Fighting for the interests of consumers against large corporate powers is not for the faint of heart, yet that is what Canada’s Public Interest Advocacy Centre has been doing for almost 40 years. With a shoestring budget of less than $2-million a year, its handful of lawyers effectively intervenes at regulatory hearings and in court battles, usually on telecommunication, broadcast and energy issues. Last year one of PIAC’s lawyers, John Lawford, took over the top spot as executive director. He has plans to expand the operations, despite the constant struggle for financing.
People see PIAC commenting on consumer issues, but they don’t know much about it. How do you define its role?
From the time PIAC was set up in 1976, the mission has been to look after consumer interests – and in particular vulnerable consumer interests – in important public services. That can often be at regulatory boards, but it can also include lobbying, speaking to politicians, and answering bureaucratic consultations. It can be doing media.
Is a key part of your mandate that you try to represent the “unrepresented”?
PIAC has been called a “leftist front” led by “ideological activists.” Is that unfair?
I’m not ashamed [of that characterization]. [If we don’t do it], no one is going to put forward the viewpoint of people who are having trouble paying their cellphone bills. Our job is to say:
This should be working for everybody. There are so many folks lobbying for Bell and Telus and Rogers, and for all the banks. It is valuable to have somebody saying the opposite.
How do you pay your expenses?
The more enlightened [regulatory] boards have public intervenor rules that allow for cost awards. If we show up and argue for the public interest or ratepayers, we can tap the corporate parties who are trying to get their rates set or their policy through. That pays our bills and it keeps the place going. [Most of] the rest of our money comes from our very disorganized fundraising efforts. We are hoping to build our base and be better at that.
What is the rationale for making the corporations you are opposing pay your bills?
[These regulatory bodies] think it is important to have decent representation of the people who are going to end up paying the phone rates or the energy rates. Those people deserve to have lawyers, who are not going to magically appear out of nowhere unless there is this kind of system.
You are also involved in some areas that don’t generate cost awards, such as privacy issues and financial services. Why did you jump in there?
We went into privacy because it became clear consumers were being asked to participate in a new value system. You give your personal information and you get back services. It is all about how to treat people in an information marketplace. Financial services impact people day to day. Every time they make a payment or deal with their bank or make an investment, they are participating in a system where there isn’t much in the way of consumer protection.
Are there other areas you’d like to tackle, if you had the resources?
We want to get into competition law. That goes with the telecom and the broadcasting and all of the other consumer protection work that we do. We would do a little more on transportation. I think we could do some good work in consumer protection in contracting. But that would stretch us too thin, too fast.
Why are similar U.S. organizations so much bigger and better financed than PIAC?
Foundations in Canada don’t give money to organizations that do advocacy. In the United States … rich people set up foundations, and they give them free rein to go and punch the industry they got their money from. But they don’t do that here.
We also have, for whatever reason, no sustained ability to generate interest in a consumer publication like Consumer Reports. [U.S.-based] Consumers Union makes a ton of dough off Consumer Reports, but we don’t have that.
I am really encouraged to see [Canadian advocacy group] OpenMedia.ca going straight to people and asking for donations for campaigns. It is basically crowd funding. They’ve proved that model works.
Are you considering crowd funding?
It is difficult because you have to manage your social profile. We are five people, three of whom are lawyers trying to write submissions. They can’t spend half the day on Twitter. If I hire a communications person, then I think, slowly, we can ask people to support our work, and then build it up. But it is going to take time.
How is your relationship with the federal government? Do they see your value?
We are an important part of the whole system for them. I think they view us as being at times annoying, but also helpful to the whole dialogue. On something like regulatory reform, they hear from 20 banks. If they don’t have anyone who can credibly put forward the views of the other 20 million people in the country, then it is awkward for them, because they have to take on that role.
How important is the research that PIAC performs?
We try to be well-researched and thoughtful. You can do advocacy all day, but you need to have evidence. Yet you are busy doing the legal work and writing the submissions and doing the advocacy and lawyering. It is hard to take time out of your day to design research and to get it out into the field and get it back and think about it and then feed it to who needs to know it. My goal is to have more research capacity.
You are now running this organization, in addition to being a lawyer. How tough was that shift?
It has been a bit of a shock. I didn’t think managing a place with five people would keep me so busy. It is a little bit like running a small law firm, which now I appreciate as being a hard business to be in. It is a little bit like running a think-tank.
Is it difficult to attract lawyers when you pay less than big law firms?
We get people who aren’t necessarily interested in making a ton of money in law. They want to do the right thing, and they find it valuable here because we give them full files to run [and they get] lots of experience. On the other hand, you can’t give them no career path and no money. I want to make this a place people will want to stay at, or come to at various stages in their careers.
You’ve had a number of victories, including stopping the Bell-Astral merger the first time, and getting a wireless code of conduct in place. Do these make you feel that you’ve made a difference?
We have made more of an impact than we should have for our size. That is really encouraging, because then you feel like coming here every day. But we’ve had a lot of crushing defeats, too.
Executive director and general counsel, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Ottawa.
Born in Ottawa; 48 years old.
English and law degrees from Queen’s University
Articled with Ottawa law firm Binks Chilcott and Simpson
Worked at Quicklaw, the online legal research service co-founded by his father, Hugh Lawford.
Worked as a research lawyer at several firms in Ottawa
Joined PIAC in 2003 as a policy researcher; named executive director in 2012