With two years left in her mandate to protect Canadians from unscrupulous business practices, Canada’s Competition Commissioner has unexpectedly quit her post.
Melanie Aitken, who raised the Competition Bureau’s profile considerably in her three years at the helm by going after the real estate and credit card industries, said there’s nothing left for her to accomplish in the role as she announced her decision.
It caught many in the business community off guard. Ms. Aitken has been considered one of the most aggressive commissioners in the Competition Bureau’s history and there are still several high-profile cases she initiated that have yet to be resolved.
“Having accomplished largely what I set out to do and implemented my ideas and my vision, I think I’ve contributed my piece and it’s time to return home to new challenges,” said Ms. Aitken, who has split her time between her family in Toronto and her job in Ottawa since taking her first job at the bureau seven years ago.
After serving in several roles at the bureau, Ms. Aitken was appointed to a five-year term as commissioner in 2009.
She promptly made a name for herself as a watchdog with a penchant for choosing large targets – a task made easier by new powers that allowed her office to issue fines of up to $25-million for anti-competitive behaviour and gave commissioners the ability to delay mergers by up to a year while reviewing them.
While the Competition Bureau is considered an independent enforcement agency, it runs under the umbrella of Industry Canada. The government said it would begin the search for a new commissioner immediately. Ms. Aitken said she doesn’t have another job waiting for her, and that she wasn’t fired from the position.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have amazing support by this government and I think what we’ve been doing has been very consistent with the things they care about,” she said. “Those things are bringing information to consumers, introducing competition and bringing information to consumers.”
Ms. Aitken is not expected to have a shortage of job offers once she leaves. As a former Bay Street lawyer, she could easily join the several other former commissioners now practising law at blue-chip firms. She’s often spoken fondly about her past duties as a litigator, but said while at the bureau, she has discovered that there are other ways to use the skills cultivated in the courtroom.
“I've discovered you can get a lot of those same rushes just as effectively in the boardroom,” she said. “I was a litigator before and that’s part of who I am, but an awful lot of other things can be just as rewarding.”
Her best-known victory likely came at the expense of the country’s real estate agents, who agreed, at her insistence, to open up their Multiple Listing Service to allow for flat-fee listings. Her other targets have included credit card companies, airlines, landfill operators, gas cartels and cellphone providers.
Competition lawyers on Bay Street, who advise clients on how to avoid running afoul of the bureau, said Ms. Aitken set a strong tone on enforcement and raised the agency’s profile both in Canada and internationally.
“She has been a very dedicated public servant, a leader of the bureau who hasn’t hesitated to take on challenging cases,” said Calvin Goldman, co-chair of Blake Cassels and Graydon LLP’s competition law practice and himself a former commissioner of competition.
He said the move came as a surprise to the competition lawyers who follow the bureau closely.
Sandy Walker, a competition lawyer with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, said Ms. Aitken’s successor is important because the commissioner sets the tone for the bureau’s dealings with companies: “It will be interesting to see whether the next appointment is from within government or outside of government.”
Adam Fanaki, a competition lawyer with Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg and a former senior competition bureau official, said Ms. Aitken will be remembered as a tough enforcer: “Melanie Aitken’s legacy will certainly be defined by the significant and vigorous competition enforcement during her tenure as Commissioner of Competition, including the commencement of several high-profile and complex cases.”