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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Harper is posing as the consumer’s best friend Add to ...

You really do not know whether to laugh or cry at the Harper government’s repeated and foolish efforts to be seen as the consumer’s friend.

To be seen is the correct way to describe these efforts, since in fact they either have come to nothing, or will come to nothing. But the optics of being seen to be trying is what these efforts are all about for a government that is obsessed with presentation.

The latest effort, already derided by every serious analyst, is something called the Price Transparency Act. This proposed law is supposed to bring Canadian retail prices into line with those available in the United States, thereby feeding politically off the sense that somehow Canadians are being had. And, by God, this government will stand up for Canadians and smite those American predators with the Price Transparency Act.

But, of course, the grandly titled bill will do nothing of the sort. It proposes to give powers to the Competition Bureau to examine “unjustified price discrimination” between products sold here and south of the border. If such “discrimination” is found, then the bureau can impose a fine.

This is all so patently ridiculous as to present the option of tears or laughter. Think about how many items that come from the United States are available in stores, how many U.S. services exist for sale in the market, how many U.S. products are sold daily in Canada. Now think about a small bureau in Ottawa, with plenty already on its plate, going into the market to check this or that item’s price, and then trying to determine whether somehow discrimination exists.

It will be a fool’s errand for the simple reason that many factors enter into pricing here and in the U.S. – too many indeed for a bureau to make sense of it all. Among the many factors would be: higher Canadian taxes, greater Canadian distances, less Canadian innovation, sometimes more Canadian regulation, a smaller Canadian market, the relative and shifting value of currencies. And, by the way, this new bill only looks at “discrimination” in relation to the U.S., not the many other countries from which products arrive.

The Senate Finance committee examined this U.S.-Canada pricing difference in a report last year. It proposed a few modest steps, all of which were on the Canadian side of the border, such as changing tariffs or lowering regulatory costs.

These changes, however, are not sexy. No consumer hearts would beat faster were these changes introduced. Far better politically for the government to pose – and it is a pose – as the consumer’s best friend with a piece of legislation that sounds great and will mean nothing.

This pose, however, is one the Harper government likes to adopt as part of its self-portrayal as defenders of the interests of “hard-working taxpayers.” (Note that in the Harper government’s world, people are always utilitarian creatures described as “consumers” and “taxpayers,” but almost never as “citizens.”)

We saw this pose at its most strident in the government’s long and futile campaign to beat up on the country’s telecommunications companies, these being largely unlovable for the perception that they charge too much.

Knowing this, the government whiplashed the telcos verbally and tried to introduce more competition into an already rather competitive market. While ministerial thunderbolts were directed at the telcos, the Conservative Party’s spin machine went into overdrive telling its members about how the government was defending consumers. All these efforts (remember Verizon coming to Canada?) failed, predictably.

The party has its own “spin machine,” but the larger one is from the Government of Canada, which runs on money from “hard-working taxpayers.” It is difficult these days, approximately 10 months from an election, to watch television or listen to radio without seeing advertisements extolling the virtues of government initiatives.

Previous governments, of course, have resorted to the government’s kitty to pay for ads bragging about themselves. But none has ever spent more money, stretched over such a long period of time, to promote itself, without showing the slightest bit of shame for this abuse of “hard-working taxpayers’ ” money.

If the past be any guide, it will not be long before government ads start appearing or the Conservatives’ own spin machine begins touting the Price Transparency Act, even though it will deliver nothing.

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