The entry of former top-level New Democrats into government relations is a sign of the party’s maturity and professionalization as it expands its network and influence, consultants said.
Two former senior party staffers who stepped down following Thomas Mulcair’s election as the NDP’s new leader in March have joined prominent Ottawa consulting firms, a trend insiders expect to continue as part of a “natural progression” with the party’s official Opposition status.
Anne McGrath, NDP president from 2006 to 2009 and chief of staff to late party leader Jack Layton and interim leader Nycole Turmel, joined Ensight Canada as its managing director in July. Last month Hill and Knowlton Strategies announced that Brad Lavigne, former principal secretary to both Layton and Turmel as well as a former communications and campaign director, would become its new vice-president of public affairs in January.
The NDP's jump to official Opposition status in 2011 led consulting firms to consider how they could adjust to and understand the 103 MPs the Orange Wave brought in, consultants said.
“I think a lot of firms looked at the dynamic in the House of Commons and realized that they were missing a big piece of the picture and that it would be advantageous to reach out and find out as much as they possibly could about who is this official Opposition, what do they stand for, what do they believe,” McGrath said in an interview.
The NDP had understood something about the electorate, particularly in Quebec, that others missed, and that insight was valuable for consultants looking to better serve their clients, said Ensight principal Will Stewart, a Conservative.
Ensight consultants have conducted focus groups across the country in the 48 hours immediately following every election since 2006 to try to understand the motivations for voting and to predict what the government will do, Stewart said in an interview.
“We like to have a different perspective at the table. We think that the way people vote tells us something about how a government will behave. And the NDP figured out something about what people wanted, [what] motivated them to vote, and we think that brings a lot of value to our firm,” he said.
Stewart said Ensight wanted McGrath specifically, and that it was fortunate to get ahead of the competition. He said the desire to have an NDP insider was less about straight access and more about understanding.
“We didn’t need someone from the NDP to open NDP doors. That wasn’t what we were looking for,” he said.
“We were looking for someone to bring to our table that can actually sit down with our clients and talk about the strategies, the approach, and the fulsome advocacy efforts and communications efforts that would include the NDP—words and phrases that didn’t just motivate the NDP but also didn’t offend the NDP. [This] is a new political experience for everybody in Canada to have such a strong NDP federally, and it’s only responsible for us to be able to provide that to our clients.”
Lavigne said he was approached by a number of firms since he left his position with the party in March, and he had even had conversations prior to the 2011 election.
“I think it’s all part of a natural progression of New Democrats taking up more of the public affairs space as a response to it being more electorally successful in the last number of years,” he said in an interview.
Robin MacLachlan, a consultant with Summa Strategies since 2009 who worked for former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and MP Paul Dewar, said clients are paying more attention to the NDP since 2011, which has created greater demand for someone who understands the party's decision-making process. Summa works on files as a team, he said in an interview, and he's been brought in more frequently for his expertise on how the NDP will approach an issue.
The new hirings “put to rest the old paradigm of Tory firms hiring a few token Liberals and Liberal firms hiring a few token Conservatives,” NDP principal secretary Karl Bélanger said in an interview. “There’s a new player in town and it’s an important one, and [firms are] taking notice.”
While Bélanger said consulting firms are recruiting staffers—he declined to comment on whether he’s been approached—and several consultants said that would continue, they also said New Democrats' movement into government relations could be helpful to the party.
“Lobbying, when done properly and within the rules, is an effective way to talk about issues with stakeholders of all kinds,” Bélanger said. “In that sense, it helps people understand—from the government relations firms’ point of view—the approach of the NDP on the different issues and it creates a link with their clients with the government-in-waiting.”
Robin Sears, a consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy group who served as NDP national director in the 1970s and chief of staff to then-Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae in the 1980s, said it’s important to meet with groups such as resource companies even if the party doesn’t like them.
“The intermediary function that former New Democrat staffers can play with their former colleagues is quite valuable to the party in terms of building their networks and their relationships in communities where they’re not typically very well-connected,” he said in an interview.
While MacLachlan said the party probably isn’t thinking much about the role former staffers can play in consulting firms, it is valuable to the party for stakeholders from industry or the non-profit sector to understand the NDP’s positions and decision-making process, he said.
“There's a lot of importance being placed on understanding what an NDP government would mean, and I do think that former NDP staffers working in the advocacy business is helpful to that,” he said.
It’s important for party activists to be present in various roles across the country, and “one of the areas that we haven't been very active in has been in the area of lobbying,” McGrath said.
Even when the NDP was nearly irrelevant early in the last decade, consultants with a background in the party were able to offer an understanding of the NGO community, civil society and the labour movement, Sears said.
“If you’re a resource company or anybody dealing with a First Nations community or with an environmental community, those are all constituencies that you need to know about. New Democrats have traditionally been, if not recruiting from those communities, certainly have very strong relationships with them, so we’ll know who to call and what they’re likely to think,” he said.
Stewart said NDP staffers joining lobby firms is further evidence of a movement to “professionalize the party.” Members becoming consultants “shows that they’re a serious, staying power in Ottawa to some degree” and “becoming part of the Ottawa culture as opposed to a party in third place as they’ve traditionally been seen.”
McGrath said the Opposition leader's office has developed a parliamentary affairs department and emphasized stakeholder outreach since 2011. The NDP has also looked at how other parties have promoted ideas and policy frameworks, she said.
The NDP is building international relationships with like-minded political parties and with the think-tank and academic worlds, Sears said, with the Broadbent Institute becoming a significant player in policy making.
“The right has had a variety of mechanisms over the years. They've had right-wing think tanks, obviously they've had some friends or relations with the media, they've had links with consulting firms, they've had government, at least for the last several years now,” McGrath said.
“So there's a variety of ways of promoting those ideas and the policy frameworks that they support. The progressives have had a more limited ability to do that. I believe that with the advent of the NDP as official Opposition that that offers up some more opportunities for making sure that we can build the kind of proposals that will actually operate effectively once we're in government.”
The consultants said this newfound “maturity” shouldn't hurt the party's values-based image or alienate its social democratic base.
Lavigne said the lobbying world was cleaned up with the 2006 Federal Accountability Act and McGrath said they're conducting their business ethically and transparently. In order to form government, the party would need all of the best advice and information, which consultants can help provide, she said.
McGrath and Lavigne aren't subject to the five-year lobbying ban that was extended in 2010 to include political staff in the Opposition leader's office because they were hired as House of Commons staff rather than under the Public Service Employment Act.
Bélanger said he hasn't heard any grumblings and that the party base is still happy to talk to McGrath and Lavigne at meetings and party events.
New Democrats need to get past the idea that lobbyists are out to make politicians do illicit things, Sears said, and he hopes they'll be more constrained in their attacks on lobbyists 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. That would be a great benefit to everybody, including them,” he said.
It would be another sign of the party's maturity, he said.