05/24/2012 03:16 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario integrity commissioner renews call for updated lobbyists act

TORONTO - Ontario's Lobbyists Registration Act must be updated to make the entire system more transparent and accountable, the province's integrity commissioner said Thursday in making her latest pitch for reform.

Lynn Morrison issued a list of 10 recommendations, which had been in the works for months and amounted to the most detailed guidelines to date on ways to update the act.

The new call for changes comes days after testimony at an inquiry into troubled air ambulance service Ornge raised questions about the role lobbyists may have played in trying to limit access to the agency's financial records.

Her suggestions, Morrison said, are designed to clarify a confusing process and establish more oversight over those who appeal to the government on behalf of outsiders.

“The registration system has worked well since it was introduced in 1999, but times have changed,” Morrison said in a statement. “The roles of lobbyists and public officials have evolved, making it even more important that a registry provide clear, accessible information on who is lobbying whom, and about what."

One of the key recommendations involves establishing a formal process to investigate lobbyists, Morrison said, adding only informal processes are currently in place.

Morrison suggested the integrity commissioner, who doubles as the lobbyists registrar, should have the power to investigate complaints and issue penalties if inappropriate activity is taking place. Similar measures have already been adopted at the federal level as well as in four other provinces, she added.

Morrison also urged an overhaul of the way lobbyists are categorized, as well as the criteria used in deciding who needs to be formally registered.

The current system only requires lobbyists to submit their names if they spend at least 20 per cent of their time in lobbying activities. Morrison's report suggests mandatory registration for everyone regardless of how much time is spent lobbying.

She also emphasized the need to streamline lobbyist categories covered under the act, which lays out rules for three types of lobbyists in its current form.

While her report does not suggest rule changes for consultant lobbyists, Morrison suggested the two types of in-house lobbyists be merged into one category.

Lobbyists employed by persons/partnerships and those working on behalf of organizations currently follow different filing procedures, Morrison said, adding the complex system is more of a hindrance than a help.

"The Registrar has observed that the two categories of lobbyists is unnecessarily confusing and does not promote maximum transparency," the report reads. "All jurisdictions except Nova Scotia require a single registration for each for-profit (and not-for-profit) entity engaged in lobbying."

Morrison said many of her proposed changes are based on similar legislation in place in British Columbia and Alberta.

This includes a clause that bans someone from being paid to advise the government while lobbying on the same matter.

A statement issued by the Ministry of Government Services said officials had discussed the report with Morrison and planned to go over her findings in the coming months.

“The government will closely review the Commissioner’s recommendations and remains committed to transparency and accountability and will continue to work with the (commissioner) in this regard,” the statement said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Morrison’s report has "six or so recommendations that start us on a good path forward."

“Let's face it, there are a lot of loopholes in the lobbying system in Ontario," she said. "I hate to use the same example over and over, but we saw it with Ornge.”

Morrison's report was issued a week after questions were raised about the role lobbyists played at the service.

A former executive with the disgraced ambulance provider told a legislative committee that high-profile Liberals had lobbied the government on behalf of the agency.

Jacob Blum alleged that Premier Dalton McGuinty's former chief of staff Don Guy and the former president of the federal Liberal Party both tried to co-ordinate meetings between the agency and the health and finance ministries.

Blum testified that the meetings were to discuss the push to have Ornge consolidate its assets onto its balance sheet, a process opposition parties allege the agency fought in order to keep its financial records under wraps.

Guy has denied ever lobbying on behalf of Ornge.