Politics

Trudeau calls out Poilievre after top Conservative adviser is tied to Loblaw lobbying

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on the leader of the opposition to clarify his position on grocery prices after news emerged that a top Conservative adviser's consulting firm has lobbied on behalf of grocery giant Loblaw.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accuses the opposition leader of 'pretending' to care about high grocery prices

A woman wearing glasses.
Jenni Byrne, a senior adviser to Pierre Poilievre, waits to appear before the procedure and House affairs committee on Thursday, May 11, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on the leader of the opposition to clarify his position on grocery prices after news emerged that a top Conservative adviser's consulting firm has lobbied on behalf of grocery giant Loblaw.

The Ontario lobbyist registry lists six employees of Jenni Byrne + Associates as registered lobbyists for Loblaw Companies Limited. The CEO of the firm is Jenni Byrne, a longtime Conservative strategist and campaign manager for Pierre Poilievre's leadership bid.

"Pierre Poilievre has been standing up for months now pretending he cares about high grocery prices faced by Canadians," Trudeau said at a media appearance in Waterloo, Ont.

"It turns out that his top adviser is working as a lobbyist for Loblaws. I think Mr. Poilievre owes some explanations to Canadians."

Byrne herself is not listed on any public registry as a consultant for Loblaw. She did not respond to a request for comment.

"Let's be clear about the facts here, Jenni Byrne is not and never has been registered to lobby on behalf of Loblaws," said Simon Jefferies, senior vice president for Jenni Byrne + Associates, in a written statement.

"The work JB+A does with Loblaws is limited to the provincial level and focused on expanded access to beer and wine and red tape reduction."

A screengrab of the Ontario Lobbyists registry shows six employees of Jenni Byrne + Associates lobbying for Loblaw Companies Limited.
This image from the Ontario lobbyist registry shows six employees of Jenni Byrne + Associates lobbying for Loblaw Companies Limited. (Office of the Integrity Commissioner)

This is the second day the Liberals have sought to attack Byrne and Poilievre over the lobbying association. On Thursday during question period in the House of Commons, Housing Minister Sean Fraser raised the issue.

The cost of food has been one of the most discussed issues on Parliament Hill. Debate during the new sitting of the House of Commons has focused squarely on the problem of affordability.

Loblaw has been criticized by the federal government, the NDP and consumer experts for reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in profits during a time of high food inflation.

Speaking to a House of Commons committee in December, Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston said his company, which represents 29 per cent of the Canadian grocery industry, has been unfairly targeted for food price inflation.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said this week that "large grocers have not, to date, been sufficiently transparent about the causes of food inflation." He said he's written to Matthew Boswell, the competition commissioner, to encourage the Competition Bureau to use new powers given to it last fall — including subpoena powers and the ability to block mergers — to do more to lower grocery costs.

"Large grocers have ... failed, for the most part, to provide regular updates on initiatives aimed at stabilizing food prices in the country," Champagne said Monday.

Loblaw came in for more criticism recently over a deal to make some Manulife prescription drugs available only at Loblaw-owned pharmacies, and over a now-cancelled plan to stop giving a 50 per cent discount on food nearing expiry dates.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been hammering the Trudeau government over the cost of living. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Byrne has made few media appearances since Poilievre won the Conservative leadership in 2022.

She was seen entering a caucus meeting — usually reserved for Conservative MPs, senators and top staff — last December. Sources tell CBC News she is set to be the campaign chair for the Conservative Party in the next federal election.

But she did not respond to questions about whether she's paid by the party or the opposition leader's office.

She posted about her firm on her social media pages as recently as last week.

Families set to pay more for groceries in 2024

A food industry report projects that food prices are set to rise again this year.

Food costs overall are forecast to be up by between 2.5 and 4.5 per cent, with the grocery bill for a typical family of four increasing by roughly $700 to just shy of $16,300.

In Ottawa, the issue of food costs has been central to discussions about affordability. In September, two senior cabinet ministers met with the heads of Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Costco and Walmart in an effort to stabilize prices. 

The rising cost of food has also been a frequent topic in question period, with Poilievre noting the record use of food banks and arguing that imposing a carbon tax on farmers and truckers will drive up the cost of food further.

When asked about the involvement of Byrne's company with Loblaw, the Opposition Leader's Office blamed Trudeau for the cost of food.

"Justin Trudeau's minister promised to stabilize grocery prices by Thanksgiving. He failed at that as prices have only increased. The Liberals failed and now claim that it's really the Leader of the Opposition – not the Prime Minister and Government of Canada – who holds all the power. This is laughable and pathetic," said Sebastian Skamski, director of media relations for the Opposition Leader's Office, in a written statement.

The NDP has also been highly critical of the federal government's handling of this file, including its decision to spend millions on energy-efficient coolers for Loblaw.

"Canadians facing sky-high food prices don't need a competition between Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre around who is Galen Weston's best buddy," said leader Jagmeet Singh in a written statement.

Loblaw did not respond to a request for comment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate McKenna is a senior reporter with CBC News. She is based in the parliamentary bureau. kate.mckenna@cbc.ca.

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