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Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken made a surprise decision to step down. (BLAIR GABLE For The Globe and Mail)
Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken made a surprise decision to step down. (BLAIR GABLE For The Globe and Mail)

The Street

The Competition Bureau’s big shoes to fill Add to ...

For three years Bay Street has faced aggressive enforcement and consumer-pleasing crusades from Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken as she took on the likes of the real estate and credit card industries.

Now, senior competition lawyers are expecting a more “balanced approach” from Ms. Aitken’s yet-to-be-named successor.

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Ms. Aitken addresses the Canadian Bar Association’s annual competition law conference in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday for the last time as head of the Competition Bureau, the second last day of her tenure. She announced her surprise decision to step aside in June, two years before her term ends.

Her whirlwind leadership saw the bureau become a fixation for Bay Street, as the regulator scrutinized corporate mergers that could hurt competition and tackled high-profile false advertising and price-fixing cases. Consumer advocates have praised her, but competition lawyers who advise corporate clients grumbled that the bureau had become too adversarial.

Few in the small world of competition law appear to have any idea who Ms. Aitken‘s successor might be. But several lawyers who spoke to the The Globe on Wednesday expect the federal government to eventually select a candidate from outside the bureau, perhaps a senior lawyer or a civil servant from another department. The announcement could be months away, although some expect the bureau to name an interim commissioner.

Even Ms. Aitken’s critics praise her for bringing a much higher profile to the bureau – which was granted sweeping new powers in 2009 – and for taking on more and tougher cases.

But several members of the competition bar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say they expect that Ms. Aitken’s successor will be less combative toward the businesses the bureau regulates.

Even in her final week in office, Ms. Aitken refuses to go quietly. She said the bureau could block Bell’s massive takeover of Astral Media and launched a court case against the country’s mobile phone giants for “hidden fees.”

One competition lawyer, speaking anonymously, said even if the government wanted to continue Ms. Aitken’s approach, it may be hard to find a candidate with the same ability to grab headlines. “Frankly, not everybody is comfortable giving an interview to The National.”

Whoever replaces her may be unable to completely take the foot off the accelerator, however. Internationally, competition and antitrust enforcement has been on the uptick, and Canada has been co-ordinating more closely with regulators in other countries, particularly in the U.S.

One challenge for finding a senior competition lawyer to take on the role is that most of the competition bar is in Toronto, and many are reluctant to relocate to Ottawa and take a salary cut. Some suggest that candidates from Alberta or Quebec might have an edge as Ottawa looks for Ms. Aitken’s replacement.

Subrata Bhattacharjee, a competition lawyer with Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto, praised Ms. Aitken for making the agency more relevant and for bringing more cases forward. He said even if her successor takes a different approach or focuses on different kinds of cases, he or she will still have to lead an agency with a much higher profile.

“The current commissioner has done a great job in increasing the bureau’s profile and visibility,” he said. “And whoever follows her is going to have to run an agency that many now look at as being more active in protecting markets than ever before.”

Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

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