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A new CRTC? Not if lobbying isn’t balanced

08 Nov

Relatively new CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais was on a tear last week, proclaiming from every rooftop that there’s a new wind a-blowin’ at the regulator. It’s out with the old ways of doing business, where big businesses were all that mattered, and in with consumers, the every-day Joes that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is supposed to protect and look out for.

After so many years of rubber-stamping anti-consumer moves by those big corporations – usage-based billing, anyone? – and muddying up potentially pro-consumer developments (remember Wind Mobile?), the new stance is refreshing to hear.

Blais appears to understand that the regulator’s long legacy of catering to Bay Street rather than to Main Street means he’s in for an uphill battle. But so far under his watch, the CRTC does indeed look like a different beast. Just last month, the regulator announced plans to institute a code of conduct for wireless operators, with full input from the public, naturally.

That was followed in short order by a complete rejection of BCE’s mega-takeover attempt of broadcaster Astral, which consumer groups opposed on the grounds that it would give the telecom-media company too much power.

I jokingly wondered at the time at who was making these decisions and what they had done with the CRTC we all knew. To hear Blais tell it now, it looks like the announcements were indeed coming from a kinder, gentler regulator.

As the cliche goes, time will tell if the new chairman is true to his word. We won’t be able to judge the CRTC’s overall track record until there’s a deeper body of decisions to go by.

In the meantime, if Blais wants to win back the hearts and minds of Canadians, he can start by limiting the amount of lobbying that goes on by big businesses. According to the most recent statistics, CRTC officials met with lobbyists 27 times over the past six months, with only two of those being groups that represented consumer interests. The rest were the usual suspects: Rogers, Shaw and the rest.

That’s a big imbalance that needs to be corrected. It’s one thing for Blais to make speeches and tell the press that the regulator is listening to consumers more, but it’s another thing entirely if that’s not what’s happening behind closed doors.

Groups such as Open Media, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers Association of Canada are especially interested in some sort of better balance, since they say they don’t have the funds to compete with the lobbying power of big companies. Bruce Cran, spokesman for the CAC, says this is unfortunate given that complaints to his group about telecommunications services “are getting worse every day.”

The groups are impressed with the regulator’s new attitude. Blais took the time to meet with them after taking office this summer. Cran says he’s beyond cautiously optimistic when it comes to the new chairman: “I like your style,” he says. PIAC director John Lawford also said the new attitude is “refreshing.” Open Media director Steve Anderson says he believes his group was the very first entity Blais met with – that may have been the simple result of scheduling happenstance, but it might also have been symbolic. All three groups agree that they couldn’t get the time of day from previous chairman, Konrad von Finckenstein.

Blais is well aware of the lobbying issue, given the controversy regarding broadcasting vice-chair Tom Pentefountas, who spent an evening last year in Bell’s corporate box at a Montreal Canadiens game. Bell says no lobbying took place, but Blais was grilled on the issue (links to PDF) by NDP MP Andrew Cash from the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month.

The chairman referred to two new codes of conduct during that appearance, one of which sounds pretty general for all CRTC employees:

The CRTC recently adopted its own code of conduct to inform employees of the values and behaviours that are expected of them. The code contains guidelines to frame how to appropriately interact with Canadians and representatives from the communication industry. At the same time, we have to be careful not to become detached decision makers in an ivory tower. We need to understand the challenges and opportunities faced by the industry, just as we need to understand the concerns of Canadians. Conversations must take place in an environment that ensures the integrity of our processes and the public trust that has been placed in us.

When pressed by Nash, Blais also referred to another new code that apparently governs the specific issue of lobbying:

The commissioners’ conduct is subject to another code… I have suggested that they can act consistently with this code, and many of them embrace it because it gives them guidelines, but they’re not technically bound by it. It’s a code that talks about confidentiality of information, who you meet, in what circumstances, how you deal with confidential information, and post-employment situations.

I’ve reached out to the CRTC for details on this new lobbying code, but haven’t heard back as of yet. If and when I get a response, I’ll add that in here. (UPDATE: Here’s the new general Code of Conduct for CRTC employees, effective as of Sept. 6, which will be available publicly soon – links to PDF. A spokesperson clarified the chairman’s committee comments in regards to lobbying rules for commissioners as being covered by government-wide guidelines, rather than a new code specific to the CRTC. Additionally, the chairman’s visit record and expenses can be tracked here.)

In the meantime, if the CRTC does indeed cap corporate lobbying and therefore starts listening to big businesses less, that lobbying will inevitably move up the chain to elected politicians and their respective bureaucrats. That’s probably where it belongs, since those officials are elected and ultimately accountable to the public, whereas CRTC staff aren’t.

Winning the public trust is going to require more than just platitudes and some public hearings. Blais is going to have to make the regulator accountable to the public and the best way to do that is with more balance. It sounds like he’s off to a good start.

