Stephen McNeil’s meeting with premier-turned-lobbyist draws fire

A year ago, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and one of his senior advisers sat down to breakfast at Halifax’s Marriott Harbourfront Hotel with representatives from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, a gathering arranged and hosted by former Quebec premier and one-time deputy prime minister Jean Charest.

Charest lobbies on the group’s behalf. The private meeting coincided with a national aerospace industry effort called Vision 2025, a campaign Charest noted was part of his lobbying activities on the federal government’s lobbyist registry in November 2018.

The Aerospace Industries Association of Canada made no secret of the Feb. 13, 2019, meeting, touting it in a news release issued the same day.

But the leader of Nova Scotia’s NDP, Gary Burrill, is concerned it is another example of McNeil’s disregard for Nova Scotia’s law on lobbying.

Although Charest is registered federally, he has not registered as a lobbyist in Nova Scotia. 

“Meeting with lobbyists who fail to register as lobbyists and not paying any attention to whether or not they have properly registered as lobbyists, that’s not holding the standard of conduct to the government up very high,” said Burrill.

In 2018, McNeil faced similar condemnation after he met former prime minister Jean Chrétien, a vocal supporter of the plan to establish a container port facility at the harbour in Sydney, N.S.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Jean Chrétien are shown on March 21, 2018. (Stephen McNeil/Twitter)

Although Chrétien had publicly stated he would be meeting McNeil to talk about the project, the premier denied the subject came up during their face-to-face meeting.

“We talked about economic development,” McNeil said at the time. “We talked about what it was like to be from a large family. We continued to share stories about that, but I can assure you there was actually no lobby.”

Chrétien ignored subsequent attempts by Nova Scotia’s registrar of lobbyists to clarify what happened during the meeting on March 21, 2018.

An investigation by the RCMP concluded there was no evidence Chrétien lobbied McNeil or Business Minister Geoff MacLellan during that closed-door meeting in the premier’s office.

Nova Scotia’s Lobbyists’ Registration Act is similar to federal legislation when it comes to defining lobbying, and both make it clear that setting up a meeting falls within that definition.

“‘Lobby’ means to communicate with a public-office holder in an attempt to influence; to arrange a meeting between a public-office holder and any other person,” states the provincial legislation.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest is a lobbyist for the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. (Graham Hughes/CANADIAN PRESS)

A spokesperson for Charest said he met with McNeil last year to “have his insight on the Canadian aerospace industry.” McNeil’s policy advisor, Ted Aubut, was also at the meeting, according to emails.

The finer details of what was talked about aren’t clear, but the premier’s office prepared a several-page briefing note, a partially redacted version of which was obtained by the NDP, to make sure he was up to speed on the industry.

Alley Adams, a communications manager for McCarthy Tétrault, the law firm Charest works for, denied he was lobbying.

“Those communications were not intended to influence Premier McNeil with respect to any of the subject matters listed in the Nova Scotia lobbying act,” Adams wrote in a email to CBC News. “As such, no registration was required in the Nova Scotia lobbyists registry.”

Burrill takes an opposite view.

“I don’t know on what planet it wouldn’t be considered as lobbying,” he said. “That’s what lobbying is.

“Person who is working for an economic, financial or industrial interest and tries, on their behalf, to influence the government. Makes contacts, has breakfast and bends their ear. That’s what lobbying is.”

‘Engagement days’

Charest’s federal registration includes a description of the Vision 2025 lobbying activities. It says the campaign will “convene industry leaders, educators, government representatives, and members of the public to share their expertise, vision and ambitions for the future of the aerospace sector.

“This will include engagement days in several cities with strong aerospace presence. Vision 2025 will culminate in a report and recommendations that reflect input gathered from the industry-led discussions, and will provide recommendations to spur growth in the aerospace sector.”

The Halifax meeting with McNeil took place as one of the “engagement days.”

McNeil denies he did anything wrong by agreeing to meet with Charest and his clients. As for the fact Charest is not registered to lobby in Nova Scotia, the premier said that was Charest’s responsibility.

“It is up to the person to register,” said McNeil. “It’s not up to the premier to register them.”

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he finds McNeil’s attitude towards his meeting with Charest troubling. (CBC)

McNeil also said it was not his job to determine whether those who lobby him comply with the law.

“I don’t ask people who come for the meetings whether they are registered or not,” he said.

Burrill finds that attitude troubling.

“This is an even greater concern because here he’s saying that in fact he doesn’t care whether the person was registered or not,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know whose responsibility it is to see that the business of government is carried out at the level of an ethical standard, within a level of acceptable integrity, if it’s not to the business of the premier of the province.”

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