Dear City Council, Community Groups Are Not Lobbyists
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Dear City Council, Community Groups Are Not Lobbyists

Denzil Minnan-Wong's latest proposal would create unnecessary roadblocks for civic action, argues advocacy group Women in Toronto Politics.

If advocacy is lobbying, then volunteering is employment and corporations are voters.

The proposal to widen the definition of lobbyists to include community advocacy groups by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) is Toronto’s very own Citizens United: a move toward the needs of the corporate elite that outweighs the interest of the electorate. If approved, the City would study requiring non-profit organizations and community groups to register as lobbyists before they can contact their elected representatives, and face steep penalties if they fail to comply.

At the core of the issue is a measure of influence: how do we best monitor and regulate who has the ear of elected officials?

Having a Lobbyist Registrar is in the public’s best interest. We have a right to know which for-profit entities have a seat at the table of our government, and to what degree that seat is successfully shaping policy that leads to private profits.

But non-profits and grassroots community advocacy groups are not corporations. At the end of the day, lobbyists get paid. They sell the service of elbow-rubbing for a considerable fee. Are we to assume community groups and volunteers are on par with paid professionals? An advocate’s method of influence isn’t one of free drinks, premium sports tickets, or steak dinners, but their unique ability to galvanize a voting block.

Under the guise of “transparency” lies the sad truth: there appear to be some members of Council (and now also Mayor John Tory) who are intimidated by the power of mobilized communities. So what is it that frightens them? What interests do they need to protect against the “threat” of grassroots civic engagement?

When a politician sees firsthand the impact of “strength in numbers,” it is a collective push toward getting community needs met. Politicians are expected to listen to the concerns of constituents. Mobilizing a group of empowered neighbours is not the same as working to appease shareholders. Instead, it is the recognition of our power as stakeholders, affected by the decisions made at Council.

This coming from Tory, former chair of CivicAction, is bewildering. Has this one-time fellow advocate now turned his back on the same engagement he fought to inspire? Politics is a tough game, but one hopes he hasn’t become so jaded that he has forgotten what an important role his own advocacy played in gaining him the trust of Torontonians.

This issue is not about any one group or project. It does not belong to a specific party or ideology. It is rare in politics for a motion to be so unequivocally panned by groups across the political spectrum.

But here we are.

Community groups use their free time to share their communities’ needs and priorities with City Council. Their incentives are not financial. Their “incentives” for interaction with councillors and officials are to make Toronto a better place for those who live here—particularly for marginalized Torontonians who are underrepresented in positions of power. Their “pay off” is a city full of people who are meaningfully engaged and included in civic decision making, which cannot be defined by a dollar amount. It’s not taxable.

It is already far too difficult for many residents to have their voices heard, thanks to the alienation fostered by systemic racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of exclusion such as immigration status and language.

Treating community groups like lobbyists would add roadblocks to many of the avenues we encourage our own participants to pursue in order to effect change, from connecting with their councillors about city budget processes to organizing with fellow tenants to push for better living conditions. This policy direction deeply concerns us not only in its potential to affect our own activities, but in its potential to block the on-ramp for new city builders, many of whom already face too many barriers to involvement as it is.

We ask councillors to consider the needs of their communities above their own biases. The Lobbyist Registrar is not meant to be a hurdle between constituents and Council members. Grassroots civic engagement is not lobbying.

Women in Toronto Politics is a grassroots organization that promotes a more inclusive and accessible civic discourse. This op-ed was written by Claire McWatt.


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