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.