From backroom to centre stage

Openness and accountability were Liberal watchwords during the last provincial election. And, as part of keeping that commitment, the Campbell administration passed legislation requiring lobbyists to sign their names to a registry so everyone knows exactly who is trying to influence our elected representatives. But there are significant gaps in the legislation that have meant some of the most powerful movers and shakers in British Columbia aren't required to be on that registry. And no one is more representative of those gaps than hired political gun Patrick Kinsella, the most influential Liberal backroom boy in the province, and aluminum giant Alcan Inc., one of his many clients.

Two years ago, Terrace Standard writer Jeff Nagel reported accusations Mr. Kinsella was lobbying to make sure the provincial government went along with Alcan's power export plans - plans which some say could mean job losses in northern B.C.

Mr. Kinsella's name isn't on the registry. But in a message left on Public Eye's answering machine, Mr. Kinsella explained he was, "in fact, registered. The number is 3LBY1068. And I am registered. I don't know where you got the idea that I wasn't."

But when we contacted lobbyist registrar Brenda Guiltner, who works out of the office of the information and privacy commissioner, she told us that number wasn't a lobbyist number at all. It was the password to a not-yet-activated lobbyist account - an online computer file lobbyists use to record which clients they're working for.

"If you contact him again you should tell him he doesn't appear on the list and maybe he should give me a call?" Ms. Guiltner said. "Because the act makes it against the law to lobby without being a registered lobbyist," with offenders facing the possibility of a $25,000 fine.

"It's fairly new," she said, referring to the need to register. "Some people who are new or out of province may not realize that because all provinces don't have a lobbyist registration."

But Mr. Kinsella has been working in British Columbia for quite some time. He was imported from Ontario by Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett as one of his top advisers. Mr. Kinsella surfaced again during the 2001 election as the provincial Liberals' campaign co-chair. And now Mr. Kinsella, who is also one of the party's key fundraisers, is co-chairing their 2005 re-election campaign, putting him in regular contact with Liberal elected officials.

So Public Eye contacted Mr. Kinsella again. This time he told us he hadn't activated his account because, "I don't consider myself a lobbyist. I hold myself up as a communications consultant. I don't do any lobbying. They don't need me to pick up a phone and talk to the provincial government or any members of the provincial government. I make it very clear to my clients that I don't do that."

When asked directly whether he ever talks about his clients with cabinet ministers and their staffers he said "Absolutely not. That's an understanding that I have...I suspect there's no one in government who would say they've ever been lobbied by me."

One could also add Mr. Kinsella's power within the Liberals is such that he doesn't need to meet with ministers directly anyway. We're told that the very fact Mr. Kinsella's name is associated with a company is enough to influence government policy and legislation.

But, even if he hasn't been meeting with cabinet ministers and staffers - which would make him a lobbyist and therefore required to register - there's no way the lobbyist registry could verify that. The registry has an annual budget of $97,000. None of that money goes toward enforcing the legislation. That means the registry operates on an honour system. Government is trusting lobbyists to shine a light on themselves.

Mary Carlson, the information and privacy commissioner's policy and compliance director, says her office can look into complaints that someone who isn't on the registry should be listed. But Ms. Carlson says that type of investigation, of which there has been only one to date, usually involves simply contacting the individual and asking why they haven't registered.

That isn't the only problem with the registry, though. If Mr. Kinsella isn't lobbying for Alcan, who is? After all, the company isn't on the list. And the District of Kitimat, which has been opposing Alcan's power export plans, is.

When we put that question to Richard Prokopanko, Alcan's director of corporate affairs in British Columbia, he explained that under government policy a person doesn't have to register unless at least 20 per cent of his work each month involves lobbying. And because no one at Alcan does that work (it's divided among several people), the company doesn't have to register.

In addition, according to Ms. Carlson, unpaid lobbyists aren't required to register either. And she says, "A lot of people can lobby the government who are very, very powerful and not paid to do it." Despite the existence of these loopholes, though, Ms. Carlson says she isn't aware of any plans to close them. And government says that's because no one has complained about how the registry works, noting the New Democrats didn't even have such a system in place. So, to their way of thinking, progress has been made.

But the way the registry currently works makes the Liberals look like they aren't serious about letting us know which of their friends is trying to influence them. So, consider this a complaint.

Credit where credit is due: A slightly shorter version of this article ran in today's Times Colonist.

2 Comments

This is top-notch public interest reporting. Great stuff.

Very good article. The people of the Northwest have been sorely affected by the infuence of major clients of Mr. Kinsella. If, as Mr Kinsella says, he doesn't act as a lobyist, why would the ALcan's of this world pay him so well? You said it right, he is one of the most influencial persons around the Premier and cabinet. Alcan pays him for that influence. On our issue alone it has cost this province hundreds of millions of dollars and it's about to cost a lot more.

Keep up the good work.

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