Andrew Roman is an optimist, an idealist and a hard worker, which is nice, because if he weren’t he might be tempted to cut his throat. As General Counsel for the Consumers’ Association of Canada, he spends much of his time battering his head against the brick wall of official obduracy on your behalf and mine. Certainly, he admits, the CAC has not achieved everything it hoped for in its court actions to date (a polite rephrasing of my suggestion that he had been clobbered every time up to bat), but, he says, “We are making good progress; we are drawing these matters to public attention—what more can you do but go back and keep pushing?”
Roman is slender, bearded, handsome; he dresses well, keeps his Ottawa office neat and tightly organized, and looks less like a firebrand lawyer than an account executive for a large advertising firm. That’s not surprising, because he was an account executive for a large Toronto ad firm until “I decided that I didn't want it on my tombstone that I had sold one more tube of toothpaste than anyone else.”
He quit, went to law school and emerged, in 1971, looking for causes to champion. As an articling student he did volunteer work for the Consumers’ Association, and when the federal government extended a grant to enable the CAC to contest the consumers’ cause, Roman went on full-time staff.
We live in a regulated society; there are 120 tribunals at the federal level alone responsible for everything from the price you pay for airline tickets to the amount of gas we will export to the U.S. next year. As Finance Minister John Turner once noted, “I’ve looked at a lot of regulatory agencies, and I believe that every one of them tends to reflect the interests of the industry it is supposed to be regulating.” Most of our watchdogs are pussycats.
Roman’s job is to try to right the balance. CAC, like Pollution Probe, intervenes from time to time in applications before public tribunals. To date, Roman has taken four key cases, and they are worth examining, briefly, as clues to the way government regulation works.
In October, 1973, when Ontario Hydro applied to the National Energy Board for permission to increase hydro exports to theU.S.,the CAC, with help from Pollution Probe, sought to show that Hydro would simply be taking in American pollution. Ontario would bring in more U.S. coal to produce more power to ship back across the border; the crown agency would gain about six million to eight million dollars; the social costs to Canada would come to about $8.5 million. In rebuttal, a key Hydro witness made the interesting point that pollution brings benefits — sales for paint companies are stimulated by the need to repaint peeling houses. Roman wanted to know if he would consider pollution-related deaths a benefit to undertakers, but the Hydro man thought not. The NEB dismissed the CAC witnesses and their argument, but did hint that Hydro should, in future, make some calculation of social costs in such cases.
In March, 1974, the CAC asked the Canadian Transportation Commission for the right to appear before it to contest increases in railway passenger fares. A hearing was held on April 4 to determine whether the intervention would be allowed, but the decision was reserved, and reserved, and reserved. In September, the CAC withdrew its application; the price hikes had been in place for five months, and the commission had still not made up its mind whether it would hear arguments against them.
In the meantime, however, the CAC had jumped in to fight airline ticket increases. Canada’s major airlines had served notice that they would hike domestic fares by 9.5% on July 21 (on top of a 10.5% increase five months earlier). The airlines are not required to prove they need more money, they have only to notify the CTC in advance and the raises go through automatically unless someone intervenes. The CAC tried and it found that the figures it needed to prove the case against the new fares were all in the hands of the companies, who wouldn’t release them. And because the raises were automatic unless a case against them could be proved before July 21, there was no time to gather outside evidence. The airlines were so confident, they began collecting the new fares even before they had been vetted by the CTC. Their optimism was justified; Guy Roberge, acting chairman of the, air transport committee of the CTC, obviously resented the intervention; he told Roman that his committee, not the consumer group, was the custodian of the public interest. After dismissing the CAC application, the committee heard two days of explanations from the airlines before granting them everything they asked.
Finally, Roman sharpened up his lance to tilt at the Bell Canada telephone rate increases for Ontario and Quebec. Bell wanted to increase revenues by $51.8 million; the CAC, with the aid of the governments of Ontario and Quebec and a consumer advocate who called himself Action Bell Canada, managed to trim away about four million dollars.
The scenario in all these cases is much the same: an industry applies to a regulatory agency for economic benefits; the agency, after dismissing interveners such as the CAC with more or less patience, ladles out the goodies. There is a public hearing and the symbolic reassurance that everything is okay; we, as consumers, may be being ripped off, but it is all done according to proper form.
And yet Roman remains an optimist, and he advances some reasons to explain his good cheer. His kind of intervention is new; up until now, the industries and the regulatory agencies have formed a cozy club; the challenge that consumer and environmental groups represent takes getting used to, so “You can’t expect too much right away.” In fact, Roman says, he has made some headway. Ma Bell didn’t get everything she wanted; the airlines did cough up some figures, eventually, that the CAC may use next time.
If Roman and his kind keep pushing hard enough, we may even get regulatory agencies to throw away their rubber stamps and get up off their knees, which would be a blessed relief to us all.
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