The big telecom news over the weekend was that Stockwell Day, a former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, has been named to the Telus board of directors. The move followed a similar one by Telus’s rival BCE, which recently appointed Jim Prentice, a former industry minister under Harper, to its board.
Not surprisingly, critics of the telecom industry and the government roundly condemned the move. Open Media said that “Big Telecom is cozying up to the government” because the companies are facing stronger-then-ever resistance from the public. Judging by the messages I got on Twitter, it’s clear that many people are disturbed if not sickened by the fact that formerly high-level politicians are now helping to run big telecom companies. Their fear, which is probably well-founded, is that Prentice and Day will use connections with their old government buddies to swing decisions and laws their way.
That’s nothing new. There are plenty of examples of this sort of revolving door between the industry and government. In recent years, Ontario PC party leader and Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory spent time in and out of Rogers while former Conservative New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord became the wireless industry’s head lobbyist.
Conventional wisdom has it that Telus and Bell are arming up for the next wireless spectrum auction, which will hopefully happen next year. Given how badly they were spanked in the last one, where it was ironically Prentice who set the rules that gave newcomers big advantages and thereby leading to the launches of Wind, Mobilicity, Videotron and Public Mobile, they probably don’t want a repeat. Getting government types on board, they hope, will net them better terms for the upcoming auction.
And what a lobby-fest that last auction was. Not only did Wind lobby like crazy to get the right to start up – of all the telecom companies, only Bell met with government officials and bureaucrats more frequently in 2009 – there is also the high probability that the new carriers wouldn’t exist were it not for their political glad-handing. Liberal opposition critic Scott Brison at the time pointed his finger at the Harper government’s ties to Quebecor, owner of Videotron, and more specifically at Luc Lavoie, chief spokesperson for both the company and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Would the government have cut new entrants a big break if it weren’t for lobbying from Quebecor and/or Lavoie? It’s one of those things that makes you go, “hmmm?”
I had a front-row seat to the whole thing as a reporter and what I found most ironic was that everything that Brison said in opposition to the spectrum auction sounded like it was coming directly from Bell, Rogers and Telus. Like a Russian babushka doll, it was lobbying inside of lobbying inside of lobbying.
The lesson here is that it’s silly to decry the Prentice and Day appointments because it’s not their fault, or the companies’ fault, it’s the system’s. Lobbying is so pervasive and deeply integrated into it that it’s hard to imagine where one would start in trying to clean it all up. It’s questionable whether anyone should even try because in some ways, it wouldn’t be fair. Politicians can’t be expected to never again hold jobs after they leave office, can they?
The rules preventing influence-peddling could be tweaked a hundred different ways, but none of it would likely make a difference. After all, politicians are like cockroaches – they’ll always find a way to insinuate themselves into places you don’t want them. Why else does anyone get into politics, if not to line their pockets in the grandest way possible?
Wind seemed to learn quickly that the best way to deal with this situation is to simply fight fire with fire. If you’re going to play the game, you have to hire the right players. That means Wind, Mobilicity or even Open Media better start thinking about driving a truck full of cash up to Tony Clement’s door, because if they don’t, somebody else will.