The Conservative government is setting its sights on cementing a reputation as the Consumer Party of Canada.
In a series of interviews this weekend, Industry Minister James Moore said Wednesday’s Throne Speech will unveil the government’s plans to enact consumer-friendly measures. Those include a move to force television service providers to let subscribers pay for only those channels they want. Mr. Moore also suggested the government may enact protections to prevent airline customers from being bumped from overbooked planes, clamp down on mobile roaming charges in Canada and control hidden credit card fees.
“When Canadians make decisions about how to spend their money, they must be assured of a voice, a choice, and fair treatment,” the minister said in an e-mail sent to The Globe and Mail from his office. “Our focus on consumer interests will increase competition in the wireless sector and help provide Canadians with more choices and access to the latest technology at better prices.”
But Glenn Thibeault, the New Democratic Party critic for consumer affairs, accused the government of hypocrisy after repeatedly voting against pro-consumer legislation proposed by his party. “They’ve done nothing [to help consumers] in the past five years,” he said, claiming the government was attempting to divert attention away from the Senate spending scandal.
The government’s consumerist push has indeed become conspicuous in recent months, centring on its moves in the wireless phone sector, a source of widespread consumer discontent. It picked a public fight with Canada’s three incumbent wireless carriers, signalling it would do whatever was necessary to create greater competition in the sector – including blocking takeovers by incumbents – and launching a blistering PR offensive to countervail a public campaign by the telcos. The Conservative Party used the government’s tough stance in wireless to appeal to donors.
Michele Austin, a former senior Conservative adviser who now works for Summa Strategies in Ottawa, said the government “knows it is vulnerable on consumer issues” as voters believe Conservative governments eventually “get captured by big business.” She said the consumerist stance should sit well with ordinary Canadians and urban swing voters, while sidelining both the Liberals and NDP.
The cable TV move is likely to face opposition from broadcasters that have resisted such moves in the past – including Bell Media parent BCE Inc. – as they face new threats from unregulated Internet-based services such as Netflix. BCE declined to comment. But Rogers Communications, which experimented with “pick-and-pay” offerings two years ago, voiced support. “We think the minister is right,” said Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ senior vice president, regulatory affairs. “Consumers want to be in the driver’s seat. … This will be an adjustment, but we’ll get there.”
One of those adjustments may be that the costs of individual cable channels rise, since packages typically include a mix of channels of varying popularity that cross-subsidize each other, said Michael Geist, a law professor with the University of Ottawa. “There might be a bit of sticker shock on [the price] of any individual channel,” he said. “It would certainly shake up the marketplace.”
The government has not been a consistent ally of the consumer: it continues to support protectionist policies that leave Canadians paying far more for milk, eggs and chickens than would otherwise be the case, while letting Canada’s banks opt out of oversight by a federal ombudsman.
Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada says that overall, “they seem to be set to take action on a range of things consumers are concerned about.”