Stephen Harper's bogus 'consumers first' agenda

Let me get this straight.

The Conservative government is looking to pivot from growing corruption and scandals with a Throne Speech later this month that talks about a “consumers first” agenda, including the latest proposal for an airline passenger bill of rights. At least that’s what Conservative sources are telling reporters about what to expect from the Parliamentary reboot on Oct. 16. Aside from some improvements to product safety brought about during their minority rule, the Conservatives boast a consumer-protection record that only partisans would try to laud. Guided by the idea that Ottawa needs to get out of the way of business, Harper has been trumpeting the mantra of red-tape cutting since first elected in 2006.

What this has really meant are cuts to safety inspections and costly adherence to the wisdom of deregulation. Hardly the building blocks of a “consumers first” agenda.

Take food safety. Who could forget Canada’s largest-ever beef recall last fall. People across the country became sick from the E. coli outbreak after consuming tainted meat produced at a federally regulated facility in Brooks, Alberta. The government’s own post-mortem of the XL Foods Ltd. recall shone the light on a food-safety system that had failed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to notice during routine inspections that the plant had not properly implemented or regularly updated its own plan to control risks. The massive facility — 430,000 square feet in total — slaughtered between 3,800 and 4,000 cattle daily.

The beef recall came months after the Conservative government tabled a budget that cut $56 million from the food agency’s operating resources over a three-year period. The union representing food inspectors estimates this will mean as many as 100 fewer inspectors, effectively reversing staffing measures put in place in response to the deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008.

Remember that one? Twenty-two Canadians died after eating tainted meat from a Maple Leaf Foods facility in Toronto. In the wake of this massive outbreak, an independent investigation found multiple safety gaps in the food-safety system and a “void of leadership”

This same line could describe Ottawa’s approach to rail safety. Though more the inheritors than the architects of Canada's reckless rail-safety deregulation, the Harper Conservatives ignored repeated warnings about the folly of allowing the railway industry to police itself.

A Canada Safety Council report issued in 2007 called the deregulated industry "a disaster waiting to happen" and criticized the government's abrogation of its responsibility to public safety and the environment. And disaster did strike, when aging rail cars with inaccurately labeled hazardous materials exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec claiming 47 lives, eviscerating the core of the town at immeasurable cost to the community and at a monetary cost of close to a billion dollars.

With their single-minded focus on getting oil to market, Canada has seen massive increases in the amount of oil being shipped by rail — from 500 carloads in 2009, to a projected 140,000 this year. The Harper government is apparently content to continue to expose Canadians and our environment to unnecessary risk.

In the wake of the horrendous disaster in Quebec, we don’t know if the Conservatives will try to trumpet rail safety in the Throne Speech. But we do know from partisan leaks that they want to push an airline passenger bill of rights, which would protect flyers in cases of arbitrary delays or lost baggage.

This takes nerve.

Since winning power in 2006, the Conservative caucus has opposed the introduction of similar charters not once — but twice. In a minority government, Conservatives banded together with enough Bloc Québécois MPs in 2009 to kill an NDP plan. The Opposition tried again after the 2011 election, but the Conservative majority torpedoed that initiative earlier this year.

In fact, the Conservatives have tried to have it both ways. Back in 2008, they publicly supported a Liberal motion to entrench in law an airline passenger bill of rights. Behind the scenes, though, a senior policy adviser to the Transport Minister privately pressed Canada’s big airlines to step up their lobby campaign to make sure the motion failed.

“I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues,” the Conservative advisor wrote in an email released to the media under Canada’s access to information law.

Consumers first? Sure – when it’s politically convenient.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP.