James Moore, the country’s fifth industry minister in seven years, wasted no time establishing his priorities. “Our policy has been clear and remains unchanged,” he said, shortly after getting the job in late July. “Greater competition and liberalized investment has meant more choices at lower prices for Canadian families.” He then outlined a series of bold reforms to the banking sector, the dairy industry, the postal monopoly…
Whoops, sorry. That’s the alternate-universe version of the story. In real life, the Conservatives’ commitment to “greater competition” runs only so deep. The government’s current obsession is opening the wireless industry to foreign players—that’s what Moore was referring to above—and it spent much of the summer engaged in a public-relations war with BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp.
Yet vast tracts of the Canadian economy remain safely cocooned, and there’s little sign the government intends to change that. Why not? Think of the potential economic gains.
The financial sector: While Ottawa and the Big Three wireless companies were bashing each other over the nation’s phone bills, the World Economic Forum (WEF) was finalizing its latest rankings on national competitiveness. Canada landed in 14th place, behind Germany and the United States, ahead of Australia and France.
The biggest single problem for doing business in Canada is getting money. Canada ranks 26th in ease of access to loans, the WEF study says. Despite our vaunted banking system, we’re 11th in affordability of financial services. Foreign competition is limited. A handful of global banks set up offices here to provide business loans and services, but they’re minor players. The local unit of Bank of America is smaller than Canadian Western Bank, as measured by assets.
The only foreign-controlled bank of any size is HSBC Canada, the seventh-largest institution in the country, with $81 billion in assets (at the end of fiscal 2012). The next largest, ING Bank of Canada, was swallowed by Bank of Nova Scotia.
It wouldn’t be easy to weaken the grip of the Big Six, but the government has a number of regulatory options to ensure there’s room for smaller players, too. If “more choice” is a good thing in telecommunications, why not in financial services?
Agriculture: In 2012, the government removed the Canadian Wheat Board’s dominant role over the western wheat harvest, giving farmers more freedom to sell their products as they see fit. Good start. Still untouched are farm sectors like dairy and poultry, where supply and prices are tightly managed, to the detriment of consumers, restaurateurs and food processors.
The C.D. Howe Institute examined the dairy sector in a study released in March, finding—to no great surprise—that Canadians are charged much higher prices on items like cheese, milk and yogurt than they would be in free markets. But beyond the obvious harm to poorer families, lucrative business opportunities are being lost. The system limits the export potential of Canadian farm products. (Required reading on this front: Barrie McKenna’s feature story in The Globe and Mail earlier this year on the entrepreneur who set up a plant in Ontario to process poultry for export—only to shut it down because the chicken cartel won’t ship him enough birds.)
If “lower prices” are a policy goal for the cellphone bill, why not for the grocery bill?
Television, cable and media: The Canadian media landscape is a thicket of rules, regulations, protections and obligations. Broadcast outlets and newspapers remain subject to rules that demand domestic control. The same is true for the major telecommunications companies that dominate the market for broadband Internet.
These rules made sense at a time when we were worried about being overrun by American cultural imperialists, filling our airwaves with crappy episodes of Knots Landing. But the Internet long ago overwhelmed those artificial boundaries. News and entertainment from anywhere in the world are now available—no matter what regulators think we should watch. Millions of Canadians use Netflix and other providers who bypass the domestic broadcasting system entirely. (It’s easy for consumers to stream their content, using services that allow computers to get a U.S., not Canadian, IP address.)
This added competition has been good for consumers and advertisers, but tough on traditional media. Conventional television stations, for instance, earned a grand total of $23 million last year on revenues of about $2 billion—a measly 1.1% profit margin. Newspapers are also struggling. The best hope for many old media properties is to live in the hands of well-capitalized owners—which, in some cases, may be foreign ones.
If “liberalized investment” makes more sense for the Canadian wireless business, why not the media business? Why not every business?