Public Interest Groups

 

Some Important Facts

As readers are aware, there has been a great deal of talk about “special interest groups” in the media.

Comments have been made that there are too many public groups, overloading the governmental process. A few people have said that some groups serve to undermine the work carried out by political parties and they do nothing more than complicate the policy making process!

Is the scrutiny that these groups receive justified? Are all groups the same? What is the value of these groups?

The term “special interest groups” has been used to describe all groups that either receive government funding or try to influence government policy and/or legislation. With over 20,000 recognized public groups in Canada, it is far too simplistic to understand all of them as special interest groups. All groups are different, each having its own mandate, organizational structure and funding source(s). The term “special interest groups” has served to generalize all groups, and, as a result, the term is often misused and the groups misunderstood.

Not all groups in Canada are the same, nor do they carry out similar activities. To shed some light on this issue, it is helpful to organize Canadian groups around two main categories.

1) Economic and Professional Associations Groups in this category can be defined as “interest” or “pressure groups.” The membership in these groups is primarily made up of people in the business/professional community. They come together to try to influence the government in order to promote their common interest. In most cases, these groups want to provide direct economic benefits to their members. Since they are seeking economic benefits, membership is often restricted to a selected group of individuals (i.e., those people in the business/professional community).

Examples of groups in this category are the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) and the Canadian Manufacturers Association (CMA).

2) Public Interest Groups Public Interest groups may also be interested in influencing government policy and/or legislation, but, unlike professional associations, these groups want their actions to benefit people beyond their membership (which is often very small, compared to the larger collective of interests). People associated with these groups share a common sense of values and a shared sense of collective identity, which often informs their work. They are not interested in economic benefits, but instead are seeking policy changes that have the potential to affect many people all over the country.

In an attempt to make this definition more clear, it is useful to divide public interest groups further, into two subcategories:

i) equality seeking groups and ii) quality of life groups.

Equality seeking groups are often working to change the personal status of individuals (legal, political, social, economic). Included here are disability groups, woman’s groups, gay and lesbian groups and Aboriginal groups. Examples are the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and AIDS ACTION NOW!

Quality of life groups are working to change the overall quality of life for all individuals in society at large. Included here are environmental groups, peace groups and human rights groups. Examples are Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPRIG), and the Canadian Coalition Against Acid Rain (CCAAR).

The Value of Public Interest Groups It has been recognized by individuals both inside and outside government that public interest groups play an important and necessary role in Canadian society. These groups broaden traditional politics by permitting individuals to participate in activities which they would not normally be able to access, such as consultation, lobbying, policy review.

In most cases, these groups do not act in isolation, but rather have developed support networks at the community, regional, provincial, national and international levels. Although these groups may add to the complex nature of Canadian society, they nonetheless ensure that it is more inclusive of both people and ideas, which is a foundation of democracy.

It is well known that a number of public interest groups require government funding to keep their doors open. Some individuals and groups have argued that in times of fiscal constraint, the funding of public interest groups is a waste of funds. This argument is founded on an understanding that everyone in Canadian society is on a level playing field — that is, we are equal and have equal access to resources. Of course, this is not the case. As a result, public interest groups play an important role in ensuring that those individuals who cannot compete on an equal footing have some form of representation in Canadian institutions and can participate in Canadian communities.

Public interest groups do not have the resources that the powerful, monied and elite groups can boast (i.e, economic/ professional associations). Since the government is committed to democracy, it must seek input from individuals and groups of individuals who are normally not heard. To achieve this goal, the government provides funding to public interest groups. Thus, by supporting organizations that promote equality and quality of life issues, the State is enhancing Canadian democracy.

KEY POINTS TO REMEMBER ABOUT PUBLIC INTEREST GROUPS
– They serve the needs of both their membership and broader Canadian society.
– They serve the needs of the State through consultation, research and information dissemination.
– They act as a watchdog of government, business and labour.
– They play a central role in the development of information.
– They build important and effective community, regional, provincial, national and international networks.

For more information about this issue, please contact:

CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF INDEPENDENT LIVING CENTRES (CAILC)
1004-350 SPARKS STREET
OTTAWA, ON K1R 7S8
TEL: (613) 563-2581
FAX: (613) 235-4497
TTY: (613) 563-2581
E-MAIL: cailc@magma.ca
WEBSITE: http://cailc.ca/

 

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