Commissioner’s Guidance for lobbyists regarding the application of Rule 9 of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct – Political Activities

This guidance does not reduce the responsibility of lobbyists to ask themselves the following question when considering political activities: “Would a reasonable person look at my political activities and consider that they created a sense of obligation on the part of any individual seeking or holding a public office?” If the answer is “yes”, any related lobbying activities risk creating a conflict of interest for that individual, and should not be undertaken.

Purpose of Commissioner’s Guidance

Federal public office holders are required to make decisions in the public interest. When public office holders are placed in a conflict of interest, public confidence in the integrity of their decision-making is diminished.

The purpose of this document is to provide guidance for lobbyists who are considering or have engaged in political activities, to avoid placing a public office holder in a real or apparent conflict of interest. 1

Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest is a situation where an individual’s judgement is influenced, or might be influenced, from making decisions in an organization’s best interest due to a competing sense of obligation. A conflict of interest is created when there is a perception that a public office holder’s private interests may influence their performance when carrying out their duties.

Rule 6 of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct states:

A lobbyist shall not propose or undertake any action that would place a public office holder in a real or apparent conflict of interest.

Political activities are one way that a lobbyist could create a sense of obligation on the part of a public office holder. The term “political activities” encompasses a wide range of actions in support of a candidate or a political party. Whether the activities are of limited duration or of an on-going nature, lobbyists should endeavour to avoid creating a sense of obligation that could generate a tension between the public office holder’s primary duty to act in the public interest, and the private interest of the public office holder.

Rule 9 of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct provides specific guidance to lobbyists regarding political activities. It states:

When a lobbyist undertakes political activities on behalf of a person which could reasonably be seen to create a sense of obligation, they may not lobby that person for a specified period if that person is or becomes a public office holder. If that person is an elected official, the lobbyist shall also not lobby staff in their Office(s).

Federal Court of Appeal

A 2009 decision of the Federal Court of Appeal (2009 FCA 79: http://reports.fja.gc.ca/eng/2010/2009fca79.html) set aside an earlier decision that the rule dealing with conflict of interest in the 1997 Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct only prohibited actual interference in a public office holder’s discharge of his or her public duty. The Court also directed the Commissioner to review her approach to the application of the rule on conflict of interest, in accordance with the principles set out in the decision. In the Court’s view, a conflict of interest for a public office holder can result from a sense of obligation or private interest being created or facilitated by a lobbyist. Mr. Justice Pelletier stated specifically that:

The conduct proscribed by [the rule dealing with conflict of interest] is the cultivation of such a sense of personal obligation, or the creation of such private interests. [Democracy Watch, paragraph 53]

Consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that Canadians have the right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” Section 1 provides that any restriction to these rights should be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The 2009 Federal Court of Appeal decision recognized that any conflict of interest impairs public confidence in government decision-making. The Court also recognized that it is appropriate to place limits on activities that would reasonably be seen to place a public office holder in a real or apparent conflict of interest.

Creating a sense of obligation

When a lobbyist carries out political activities, they must consider the risk of creating, or appearing to create, a sense of obligation on the part of a public office holder. Elected officials are public office holders. As certain political activities risk creating a sense of obligation, lobbying of the individual on whose behalf the political activities were carried out may result in a conflict of interest for that public office holder. The same holds true if the candidate is not elected, but becomes a public office holder in some other capacity.

The risk of creating a conflict of interest varies with the type of political activities

Activities that carry no risk

The Commissioner has determined that certain political activities may advance, or appear to advance, the private interest of a candidate in that they contribute to them getting elected. However, they do not advance the private interest to a degree that would reasonably be seen to create a sense of obligation.

Examples of political activities that carry no risk of creating a sense of obligation and would not place the public office holder in a conflict of interest include:

  • voting;
  • placing a candidate’s campaign sign on one’s lawn;
  • scrutineering for a candidate;
  • speaking on a political panel when the lobbyist is expressing his or her own views as an individual;
  • purchasing a ticket to and attending a fundraising event when that expenditure is within the limits established by the Canada Elections Act; or
  • donating money to an election campaign within the limits established in the Canada Elections Act.

Undertaking any combination of these political activities and lobbying that candidate once in office is acceptable, as is lobbying his or her staff.

Activities that carry risk

The Commissioner has determined that other types of political activities pose a risk of creating a sense of obligation that could reasonably be seen to place the public office holder in a conflict of interest. Examples of such activities include:

  • serving on the Executive or Board of Directors of a candidate’s electoral district association;
  • serving as a campaign chair or in another strategic role on a campaign team;
  • serving in a named position on behalf of a candidate or electoral district association as set out in the Canada Elections Act;
  • leading the preparation of a candidate for debates or providing strategic advice in the context of debate preparation; or
  • organizing a fundraising event for an electoral district association or campaign.

A lobbyist who engages in any combination of these political activities should recognize that they pose a risk of creating a sense of obligation on the part of an individual seeking to obtain or retain public office. This is because of the direct interaction with the candidate that may occur and the value added as a result of the lobbyists’ personal competencies or professional skills. Lobbyists undertaking such political activities on behalf of an individual should not lobby that individual should he or she obtain or retain public office, nor should they lobby his or her staff.

Political activities at the regional/national level

Lobbyists should consider that there is also a risk of creating a sense of obligation on the part of public office holders when conducting political activities at the regional or national level.

Examples of activities that could reasonably be seen to pose a risk of creating a sense of obligation include:

  • serving in a named position on behalf of a registered party as set out in the Canada Elections Act;
  • serving in a paid campaign staff position or in another strategic role on a regional or national campaign team2;
  • acting as a designated party spokesperson;
  • writing speeches for the party leader;
  • working in a strategic capacity in a party’s war room; or
  • leading debate preparation for the party leader or providing strategic advice in the context of debate preparation.

The Commissioner has determined that when these activities have been conducted, a sense of obligation can reasonably be seen to have been created on the part of the party leader and his or her staff. In such cases, a lobbyist should not lobby those individuals to avoid creating a conflict of interest.

In addition, the lobbyist should not lobby any other public office holders who may reasonably be seen to have a sense of obligation to the lobbyist as a result of the lobbyist’s political activities at the regional or national level.

The risk diminishes with time

The Commissioner recognizes that the sense of obligation towards a lobbyist created as a result of a lobbyist’s political activities is likely to decrease over time. When a lobbyist has carried out political activities that pose a risk of creating a sense of obligation, the Commissioner is of the view that five years is a sufficient period of time to wait before lobbying the public office holder and/or his or her staff, in order to avoid creating a conflict of interest for that public office holder.

Consult the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying

It is the Commissioner’s intention to help lobbyists reduce the risk that their activities will create a tension, or even the appearance of one, between the private interest and the public duty of public office holders with whom they interact.

Lobbyists who have conducted political activities may consult the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying with any questions concerning whether lobbying a particular public office holder risks placing that public office holder in a conflict of interest.

Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada

255 Albert Street
10th Floor
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0H2
Tel.: 613-957-2760
Fax: 613-957-3078
Email: QuestionsLobbying@ocl-cal.gc.ca

Karen E. Shepherd
Commissioner of Lobbying
December 2015


1 – This document replaces previous guidance on political activities issued by the Commissioner of Lobbying. Return to text

2 – Providing paid professional services such as accounting services or legal advice to ensure that the requirements of federal or provincial laws are met is not considered to be performing political activities. Return to text


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