Investors are increasingly demanding transparency on corporate lobbying, yet the disclosure in lobbyist registries falls short, suggests a report from the Vancouver-based Shareholder Association for Research & Education (SHARE) released Tuesday.
The report, Canada's lobbyist registries: What can they tell investors about corporate lobbying?, finds that federal and provincial lobbyist registries suffer from a number of deficiencies that undermine their usefulness.
Among other things, the report notes that:
> lobbying information is dispersed among numerous registries, rather than consolidated in any central source;
> the quality and quantity of information provided differs widely among registries; and
> the disclosure investors receive often ends up being incomplete.
The report evaluates the various government lobbyist registries in Canada on investor-driven criteria, such as the accessibility, transparency, and comprehensiveness. According to the report, most registries scored between two and six and a half out of a possible 11 points.
"Registries generally received high marks for accessibility, but low marks for transparency of compensation and expenses, transparency of communications, and disclosure of participants," the report says. Registries also "varied in terms of reporting thresholds and transparency of lobbying activities," the report adds.
The highest-scoring lobbyists registries were those of Quebec (6.5 points), the federal government registry (5.5 points), and Ontario (five points). The others scored between two and four points out of a possible 11, the report says. And, there are notable gaps in all of Canada's lobbyist registries that undermine the transparency of lobbying activity, the report notes.
"A serious shortcoming among Canada's lobbyist registries is that only some types of activity intended to influence public officials need to be registered as lobbying," the report says. "For instance, registries do not consistently take into account ‘grassroots lobbying' (lobbying that involves appealing to members of the public to communicate a certain position on an issue to public office holders)."
Additionally, various forms of communications, and lobbying by certain types of non-profits, may be excluded from registry reporting, and the thresholds for the amount of time spent on lobbying activities that triggers a requirement to register may also be set too high, the report says.
"While the number of lobbyist registries in Canada has grown, and in some cases the scope of disclosure has expanded, considerable room for improvement remains," the report concludes.
The report sets out recommendations to enhance the transparency and utility of lobbyist registries in Canada.
Among other things, it calls on policymakers to re-evaluate thresholds for lobbyist registration; to require disclosure of lobbyists' expenses and compensation; to increase the transparency of the content of lobbying; and to expand reporting requirements. At the same time, it says that public companies should report to shareholders on their lobbying activity.
"As shareholder requests for disclosures along these lines increase in Canada, both investors and companies alike will need to understand the limits of public lobbyist registries, and advocate for strategies to address any significant gaps in reporting," it concludes.