Conservatives' consumer focus may put the squeeze on NDP

Wednesday's throne speech is expected to offer a slew of new ideas from the Conservatives to protect Canadian consumers. To the opposition New Democrats, they may seem familiar - a little too familiar.

Throne speech expected to contain measures on airlines and fees once championed by the Opposition

The Conservatives have blocked two previous attempts by the NDP to introduce a airline passenger bill of rights - but they may decide to embrace the idea in next week's throne speech if they want to appeal to consumers. (Canadian Press)

Part of the NDP’s raison d’etre has always been to defend the Canadian consumer.

For years, their policy pitches have included protecting Canadians from credit card gouging to high cellphone bills and airline travel.

But this time next week, there may not be much left on their plate: Wednesday's throne speech is expected to offer a slew of new ideas from the Conservatives to protect Canadian consumers.

Some of those ideas may look awfully familiar to the Official Opposition.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says this is clearly a sign the Conservatives have done some polling over the summer to find out what Canadians care about. But he doesn’t buy it’s really going to happen.

 “Actions speak louder than words," Mulcair said. "We had an airline passenger bill of rights before the House and the Conservatives voted against it. In fact, every time there has been a consumer measure in front of the House the Conservatives have voted against it.”

In the case of the passenger bill of rights, that is certainly true.

Twice the NDP has tried to get airline passengers protected and failed — in 2009 and 2011 — and the move has been firmly blocked by the Conservatives. If the government now decides to jump on the idea, the NDP will be left in the position of having to support a government measure they initially proposed.

The NDP’s consumer affairs critic, Glenn Thibeault, says he believes the government will also have to signal changes to Canada’s telecom industry to allow for more competition and lower bills for Canadians, and to make changes to credit card fees for merchants.

Trickle down fees

Store owners in Canada pay some of the highest credit card fees in the world, an estimated $5 billion a year, according to the Competition Bureau. Those fees trickle down to Canadian consumers. In the summer the Competition Tribunal dismissed a complaint on the issue and bounced it back to the politicians.

Glenn Thibeault, the NDP's consumer affairs critic, hopes that Canadians remember his party's efforts on consumer protection after next week's throne speech. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The government has tried to promote a voluntary code for merchant fees, but Thibeault says more is needed: “Small-business owners are saying, this is getting ridiculous because it is now hitting their bottom lines.” 

Geoff Norquay, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, says the throne speech creates all kinds of opportunities for the government to create wedges with both opposition parties, but the message is the same.

“We care about Canadians with middle-class values and consumer issues, so we’re putting cellphone rates and airline over-bookings in the window — really practical issues people will get,” Norquay said of the government's strategy.

But those are also, inconveniently for the NDP,  issues the Opposition has tried to claim as their own. If the Conservatives try to steal more ground on that front,  the NDP may be left looking for ideas to pitch.

Thibeault says he hopes Canadians will remember where the ideas come from in the first place.

“If [the Conservatives] are doing it, it’s going to put the squeeze on us," Thibeault said, "but people will remember it’s the New Democrats who have been calling for this for some time, and I think they’ll remember that when they go to the voter’s booth in 2015.”


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.


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