interest it is to participate in the efforts of lobbyists and interest groups.