Hiring of lobbyists raises questions

Wilfrid Laurier University is among the six Ontario universities revealed to have hired lobbying firms to advocate on their behalf to government.

The information, obtained by the NDP through a freedom-of-information request, was announced by the party’s leader Andrea Horwath in the Ontario legislature Tuesday.

Laurier spent $69,825 to hire the Devon Group over the period of a year beginning in 2009 to lobby the provincial government.

Laurier director of communications and public affairs Kevin Crowley explained that tough economic times, budget and pension concerns led to the decision to bring in a private firm.

“We needed a firm that could help us with those issues, ask those questions at Queen’s Park and make sure we were on track with the answers,” he said.

The provincial government is now examining a ban on public spending on private lobbying firms. The universities explicitly named in the NDP’s announcement spent a total of $846,500 on lobbyists.

President of the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) Judy Bates was taken aback by the announcement that the university had hired an outside firm to bring Laurier’s interests before government on its behalf.

“I wasn’t aware of that, I saw that and I was shocked,” she said.

Noting that administration including Laurier president Max Blouw are in frequent contact with government to lobby for funds, she added, “I’m not clear on why we’re spending money on lobbyists to do the thing that he is clearly doing himself.”

Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) director Mark Langer pointed out that the spending comes at a time when Ontario students face the highest tuition and highest student-to-faculty ratios in Canada.

“Lobbyists talk to people in government to persuade them, in this case that the universities need money,” he said.

According to Langer, universities should have no problem making their needs and concerns known to government since university administration maintain a close relationship with the province and institutions already pay for the Council of Ontario Universities to lobby on their behalf.

“Is there any difficulty the universities have in speaking to government?” Langer asked.

“Tuition in Ontario has been [rising] above the rate of inflation and yet there’s money to spend for private lobbyist firms.”

Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy agreed that since there is such a close relationship between his office and the administration of universities, lobbyists are not necessary.

“Our view is that there’s no need for them to have lobbyists for us to communicate with them and work in partnership with them,” he said.

“Particularly in this day and age when
public dollars are so precious … that
money is best spent on students.”

Crowley defended Laurier’s use of external lobbyists last year. “There are a number of issues where you need somebody around who actually knows their way around the provincial government who can help you understand things and help communicate your message to the province as well,” he said.

The expense was not outrageous, he said, emphasizing that there was no government-relations staff member at the time, a position that has since been created.

“In these times money is important, but it’s not extravagant by any means.”