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CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais. The stunning decision by Canada’s broadcast regulator to block BCE’s massive takeover of Astral Media is just the latest example of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remade Ottawa to put the consumer first in policy making. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais. The stunning decision by Canada’s broadcast regulator to block BCE’s massive takeover of Astral Media is just the latest example of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remade Ottawa to put the consumer first in policy making. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

ANALYSIS

The BCE-Astral ruling: How Ottawa has grown grassroots Add to ...

The country is being governed by the Consumer Party of Canada.

The stunning decision by Canada’s broadcast regulator to block BCE Inc.’s massive takeover of Astral Media Inc. because it would have hiked TV rates for subscribers is just the latest example of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remade Ottawa to put the consumer first in policy making.

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The Conservative government’s fingerprints are all over a raft of regulatory decisions in the last half-decade – from Internet pricing to cellphone rates to banking – where consumers have been given a pride of place they haven’t always enjoyed in Ottawa.

It’s based on a political calculus that puts a premium on keeping consumers – make that voters – happy, and it’s the product of an electoral system that gives grassroots Canadians a bigger voice now that corporate donations are banned.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that sunk the Bell bid has been sounding more like iconic consumer advocate Ralph Nader these days. It also recently announced it will end complicated language in the contracts the country’s wireless carriers sign with customers and is considering creating rules on cancellation of cellphone accounts – penalties that drive Canadians bananas.

The CRTC’s new consumer-first strategy can be traced right back to the mandate Mr. Harper gave CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais when he was appointed in June. Sources familiar with the government’s thinking say both Mr. Blais and former Competition Bureau commissioner Melanie Aitken were both instructed upon hiring to conduct their jobs as champions of rank-and-file Canadian customers.

The application form for the CRTC chair job, obtained by The Globe and Mail, shows candidates were asked to prepare a 10-minute presentation on how they’d put ordinary Canadians first. “In this new world, consumers want a greater say on the nature of the services and content that they can access at the most competitive price,” the application said.

For the Harper Conservatives, who took power with a decidedly Main Street set of priorities – such as chopping the goods and services tax – it’s about focusing on bread-and-butter concerns in an age of increasingly activist consumers.

The overwhelming majority of Canadians own a smartphone or subscribe to Internet services today and the decisions Ottawa regulators make about the choices and prices offered to consumers have tremendous power to either alienate, or soothe, voters. “These are the ultimate pocketbook issues today,” one cabinet minister, speaking privately, said.

It was the same impulse that drove the federal government to clash with former CRTC chair Konrad Von Finckenstein in 2011, warning him it would overturn a commission decision that effectively ended “unlimited use” Internet plans if the regulator didn’t rescind the decision itself.

The customer-first approach goes far beyond smartphones. In the name of increasing competition and consumer choice, the Competition Bureau under Ms. Aitken fought to change the rules for real estate listings so that Canadians could list their homes on the hugely popular MLS listing service without hiring a real estate agent.

The Conservatives are avowedly free marketers but remain reluctant to be seen growing cozy with large corporations, a tendency that was etched in the DNA of their populist predecessor organization, the Reform Party.

Changes to political donation rules, however, are increasing the incentive for the Conservatives and other parties to pay constant attention to what irks voters.

A ban on corporate donations that took effect in 2007, building on earlier restrictions, means that parties must constantly approach individual Canadians for contributions and cannot turn to companies to fill their coffers.

It’s hard to ask people for money if they’re peeved at a decision that has hit them in the pocketbook.

“It’s also a good feedback mechanism,” one former senior Conservative government official said. “If every quarter you are out in the field and are speaking to thousands of your members, you’re hearing a lot from the people who write the $25 cheques and it gives you a pretty good finger on the pulse of public opinion.”

The Conservatives’ predecessor Reform and Canadian Alliance parties excelled at grassroots fund-raising but these changes lock in place a focus on what peeves or pleases Canadian households. Ottawa is also moving to phase out political subsidies for parties, which will only further entrench the attention to rank-and-file voters.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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