While the Harper government last week passed accountability legislation in the House of Commons, my weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) suggests that another form of lobbying exists that requires closer scrutiny – lobbying that is financed by the government itself. According to government documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, last fall the Ministry of Canadian Heritage entered into a multi-year agreement with the Creators' Rights Alliance, a national coalition of artists groups and copyright collectives with members both small (the League of Canadian Poets) and large (SOCAN and Access Copyright). The CRA has eight objectives, which notably include "to ensure that government policy and legislation recognize that copyright is fundamentally about the rights of creators" and "to ensure that international treaties and obligations to which Canada is signatory provide the strongest possible protection for the rights of creators."
The Canadian Heritage – CRA agreement, which could run until 2008 at a total cost of nearly $400,000, appears to be designed primarily to enable the CRA to lobby the government on copyright reform. In return for $125,000 annually, the CRA provides the Ministry with its views on copyright in the form of comments, analysis or research papers (other deliverables include a policy conference, website communications, and a regular newsletter).
The contract raises several issues. First, there is some doubt that CRA is a group that needs government funding for lobbying purposes. While several of its smaller members could undoubtedly use the support, larger collectives such as Access Copyright and SOCAN already employ external lobbyists with millions of dollars budgeted for copyright regulatory hearings and reform.
The structure of the contract itself appears to have raised some eyebrows within Canadian Heritage. As the funding was being considered, an internal memo noted that the Copyright Policy Branch "would be funding an organization through this contract to provide comments on government policy. There is a concern that the Copyright Policy Branch would be setting an unwanted precedent in such matters." To address that issue, a different branch within the same Cultural Affairs department administers the contract.
Internal correspondence also reveals that the contract was designed to further the department's own policy objectives. A senior official outlined the rationale behind the proposed contract, stating in an email that once the CRA funding was complete, "we should have streamlined, stable funding to an organization whose structure, purpose and activities suit our own policy needs."
Those activities were clearly identified in an email to Canadian Heritage from CRA's co-chair who commented that "the job of taking on the educational sector on copyright reform is clearly a huge and major undertaking," adding that education was a "well heeled, publicly funded lobby. . . devoted to abolishing creators' rights on the Internet."
The column concludes by arguing that given the need for the government to take all stakeholders into account, public financial support for groups that lack the resources to have their voice heard may be necessary. A transparent program that would allow groups to apply for financial assistance would enhance the policy making process and would be consistent with the Conservatives' focus on accountability. The Canadian Heritage – CRA contract does not meet those standards of openness and accountability. If Canada is to achieve a balanced approach on copyright matters, policy makers must offer programs whose goals are not to advance a particular policy agenda, but rather to foster policies in the interests of all Canadians.