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10 things to remember about Stephen Harper’s consumer-unfriendly record


The Conservative government devoted a big chunk of Wednesday’s Throne Speech to try and buff up its reputation as a government that cares – really, really cares – about consumers.

Here are 10 things to remember about the Harper government’s record when you’re being bombarded with Conservative spin about the consumer goodies in the Throne Speech:

1. Rail safety. There’s nothing like a deadly train disaster to focus the mind. And yet, the government’s only specific commitment in the speech is about requiring railway companies to carry more insurance  to clean up their mess for them after it occurs. Rail is a vital mode of transporting people and goods in our sprawling country, so when disaster strikes and aging cars with inaccurately labeled hazardous material explodes in the middle of a small town, killing 47 people, you just can’t take a pass about how you’ll take “targeted action to increase the safety of the transportation of dangerous goods.” Too bad the Conservatives, inheritors of Canada’s reckless rail-safety deregulation, failed to acknowledge the folly of allowing the railway industry to police itself.

2. Air safety. What do you do when you have an expanding civil aviation system and no interest in devoting more resources to expand oversight? Well, you download duties to airlines and cut down on inspections.

3. Airline passenger bill of rights. What can we say? In the days leading up to the Throne Speech, Conservative spinners told people to watch for an airline passenger bill of rights. That would have been welcomed and surprising, given how vociferously the Conservative government has objected, for years, to the very idea of protecting airline passengers.

4. Airfare advertising. If there’s one file that shows just how creative the Conservatives can be when it comes to excuses not to protect consumers, it’s all-in-one airfare advertising. Back in 2007, Parliament passed on a law requiring the government to bring in regulations forcing airlines to advertise the full cost of an airline ticket. For the next four years, the Conservatives came up with excuse after excuse about why they couldn’t press ahead. Excuses ran out when the European Parliament and the United States moved on the file.

5. ATM and merchant fees. Looks like the Conservatives decided to give the big banks and credit card companies a reprieve. Retailers have been pleading with federal government to regulate high merchant fees imposed by Visa and MasterCard. Everyone knows they drive up the price of goods for consumers and cut into the smaller profit margins of small business. The Throne Speech says people should know the real cost of paying by debit or credit card – rather than tackling the upcharge itself. High ATM fees also hit consumers hard every time they withdrawal cash. Instead, the Throne Speech zeroed in on tackling the extra charge to receive a paper bill.

6. Food safety. Remember the country’s largest-ever beef recall last fall? The government’s own post-mortem of the E. coli outbreak showed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to notice that the plant had not properly implemented its own plan to control risks. Maybe it’s because the agency doesn't have enough inspectors on the ground. In the last federal budget, the government slashed funding to the food agency, so there will be up to 100 fewer inspectors when the cuts are fully phased in. This could bring us back to 2008 levels. That’s the year 22 people died after eating tainted meat in a listerioris outbreak. A vague line in the Throne Speech about how the government “will work with the provinces to further strengthen food inspection regimes” just doesn’t cut it.

7. Sodium. Canadians consume too much salt. The government knows it, so it set out to do something about it back in 2007. But when the expert advice came back, saying Ottawa should consider regulating the food industry to protect consumers if companies don’t take action, the Conservatives waffled. After much foot-dragging, things finally boiled over at the end of 2011, when the Conservative government split publicly with the provinces over standing up to the food industry.

8. Trans fats. Sodium redux could sum it up: the government flags a problem, turns to experts to develop a plan to protect consumers and promote public health, then ignores the advice when it doesn’t like what it hears. The food industry, on the other hand, is tickled pink.

9. Food labels. If you’re a health-conscious consumer, don’t count on the Conservative government to get bogus health claims off food packages – despite concerns from its own experts about company-sponsored programs. But don’t fret, the government “will consult with Canadian parents to improve the way nutritional information is presented on food labels.”

10. Cuts to the Consumer Affairs Program. After boosting the budget for Industry Canada’s Consumer Affairs Program in the early days of its mandate, the Harper government has been slashing its budget since 2008. This means that the office today has one-third less money to advocate for consumers.

Photo: primeministergr. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.