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In Alberta’s election, the NDP’s campaign was stacked with operatives who lobby for coal, banks, and big tech

by Martin Lukacs

Originally posted June 15, 2023 on The Breach

The NDP has a lobbyist problem.

Many of the party’s top officials shuffle between employment at lobbying firms and work on provincial and federal elections—and the priorities and perspectives of their day jobs are a key reason why the party runs such uninspiring campaigns.

In the most recent provincial election in Alberta, the NDP—including Rachel Notley’s brain trust, campaign managers, and high-profile volunteers—was stacked with party insiders who lobby for corporate clients.

Only one got any attention: the campaign’s manager, Nathan Rotman, who is a registered lobbyist for Airbnb. But others include Cheryl Oates, a campaign advisor who as recently as February was leading a lobbying push in British Columbia for Uber, as well as a U.S. coal company.

Brian Topp, a senior campaign advisor and former chief of staff to Notley, runs the firm where Oates works. The firm has recently also lobbied for Bank of Montreal, McCain Foods, railway giant CN, and one of Canada’s largest cannabis corporations.

Other important roles—like Notley’s press secretary, and campaign managers in multiple ridings—were filled by lobbyists.

And the firm where Brad Lavigne, an influential party figure, is a senior leader had several of its lobbyists work for or volunteer on the Alberta election. According to sources familiar with the campaign, Lavigne provided training to labour unions who were getting voters out for the NDP—while the lobby registry shows he simultaneously lobbied Premier Danielle Smith’s office on behalf of Tourmaline Oil, the largest fracked gas producer in Canada.

How did the NDP arrive at a point where certain officials can hold sway during election cycles, then shill for fossil fuel companies the rest of the year? (And sometimes both at the same time?)

This new breed of NDP-connected lobbyist didn’t emerge by accident: it’s the result of a dramatic shift over three decades that has made its federal and provincial parties more moderate, overly corporate-friendly, and tightly run by a clique of operatives. It has given rise to a political culture in which the vocation of bending governments for vested interests is no longer seen as indefensible, but normal and even praiseworthy.

Not coincidentally, this transformation in the party was overseen by the same individuals—Rotman, Topp and Lavigne—who now ply their trade as lobbyists.

While the lobbying explosion is a consequence of this shift, it is also now a factor entrenching its current course. Just last year in B.C., a group of NDP-allied lobbyists, informally tied to the provincial party but unrestrained by its norms of civility, played a central role in smearing and sabotaging the leadership run of climate activist Anjali Appadurai.

And as firms like Lavigne’s field large teams in elections, another dynamic may emerge: New Democratic governments indebted to lobbyists who helped them win, and willing to grant them—and their corporate clients—greater access and influence.

Despite these impacts, there has been little discussion of the revolving door of lobbyists in the party. But those who want it to be a vehicle of generational change will have to openly reckon with this fact: the approach of today’s NDP is shaped by the habits of these highly-paid professional lobbyists—accommodation to power, remoteness from working-class concerns, and suspicion of the movements whose policy knowhow and energy could be the surest source of the party’s success.

It’s a hell of a long way from the NDP’s roots in workers’ struggle, democratic socialism, and anti-corporate passion.

How New Democrats became lobbyists

The earliest NDPers to make the move to corporate lobbying described it a decade ago as a sign of the party’s “maturity,” and a “natural progression.” It was indeed the culmination of the New Democrats’ recent trajectory, but it was not the compliment they intended.

That so-called maturity was the result of three developments.

The first was the party’s rightward lurch. Starting in the 1990s, the NDP made peace with the market triumphalism of neoliberalism, shedding the causes they had once championed: public ownership, major wealth redistribution, and strong workers’ rights. Their new “Third Way” blueprint—appeasing the corporate class, fixating on balanced budgets, and cutting small business taxes—positioned them not as challengers of the new neoliberal economy, but as better managers of it. This is the agenda that has shaped the party’s campaigns for the last thirty years, including last month in Alberta—albeit with some exceptions federally under Jagmeet Singh.

A second development was the introduction of profit-making into progressive politics. As substantive differences between political programs narrowed, parties turned more and more to the marketing industry to distinguish themselves. They began to harness the tools used to sell consumer goods—ads, focus groups, and micro-targeting—for election campaigning. Where politics was once a public service, it was now increasingly a business. NDPers got in on the game, with the creation of for-profit firms like NOW Communications in the 1990s. They serviced electoral campaigns in every part of the country, recycling the neoliberal blueprint wherever they went.

One final crucial development was the hollowing out of working-class organizations and activists within the party. Over the decades, the NDP’s staff roles were taken up by professional operatives for whom politics were more a respectable career than an urgent purpose.

All these forces came together in the federal NDP of Jack Layton. A few years earlier an attempt to forge stronger ties between the party and social movements, called the New Politics Initiative, had been narrowly defeated at a convention. Now, under the name of “professionalization,” the top officials around Layton— Topp, Rotman, Lavigne, as well as Anne McGrath, the current national director of the NDP—moderated its platforms and consolidated control over the organization. Gone, as Lavigne put it, were the “big, big programs which were worth billions and billions of dollars and would take years to implement,” to be replaced instead by “modest, doable proposals.” Out went unruly conventions and sometimes messy grassroots policy input. In came a heavily-branded, leader-centric, top-down approach.

