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A complaint about a former Alberta Tory politician's coal industry advocacy yields more significant results than expected

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A complaint to the Alberta Ethics Commissioner about a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister's advocacy for the coal industry has yielded more significant results than were likely expected, even if they weren't exactly what the complainant had in mind.

Yes, Robin Campbell, who served as environment and finance minister in previous PC governments, advocated on behalf of the coal industry during the year he was supposed to spend "cooling off" from his former influential role according to the rules set out in the province's conflict of interest law.

But, no, Mr. Campbell did not violate the provisions of the Alberta Conflict of Interest Act related to post-cabinet employment because he was asked by the province's current NDP Government for his thoughts about its climate change plan.

That conclusion by Marguerite Trussler, the province's ethics commissioner and a retired judge, was the most newsworthy part of her investigation into the complaint against Mr. Campbell made to her office last month by Progress Alberta, an increasingly active advocacy group launched early this year. It was not necessarily the most important part, however.

Progress Alberta's complaint was that Mr. Campbell -- who after losing his own seat in the West Yellowhead riding during the May 5, 2015, provincial election and becoming president of the Coal Association of Canada -- "has engaged in significant lobbying efforts over the past few months," putting him "in direct contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act." A breach of the act by a former minister could result in a fine of up to $50,000.

After he left office, Mr. Campbell "appears to have communicated with public office holders via mass media and via grassroots communication where he is persuading members of the public to communicate directly with public office holders in an attempt to influence public office holders on amending or terminating the government of Alberta's plan to phase out coal as well as invest in technology that would benefit the coal industry," Progress Alberta Executive Director Duncan Kinney wrote in the letter, which was quoted in Ms. Trussler's report.

Mr. Kinney's letter also questioned "whether Mr. Campbell disclosed in the registration of the Coal Association of Canada" a plan "to engage in a grassroots communications campaign," Ms. Trussler noted.

However, she concluded, the act sets out exemptions to its restrictions on former office holders and one is when such a person is responding to "a request initiated by a public office holder for advice or comment."

"Fortunately for Mr. Campbell," she concluded in her report, "the government asked for input into the plan so what was done does not constitute lobbying. The result is that Mr. Campbell has not committed any breach of the post-employment provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act by lobbying, as defined in the Lobbyists Act, any public office holder as defined by the Lobbyists Act."

This part of the decision was covered ably enough by the media, but because Ms. Trussler's report was issued on May 4 -- the day the Fort McMurray fire was at its most intense and frightening -- the implications of the ruling received less attention than it might have in any other week.

This understandable omission is unfortunate, because the report does contain a finding that will have a significant impact on the way lobbying is conducted in Alberta in the future.

This has to do with the question of whether "grassroots campaigns" that aim to persuade members of the public to put pressure on office holders to achieve a group's goals is even "lobbying" as defined by the sometimes murky Tory-era lobbying law. Commissioner Trussler looked at this question in considerable depth and concluded that it is.

First, she found that "‘lobbying' in its ordinary and grammatical sense can … be interpreted to include both direct and grassroots (or indirect) lobbying."

Then, after looking at the question of whether the Legislature intended to include that kind of lobbying in its definitions, she concluded, "in my view it is implicit in the Act that communicating with a public officer indirectly through a grassroots communications campaign in an attempt to influence certain matters as set out in the Act is lobbying for the purposes of the Act."

Moreover, she said that public campaign undertaken by the Coal Association was intended to encourage voters in areas of the province where the coal industry played a significant role in the economy to approach their MLAs in a way "that they would be attempting to influence policy."

In other words, the association's campaign was a grassroots lobbying campaign "and given that grassroots communication is a form of lobbying, the...campaign constitutes lobbying."

As Mr. Kinney put it in a letter to Progress Alberta's supporters, while the group finds the result of the investigation disappointing, "her clear finding that grassroots campaigns are indeed lobbying is a precedent-setting decision that will fundamentally change how lobbying and public affairs works in Alberta."

"Until now this had a giant legal grey area," Mr. Kinney concluded. "No longer. A lot of money has been going to these types of grassroots campaigns without any public oversight and now those groups will have to register with the Lobbyist Registry."

Some my resist this interpretation. But it seems likely this is right. And that, it is said here, is a far more significant outcome than an embarrassing slap at Mr. Campbell would ever have turned out to be.

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