By Praesto Presto
Published July 25, 2007
Don Cherry visited Ottawa last November. A few Canadians might remember him being booed by Quebec MPs in the House of Commons. Still fewer will remember the actual reason why Cherry was visiting Ottawa in the first place.
Aside from his career as a hockey coach and colour commentator, Cherry is also a corporate shill for the COLD-fx brand of cough syrup - a remedy for the common cold manufactured by the Edmonton-based CV Technologies Inc.
According to CV Tech, Edmonton Member of Parliament James Rajotte had invited the Grapes to Ottawa along with senior company executives. While he was visiting Parliament hill, Don Cherry and CV Tech President, Jacqueline Shan met with the Prime Minister and attended a luncheon with numerous high-ranking Conservative MPs, all organized by Mr. Rajotte.
Before the lunch ended, Shan had an opportunity to address everyone in the room. She expressed her company's concern about a slow-moving Health Canada approval process. She conveyed specifically how that process was holding up CV Tech's drug marketing strategy for COLD-fx.
CV Tech claims that COLD-fx is an immune boosting remedy - a healing tonic for the common cold. The company ran clinical trials and then submitted all the requisite paperwork to Health Canada. The problem, as Ms. Shan explained it, was that Health Canada's process to verify CV Tech's clinical claims was moving too slowly.
CV Tech feared they were loosing momentum behind an extensive (and expensive) marketing campaign that was specifically designed to inform consumers that Cold-fx, in fact, boosts your immune system and helps your body fight the common cold. Such a claim is a first among cold remedies and represents a significant marketing niche.
Four months after the Don Cherry junket, CV Tech received approval from Health Canada to label COLD-fx as an "immune boosting" medication, one that will reduce the symptoms of a common cold and flu. The company's shares jumped 60% overnight.
At this time, NDP ethics poodle Pat Martin called for an investigation of what he called illegal lobbying activity. As a lobbyist, I have to point out why Mr. Martin's accusation was incorrect, and furthermore how this entire issue maligns a profession that in fact, does not deserve the bad rap.
First, never mind that CV Tech received regulatory approval for their marketing claims. That was not Pat Martin's complaint. The heart of Mr. Martin's accusation is to point out that neither Don Cherry, nor CV Tech President Jacqueline Shan, were registered lobbyists with the Federal Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists.
Presumably, if either of the two had bothered to register - by filling out some online forms a few days after the meeting - Pat Martin would be satisfied.
Second, never mind that according to Pat Martin's logic, lobbying activity is nothing more than corporate chicanery. Despite his opinions, even if Cherry and Shan were both registered as lobbyists (and even though Cherry wouldn't have to be according to current laws) nothing would have prevented their junket on Parliament hill.
The whole incident, from start to finish, would be perfectly legal if Shan alone was registered. In fact, the incident might still be legal, which is why I think that Pat Martin's accusation contributes to the false representation of lobbyists and what the lobbying profession seeks to accomplish.
Let's give Pat Martin the benefit of the doubt. He would have to realize that his complaint has nothing to do with the activity of lobbying, and that it has everything to do with the legal code of conduct that governs the lobbying profession.
He equates registration requirements with illegal lobbying activity, when in fact these are two separate issues. In my opinion, his rhetoric attempts to disguise the misrepresentation:
"That's lobbying plain and simple," Martin said. "When they raised their commercial venture in the context of that luncheon, that's the very definition of lobbying for a private commercial interest, and they should be ashamed."
"This is the very definition of lobbying - using your celebrity status to shill for a private company is the very definition of lobbying," he said. "Anyone who comes to Ottawa to influence politicians has to register and disclose who they're meeting with and what they're discussing. CV Technologies didn't register. It undermines democracy to peddle influence."
His partisan tone is clear. One could infer from Martin's comments that he presumes lobbying for a private commercial interest is in and of itself, unlawful or unethical. But Mr. Martin should be careful.
This is a serious accusation and defamation of both Shan and Cherry. Martin suggests that the two knowingly contravened the legal limitations of lobbying - that they engaged in illegal activity.
One could argue, as Martin has in the most tangential way, that lobbyists are legally required to register their activity and that since Shan and Cherry were not registered, they were acting illegally.
However, the laws governing the registry are not black-and-white. For instance, the registration requirement only applies for paid employees of an organization who spend an estimated minimum of 20% of their billable hours lobbying government.
The legal spirit of the lobbyist registry is that it makes public knowledge out of private meetings (between lobbyists and public office holders).
Neither CV Tech nor Don Cherry were attempting to contravene that legal spirit, rather they were acting on an invitation from Conservative MP James Rajotte, to visit parliament and to address a luncheon of his Conservative Party colleagues.
If Pat Martin wanted to wage an attack, he should have focused on Rajotte and the invitation that he provided to Cherry and Shan. It was, after all, the Conservative Party that vowed to change the rules governing the lobbying profession.
I can't imagine that a key part of that plan is to hold luncheons that look suspiciously like lobbying events. Rajotte is guilty of bad judgement and so is Pat Martin.
In the context of political Ottawa post-Gomery, the Canadian media has spilled a lot of ink on the subject of lobbyists, mostly with negative coverage. This is driven by the perception that a company like CV Tech can buy a regulatory approval with a splashy luncheon, or worse, that they could hire an influence peddler to leverage the approval on their behalf.
Martin and Rajotte willingly exacerbate that perception without any regard for the professional practitioners who are maligned by their actions. It's the character assassination of an entire profession and both should be ashamed.
As for Shan and Cherry, they too are guilty of bad judgement, but they are not criminals. Even if one believes Cherry is guilty of celebrity influence peddling, his actions are not technically illegal.
Pat Martin would like to draw attention to the fact that Cherry was not a registered lobbyist, but even so, the lobbyist registry does not condemn celebrity influence peddling. It exists to make public knowledge out of the professional affiliations of lobbyists, but under the current code of conduct Cherry is not a lobbyist and his celebrity status is irrelevant.
He was invited to attend a lunch at parliament and meet the Prime Minister. He accepted and suddenly Pat Martin accuses him of undermining democracy.
It is not my intent to argue in favour of influence peddling, but the rhetoric about lobbying has reached a fever pitch and it is prudent to examine the accusations in this case.
Are the accusations constructive, or partisan? Do they represent a valid portrayal of events? Is there an assessment of blame, and who is considered to be at fault?
I believe that Pat Martin's accusations have missed the mark. In doing so, he has also missed the opportunity for a focused debate on the difference between lobbying and influence peddling. In the absence of that debate, we can expect more rhetoric, more false accusations, confusion and acrimony.
The true role that lobbyists play in the parliamentary process is being undermined and misrepresented.