The strategy was to realign Canadian politics by displacing the Liberal party. The repercussion was to shed what remained of the party’s social democratic aspirations.

The lobbyist trickle turns into a stream

Once NDP officials had “pragmatically” embraced the market and accepted that politics could be a lucrative pursuit, it was only a small step to actually become corporate lobbyists themselves.

At first, it was just a trickle of individuals. In the early 2000s, former B.C. NDP minister Moe Sihota started a lobbying firm. Robin Sears, a national director in the 1970s, joined Navigator, a Conservative-allied firm. Robin MacLachlan, who worked for federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, became a consultant at Summa Strategies and later the firm’s president.

Then the outflux turned into a stream. At the federal level, the NDP’s ascension to official opposition in 2011 created new opportunities for its staff. Suddenly, corporate lobbying firms wanted to size up the party, and in the eventuality of an NDP government, to politically neutralize them.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had brought in a useful reform curbing lobbying influence, instituting a five-year freeze on political staffers in party leader’s offices joining firms. But that didn’t stop Lavigne and McGrath: both of them skirted the rule by having themselves hired as House of Commons staff. In 2012, Lavigne jumped ship to global lobbying giant Hill & Knowlton. Anne McGrath went to Ensight Canada (and as per the new revolving door, in 2015 she became Notley’s principal secretary, then joined Hill & Knowlton, then returned to direct the federal party).

Canadian lobbying firms had previously been either Liberal with a few token Conservatives or Conservative with a few token Liberals. NDPers now joined, or even started to create their own firms. The pay must have been an attraction: according to Duff Connacher of Democracy Watch, corporate lobbyists can pull in anywhere between $140,000 to $400,000 a year.

Soon after, on the heels of the NDP losing a B.C. election, Topp also went into the lobbying business.

The trend accelerated further when the NDP formed government in the west. In Alberta, after the party won a surprise victory in 2015, lobby firms scrambled to hire people from the party. Brad Lavigne and Robin Sears were soon “spending an unusual amount of time” in the province, the Hill Times reported, as a “buying season” erupted. Several officials soon made the move to lobbying.

In B.C., the same thing happened when the party took power in 2017 and then again in 2021—spawning a cohort of ex party officials lobbying for fossil fuel interests, as researcher Donald Gutstein exhaustively documented. When an insurgent candidate challenged Eby’s candidacy for leadership of the party last year, these officials banded together to derail her campaign.

Neither Lavigne, Topp or Rotman responded to requests for an interview.

A media spokesperson for the Alberta NDP didn’t respond to a request for comment, but questioned why The Breach was “singling out these individuals.”

Breaking the silence about the revolving door

A decade and a half ago, the Alberta NDP was advocating for a moratorium on new tar sands developments—a position in line with what climate scientists say needs to happen today.

But last month, as extreme wildfires engulfed the province, Notley was by contrast boasting about getting pipelines built—a dubious effort to make it seem like the NDP embraced fossil fuels as much as their right-wing counterparts.

If there were no voices dissenting from that strategy in Notley’s war-room and inner circles, one reason might have been that many of them spend their time lobbying for the same industry.

Her former communications director—lobbying for a coal company. Her former energy minister—lobbying for a gas company. That minister’s former chief of staff—lobbying for Global Public Affairs, a powerhouse firm that advocates on behalf of most of the tar sands companies.

The policies that were acceptable to this circle—pipeline-boosting, fiscal conservatism, business tax cuts, and more cops on the streets—may have appealed to some conservatives and centrist voters. But they were the same policies that the NDP and its allied lobbyists have been pushing for the past decades, leaving progressive voters unenergized and adrift and the corporate class pleased and unthreatened.

If the NDP wants to win, and in a way that can begin to tackle the crises of inequality and climate breakdown, they’ll need to buck this political consensus, and not to mention the lobbyist class.

Among the party’s decision-makers, there is scarcely a sign of a reckoning: Brian Topp will be managing the Manitoba NDP’s October campaign, and Cheryl Oates will be managing Saskatchewan’s in 2024.

For this to happen, party members will need to confront the muzzle effect that the NDP’s ur-lobbyist Sears had once predicted lobbying would introduce into the party.

New Democrats need to get past the idea that lobbyists are out to make politicians do illicit things, Sears told a reporter from Lobby Watch in 2012. As party officials became lobbyists, he hoped NDPers would become more constrained in their attacks, since they could be “describing their friends.”

“They will change and they will start to be more focused and discriminating in their attacks, pointing the gun at those who deserve to be pointed at rather than simply spraying bullets in every direction about how wicked the government relations industry is.”

Who wants to bad mouth a friend, after all?

But with the fossil fuel industry cooking the planet and right-wing faux populists feeding off of rippling rage against the establishment, now might be a good time for the NDP to start.

Martin Lukacs is an investigative journalist and the managing editor of The Breach. He’s a former environmental writer for The Guardian, and has written for The New York Review of Books, Toronto Star, Walrus, CBC, and other Canadian publications. He’s the author of The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent.

[email protected]

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