UPDATE: I’ve received a few comments touching on the fact that official communication reports don’t cover all of the actual lobbying that goes on. The rules are a little nebulous but they generally state that someone who spends 20 per cent or less of their time lobbying doesn’t have to register, which exempts many individuals. That may boost the balance in consumers’ favour. However, consumer advocates point out that this also creates many loopholes for businesses, such as, say, hosting CRTC staff at sporting events. While the imbalance is pretty clear officially, it’s hard to tell what it really looks like and may indeed be far worse as a result. The lobbying rules should be tightened up, but that’s a post for another day.

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5 Comments

Posted by on November 8, 2012 in crtc, telecommunications

 

5 responses to “A new CRTC? Not if lobbying isn’t balanced

  1. Mark Goldberg

    November 8, 2012 at 12:56 am

    Of the 29 lobby reports, it is actually a pretty broad group, not really reflected in your categorization of 2 consumer groups versus the rest by “usual suspects”.

    Going through the reports, we see meetings held with:
    The Writers Guild (2 reports covering what appears to be the same meeting)
    Canadian Hearing Society
    Fondation canadienne pour le dialogue des cultures
    Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada
    Open Media
    ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists)
    CFTPA (Canadian Film & TV Production Association)
    Netflix (2 reports)
    The Working Group of U.S. Television Stations on Signal Retransmission in Canada

    Do any of these 11 meetings qualify as “usual suspects”?

    With a new Chair of the CRTC having been appointed in the period you reviewed, which stakeholders do you think should have been excluded from meeting the new chair?

    You might ask why there wasn’t a meeting with the biggest “usual suspect”: there does not appear to have been a meeting with Bell reported in that period.

     
    • petenowak2000

      November 8, 2012 at 1:51 am

      Hi Mark – I don’t think we can consider the likes of ACTRA, Netflix, television stations, etc. to be consumer groups. Their interests may align with consumers at times, but at the end of the day they are self-interested businesses or business organizations. It is probably fair to count the likes of Open Media, the Canadian Hearing Society and perhaps some of the French groups. That said, there were a lot of meetings with cable companies over that time period. In regards to Bell, it probably wouldn’t have been prudent to have lobbyist meetings given that the company was in the process of trying to buy Astral. Which does raise the question as to why the CRTC was meeting with the cable companies opposing that deal, a point that Bell has raised.

       
      • goldbe99

        November 8, 2012 at 9:18 am

        Frankly – there were no meetings with general consumer groups; by definition, every meeting was with special interest groups with a specific agenda. My point was that many of the meetings were not with the “usual suspects”. Most of the meetings appear to be introductions to the new chair.

        As to the question of any party meeting with anyone from the CRTC when there is an open application, there are ways to deal with this. A commission lawyer could be present to observe and provide an attestation as to the content of the meeting. There are many diverse issues that merit meetings – and there is *always* some kind of open file.

         
  2. Jason J Kee

    November 8, 2012 at 9:56 am

    So then you’re suggesting that the CRTC should limit its contact with not just the stakeholders it directly regulates (eg “the usual suspects”) but any “self-interested business or business organization”, while “consumer groups” (often self-appointed, I might add) should be given preferential treatment? That seems rather contrary to fundamental principles of democratic participation, not to mention a recipe for a regulator to become completely out of touch with the practical realities of the industries it regulates. How exactly would they “cap corporate lobbying”? Prohibit meetings altogether? Set a quota? How does that make any sense?

    You appear to be conflating “meetings” with giving “gifts” and other potentially inappropriate benefits. The latter does raise potential ethical concerns, which is why the Conflict of Interest Act and associated regulations & guidelines already set out very strict rules regarding gifts and other similar benefits. Meanwhile meetings and other form of communication are fundamental for ongoing information sharing with stakeholders. If your complaint is that certain classes of stakeholders (business interests and other professional organizations) are having more meetings than other classes of stakeholders (consumer groups), then I have to point out 1) there are more organizations representing various professional interests, so its inevitable that the professionals as a group will have more meetings 2) the professional groups are not a monolith and in fact represent a diversity of interests, and thus cannot and should not be lumped into one group, and 3) if this is an actual issue (and I’m not convinced it is), the obvious remedy is to have more communications with consumer groups, not less meetings with others.

    I’d also point out that many self-appointed consumer advocates are not captured by the Lobbying Act. Thus while professionals must register and report on meetings with “designated public office holders” (such as CRTC Commissioners), many consumer advocates are under no such obligation and do not report such contacts (and even some that should be obliged have a spotty history of doing so). Consequently, communication reports do not capture any of these meetings and do not reflect the actual range of stakeholders the CRTC (or any other government department) is actually meeting with.

    Lastly, I hate to break it to you, but consumer groups are just as “self-interested” as any other group that represents an interest or class of interests… the only difference is the size of the purported class just happens to be larger, and they’re not generally accountable to anyone.

     
    • petenowak2000

      November 8, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Your point on individual lobbyists not being covered by the communication report rules is a good one, so I’ve added it above. Otherwise, you may be missing the point of the post: if you go through any fora or reader comments on stories involving the CRTC, over time it becomes very clear that much of the public mistrust stems from a belief that big companies constantly have the Commission’s ear. The Commission needs to be mindful of that and work to address the imbalance.

       
 
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