Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Competition

Little leadership in flimsy throne speech

By Jeremy Richler

The purpose of a speech from the throne is to establish a vision of governance, policy and lawmaking, and to underline the government's foundation and principles to cement the road ahead.

This particular effort was clumsy, uninspiring and downright gimmicky. Indeed, there were some consumer-friendly pledges, such as the promise to unbundle cable television packages so that people do not have to pay for channels they do not watch. The pledge of removing hidden fees from cell phones is arguably welcome, but in terms of actual content for a vision of governance and legal framework therein, rather feeble.

The sense of malaise that this government has worn out its welcome, endemic to most that have been in power for more than six years, was not undone by this speech; rather, this perception was only cemented.

The Conservatives, to their credit, do have a credible record of economic management in turbulent times. Yet continuous gloating about our performance in the G7, and vowing only to “protect Canadian Jobs” is no substitute for the laws and policies that will sustain a competitive advantage this government enjoys reveling in.

The speech from the throne would have sounded much more credible had it tackled head on more specific proposals to remedy the general lack of foreign competition across various economic sectors, rather than make rather gimmicky consumer-friendly pledges.

This government recently did attempt to increase foreign ownership in telecommunications, as there was mounting speculation of Verizon making a bid in the wireless spectrum. This obviously did not come to fruition, and though the very prospect of a Verizon bid was welcome in that it would dilute the concentration of the Big Three, there were some legitimate concerns with respect to servicing rural regions and the prospect for job losses.

But this is merely conjecture, as Verizon declined to make a bid in Canada. So this begs the question, what do the Conservatives plan to do in addressing this ongoing concern? Is it their intention to relax foreign ownership requirements so that there is more competition, choice, and ultimately, lower prices for the consumer? Tinkering at the edges by removing paper bills and saving consumers monthly fees of no more than a few dollars is arguably a good idea, but no substitute for the vision a throne speech is meant to address.

If the Conservatives wish to continue playing the economy as their trump card, they need the gravitas in substantive policy to back these claims up. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s political astuteness stems from his incremental approach, but a more dynamic vision is required to sustain our competitive edge.

Take the issue of foreign acquisitions of Canadian corporations. “There clearly are more sellers than buyers of Canadian energy assets at the moment... we need to continue to reassure foreign investors,” Jim Prentice, a former minister in the Harper government and now a senior executive at CIBC, said in a recent Globe and Mail report

The government was wise to add some clarification to the rather evasive net benefit test, one that was inadequate to address legitimate concerns surrounding the takeover of Canadian corporations by state-owned enterprises. But at the same time, the Conservatives have sown the seeds for more confusion in foreign ownership rules with the implicit message that we are not so open for business to emerging markets, those with profitable capital-intensive state-owned enterprises that could benefit our economy.

This is not to suggest that the government should be sending a green light to all takeover bids, especially where the economic benefit to Canada is uncertain or elusive at best. Rather, the speech from the throne should have set a foundation for how this government intends to approach foreign ownership from an ideological and practical perspective, implying a review and/or amendments to the Competition Act and other relevant legislation.

The Harper government’s flimsy pledge to protect consumers by removing hidden fees and unwanted television channels will do little to fulfill this consumer-friendly pledge without more substantive reform on foreign ownership rules and competition policy.

Otherwise, the Conservatives should not be surprised if the voters they are seeking to woo abandon them even after the hidden paper bill fees are long gone.

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