A pressure group, also known as an interest group or lobby, is an organization formed by like-minded people who seek to influence public policy to promote an interest. Pressure groups exist in all modern pluralist democracies and have sprung up on all sides. Some defend producer interests. In response, others press for consumer concerns or push for broad policies such as protection of the environment. The proliferation of some pressure groups is so extensive, their size so large and their organization so sophisticated, that they virtually constitute another arm of government.
Examples of powerful pressure groups are the business-financed Business Council on National Issues (BCNI), the Canadian Tax Foundation, the commercial banks, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Medical Association, the automobile, steel, rubber, chemical and energy industries, which act alone or through their trade associations such as the BCNI, the Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers' Association. The BCNI is an association of chief executive officers of large Canadian corporations formed in 1977 to co-ordinate business participation in the policy-making process. The Institute of Association Executives, which in Ottawa alone has 318 members, constitutes a virtual lobby of lobbyists. Other pressure groups, such as Executive Consultants Ltd and Government Policy Consultants Inc, comprise former politicians, ex-public servants, and advertising and public relations specialists, who sell their services for a fee.
Lobbying by pressure groups can take the form of a mass-media campaign or paid advertisements which oppose or support a particular policy, informal meetings with senior bureaucrats, or the presentation of a brief to a parliamentary committee. Lobbying in Canada, however, has been described as "keeping things pleasant, dull and controlled" and is usually characterized by private, informal meetings with influential advisers and Cabinet ministers. The closeness of these lobbyists to the politicians and bureaucrats sometimes results in charges of conflict of interest.
Some pressure groups are much more powerful and more successful than others. Successful pressure groups are almost always well financed, cohesive and stable, and their leaders, many of whom are former politicians, tend to represent causes which are favourably regarded by politicians and civil servants. In other words, they facilitate the process by which leaders of the ruling party and senior bureaucrats work out their policy arrangements with the business community, the professions and other organized interests in society. They usually maintain permanent offices near the capital and their leaders frequent important clubs and associations.
The less successful groups are generally poorly financed, are led by people remote from the elite groups and advocate causes not generally favoured by the leading political parties. They are often organized around a single issue, or appear suddenly on the scene to protest a particular policy proposal. Others soldier on for years, defending small or lost causes. The losers simply lack the means to succeed. Unlike the elite leaders, they cannot command the ear of Cabinet ministers at will or project an air of legitimacy. While well-financed pressure groups establish personal contact within the government, contact leading journalists and conduct slick media campaigns or even submit legal arguments relating to the drafting of legislation, less effective groups must resort to a more episodic, guerrilla-type campaign. The latter tend to use more noisy, flamboyant techniques, such as demonstrations with slogans, signs and contrived "media opportunities."
Because legislative decision making in Canada is highly centralized and party discipline is strong, the rivalries between legislators cannot be easily exploited. However, the same monopoly of power that allows the Cabinet to ignore pressure groups' demands also allows it to respond to them. The development of legislation usually follows a certain sequence. First, the need for policy change is perceived, then the policy proposal is developed, frequently with interest-group representatives, and circulated within government, eg, the Prime Minister's Office and central agencies. It is then sometimes sent to the media, to experts and occasionally to provincial governments, before it is circulated to more government departments. At this point the policy may also be reviewed by pressure groups. Before an amendment or a new statute is introduced into Parliament the proposal is reviewed by a committee, whose opinions are confirmed or modified by Cabinet; the bill is drafted by the Department of Justice, considered by another Cabinet committee, confirmed by Cabinet and signed by the prime minister.
But to be effective, legislation must be implemented, for which purpose public servants enjoy great discretion and power. Furthermore, the impact of legislation is often determined by the interpretation of the courts. Because the legislative process, particularly policy initiative, is controlled in practice by the bureaucracy, interest groups often express their opinions or provide information to public servants as well as to Cabinet. But interest groups can also exert their influence on parliamentary committees, whose suggestions regarding modifications of a bill are often confirmed by Cabinet; on the Senate, which can wield influence through the powerful Banking Committee; and on backbenchers, who may someday become Cabinet members, although it is generally acknowledged that once a bill has reached Parliament it is more difficult to influence the government's intentions.
Despite the conclusions of the Royal Commission on corporate concentration that farm, labour and other interest-group organizations are successful in affecting government policy, many such groups are excluded from any effective role by the ability of powerful, recognized interests and bureaucrats to inhibit organizational efforts of groups that do not share accepted attitudes. If a group's representatives do not enjoy confidential intimacy with senior civil servants and Cabinet ministers, they resort to other tactics to excite the attention of the government, but tactics such as protest rallies underline their marginal political status. Among experienced lobbyists such tactics, although they are becoming more common, are considered illegitimate. Consumer, environmental and labour groups are also less successful, not only because they are socially and ideologically further from government but because they are trying to facilitate, not prevent, change. In government, it is always easier to prevent change than to bring it about.
Pressure groups are growing in importance in Canada for several reasons. As Parliament and provincial legislatures decline in influence with the weakening of political parties, power tends to shift to interest groups. Election campaigns are becoming ever more costly, and parties rely more on contributions from interests. The growing Americanization of Canada has resulted in the development of sophisticated techniques of lobbying and public relations, especially with the large multinational corporations. Increasing disputes between federal and provincial governments have aided the attempts of powerful interests to play off one level of government against another. Groups with strong regional interests, eg, the western oil and gas industry, or the secondary manufacturing industries of Ontario, have successfully mobilized their provincial governments in their cause against the federal government and the other regions of Canada.
It is when pressure groups do not pursue the same goals that the big battles are waged. The petroleum-pricing issue of the 1970s and early 1980s pitted the oil industry and the governments of producer provinces against the manufacturing industries in central Canada and the Ontario government (see National Energy Policy). In general, big business has been successful when it is united. For example, it succeeded in preventing an effective strengthening of the Combines Investigation Act, which the Trudeau government had pledged to reform when it came into office. Also it prevented reform of the taxation system, despite the recommendations of the Carter Commission. In 1987, the organized multinational pharmaceutical industry succeeded in inducing the Mulroney government to end the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals, thereby permitting these firms to enjoy a monopoly on the production of their new drugs for 10 years. This may lead to substantial price increases; but it is defended as a means of attracting investment to Canada, and as compliance with Canada's treaty obligations under NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.
Because of the growing conspicuousness of the lobbying industry and resulting controversy, the Mulroney government passed a law requiring lobbyists to register with a new government agency, making their activities more open. Those who represented interests directly such as firms or trade associations merely had to provide their names and that of their company or association. Those who lobbied for others for a fee (ie, professional lobbyists) were obliged to state the interests for which they were acting and the nature of their representations. Lobbyists at first objected to this legislation as an interference with their citizen's rights. However they came to perceive that registration conferred a certain legitimation upon them in the form of official government-recorded status.
Generally, pressure groups in Canada have reinforced the status quo, but then, for the most part, they are the status quo.
See also lobbying.