onsumer super-advocate Phil Edmonston had a lot more on his mind than rusty cars and the price of sugar as he and 65 colleagues fretted through the firstever National Consumer Assistance Conference in Ottawa last week. Strong suspicions mounted during the two-day meeting, that planned federal government efforts to get out of handling marketplace ripoffs would be handed over to the self-serving interests of business.
A sudden urgency intensified the talks among 300 representatives of industry, government and consumer groups, since only a month ago Consumer Affairs Minister Warren Allmand was confronted with a $7.6-million cut from his department’s $80-
million budget. It resulted in plans to chop 48 people from the 120 assigned to consumer complaints and inquiries. That move only accelerated a two-year standing policy by federal officials to encourage the private sector to take over more consumer-complaint handling. “Why should the taxpayer, either provincial or federal, pay for the whole load?” Allmand asked with Proposition 13-style zeal. The perplexing question then remained: who would protect consumer interests?
Industry executives happily nodded an affirmative to the challenge. “The cynical may say business cannot be relied upon to handle its own dirty laundry,” Alasdair McKichan, president of the Retail Council of Canada, said.“To my mind, the reverse is the case.” His chosen instrument to perform this task was the Better Business Bureau, which is supported by 28,000 firms across Canada. Proposing expansion of the bureau’s 14 urban offices, he suggested such a move be supported in part by federal funds.
Next day, seven major consumer groups, clearly threatened by industry’s clout, fought back. “It's all very well for business to make love to consumers,” said Harry Gow, of Transport 2000, “but everybody knows sometimes love degenerates into rape.” Edmonston, president of the Montreal-based Automobile Protection Association, recalled the days when he was fighting Ford against its rusty vehicles, while Ford President Roy Bennett was also the president of the BBB.
Allmand assured delegates he will not unilaterally pull out of consumer services unless there is something solid to replace it. That something is bound to be a fiery subject in the months ahead. As Murray Creed, CBC senior producer, remarked, after chairing a conference workshop that pitted General Motors and Ford against Edmonston’s APA: “I felt like I was standing between the lions and the Christians. The real problem was, everyone thought they were the Christians.”
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