Working Parliament Hill
By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
Organizations ignore Parliament Hill to the detriment of their interests. If you want to influence public policy, you have to know how the ‘Hill’ works. Here are some tips.
“Ottawa is a flurry of Committee activity, departmental consultation, caucus work and private one-on-one meetings between Canadians and parliamentarians.” David McInnes, Taking It to the Hill
We hear much these days about the declining role of Parliament. Former Prime Minister Trudeau famously referred to MPs as “trained seals” and “nobodies”. Members of Parliament are the first to bemoan their powerlessness.
There is little doubt our political system concentrates (too much) power in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office and senior departmental officials. That can leave Members of Parliament as bystanders in the policy process.
However, this argument can be overstated.
Members of Parliament have influence at critical junctures in the policy process. They have better access to Cabinet Ministers than even the best-connected lobbyist or Association Executive. They have unique opportunities to raise the profile of issues on the public agenda. And if Canada’s fragmented opposition parties are less effective, the importance of government caucus members has increased.
In our government relations practice, we have repeatedly been able to help clients by taking the role of Members of Parliament and the legislative process seriously. We have used Parliament to appeal the decision of public officials, as a pipeline to get our message to Cabinet; and as a vehicle to raise our clients’ profile. Associations, corporations and NGOs who want to advance their organizational interests have to learn to do the same.
Parliament Can Make The Difference
Here are just a few of the ways working with MPs has helped our clients:
- Used a legislative review process to convince a major Crown Corporation to divest one of its business lines and partner with the private sector.
- Created both national industry specific caucus committees to support industry legislative objectives.
- When a clause in GST legislation was about to devastate a client’s bottom line, obtained the desired legal amendment within three months by appealing directly to the Finance Committee Chair and members.
- Obtained government caucus support for a successful appeal to cabinet.
- Used Commons Committee hearings as a launching pad to help a not-for-profit client push their policy recommendations in the budget process.
- When officials ignored industry’s concerns about new legislation, we appealed over their heads to a Standing Committee that gave us a full and sympathetic hearing. This encouraged officials to go back to the bargaining table with the industry.
- Had the help of a local Member of Parliament to raise the profile of a large export deal in Russia and subsequently obtained support from the Prime Minister and Trade Minister with Senior Russian Officials. The deal closed and was the largest of its type in that industry.
Know How the Hill Works
If you care about public policy, you have to know how the Hill works. And, if your organization has the ambitious goal of amending a particular piece of legislation then you need to do your homework.
First, you need a good grounding in the legislative process.
The way in which legislation develops through government is not particularly transparent. Parliament has its own traditions and culture. Processes are arcane and subject to rules winding back centuries.
Second, the process is prolonged.
It can take years for a departmental legislative proposal to make it through the Cabinet system, the various committee stages of House of Commons and the Senate before it finally receiving Royal Assent. After this legislative marathon, a six-month to one-year process is consumed in the detailed preparation of departmental regulations. It takes persistence, patience, and experience to ensure your interests are put forward every stage.
Consider the recently passed Endangered Species legislation. The first bill was introduced in 1996 and died when the election was called in 1997. The bill was changed and re-introduced in 2001- only to die again on the order paper at the 2002 election call. The bill was changed again and re-introduced and past last November – six years after first introduced and significantly different than when it started. This is a common story.
Third, the legislative process has a public face.
The process is so prolonged that any legitimate interest has the chance to organize public opposition to your organization’s position. Your executives may have convinced government officials of the eminent good sense of your position but is your organization prepared for the give and take of public battle? Do you have champions in the system and strong public supporters? Do you know who opposes your interests and what steps they are taking? Can you handle press inquiries and a vehement attack on your motives & interests?
Fourth, any draft legislation or a policy issue that enters the Parliamentary agenda is, by definition, a political issue.
Political considerations drive a government’s agenda, the oppositions’ agenda, and the interests of individual Members of Parliament. On any given issue, the political parties line up for and against. This can make your association an ill-prepared contestant in someone else’s game show. Do you want to be the “Weakest Link”?
Fifth, parliamentary committees are the workhorses of the legislative system.
There are approximately three-dozen House of Commons and Senate Standing Committees and, at any give time, almost as many ad hoc subcommittees. Parliament does its work via committees and this is where most organizations will end up concentrating their attention.
Appearing Before a Parliamentary Committee
Some individuals are shocked when they first appear before a parliamentary committee. Unprepared, it can be a jarring experience
You can be asked to appear on short notice, with only couple of days to pull your formal presentation together.
Committee proceedings are far from quiet, calm and deliberate. You may be ready to start your opening statement only to find members engage in a prolonged debate about procedures with the Chair.
MPs often arrive late and leave early. When you talk, they can carry on side conversations with each other or their staff who are sitting behind them.
Committee staff, translators, MPs staff and media are constantly milling about as if they were in a train station.
Sometimes MPs ask penetratingly intelligent questions about your submission; other times they ask question that have absolutely nothing to do with your subject.
Government members want you to say something supportive about the Government. Opposition members want you to criticize the government.
And, finally, a vote can be called in the middle of your testimony and all the MPs get up and leave!
How To Be Effective on The Hill
In order to be effective on Parliament Hill and, particularly, in front of Committees, here are some tips:
- Create a two-tracked strategy – one for the Public Service and one for Parliament;
- Clearly understand the legislative process and where your issue fits in;
- Find out who else is appearing before the relevant committee and what their positrons will be. If possible, have someone attend Committee hearings before your appearance to track supporters and opponent presentations and determine the biases and interests of individual committee members;
- Ensure you are thoroughly prepared, craft your oral message and run through rehearsals before any Parliamentary Committee appearance. Rehearse "Qs" and "As";
- Have your material properly translated and distributed to the Members, Senators, the Clerk, and key Parliamentary Researchers as early as possible before the actual hearings;
- Keep your opening remarks short and direct. Answer any questions the same way;
- Use plain language and state your case so MPs can see how it might directly affect their voters;
- Make clear recommendations. Include suggested wording and technical amendments for the clause-by-clause stage of legislation;
- Develop a bipartisan approach and coordinate meetings with officials, the Committee Chair, key Members of Parliament, and political staff beforehand;
- Don’t allow yourself to be baited - stay on message.
It takes effort to effectively work the “Hill”. Organizations who want to be players and influence public policy make the effort!