The 10,000 commandments

Robert Lewis August 18 1980

The 10,000 commandments

Robert Lewis August 18 1980

The 10,000 commandments

Robert Lewis

Grace Yonge is 72 and living alone now, but she has a small grocery store in Lakefield, Ont., and she is

still mad as hell. The wrath lingers from a visit last fall by a federal official who decreed that her two vintage weigh scales—one dates from the day her father opened shop 72 years ago—would have to go as part of the conversion to metric measurement in the Peterborough area. “He wasn’t nasty at all,” Grace Yonge recalls, “but I just looked at him.” Later, simmering about the prospect of a $2,000 investment in metric equipment, she refused to switch. Opponents of litres and metres across Canada lionized the protest as “the Grace Yonge technique.” Says the feisty proprietor: “Now, I wouldn’t take the old scales off the counter even if I go to jail.”

Such militancy in the face of government-by-rule-book is on the rise across the land—and little wonder. From the moment citizens awake to radio music prescribed by Canadian content rules, through lunch at the government-inspected greasy spoon to sleep beneath the smoke detector required in some cities, virtually no avenue of human endeavor is left to fate. Governments establish the cost of gas, eggs, telephone calls, airplane flights, alcohol and bank loans. They ban movies, pop bottles, even walking the dog.

In Ottawa 140 regulatory statutes— rules flowing from general legislation but with no specific approval in Parliament-fill more than 3,000 pages. The 10 provincial governments spew out roughly the same amount of fine print and, combined, have more than 1,600 laws currently on the books. The multiplicity of dos and don’ts sometimes produces comedy to rival Laurel and Hardy. In British Columbia, for example, the Fire Marshal’s Act said that boiler-room doors must swing one way, while the National Building Code would have them go the other. Throughout Ontario, retailers ponder why liquid ant-killer is taxed, while ant traps are exempt.

“A national disease,” charges John Bulloch, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. In academe, a growing number of doctors offer prescriptions for the malady in the learned journals. Politicians are rushing to worship at the totem of reform. Ottawa establishes an office for the Paper Burden. The first ministers declare

in assembly: “The burden of government regulation on the private sector should be reduced,” then cause a $3-million study of red tape by the Economic Council of Canada. The final report, complete with case histories and horror stories, is scheduled for release in December.

That happens to be the timing for a final report by a special task force of MPS, which last week capitalized on the Ottawa summer doldrums by holding a press conference to announce public hearings across Canada this fall. Says Chairman Jim Peterson, a Toronto corporation lawyer, “We want to make sure that our regulators listen to the people affected and are held accountable.” The task force, leaning on many of the same experts employed by the Economic Council, recycled many pet suggestions from the bulging shelf of recent tomes on regulations. Among them: advance notice and wider distribution of proposed federal regulations, now published after the fact in the obscure Canada Gazette; funding for public interest groups to challenge or support new rules; parliamentary review, now almost nonexistent; and reform in the appointment process for government boards and agencies, where party loyalty often is more important than expertise.

The clarion call for de-regulation, however, often can turn into a clunker. Where people stand often depends on where they sit. “While all businessmen

preach competition, many prefer to practise under the umbrella of benevolent regulation,” observes Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, which has stiffer regulations and less secrecy than Ottawa. Major events—say, a Three Mile Island nuclear incident, or a derailment of chlorine-laden railway cars in Mississauga, Ont.—can ignite a frenzy of regulation writing. It matters little that more people have died from exploding tanker trucks than from nuclear plants. Notes William Stanbury, director of the Economic Council’s regulation reference: “Dying in coal mines, which has been going on for years, is accepted. People choose to go down the mines, but not to live near a nuclear plant. It’s perception, not reality: we like to die in familiar ways.”

Politicians like to thrive on the same principle—which often means more regulation, not less. As a general rule, the Progressive Conservative Party is a more vocal exponent of de-regulation. Yet in Ontario, ruled for the past 37 years by the PCs, there was a 100-percent increase in regulations between 1971 and 1978. Election-bound Premier William Davis was even calling for more rules last week. During a meeting with automotive union representatives, angry about massive layoffs in Ontario, Davis released a call for a federal investigation of possible dumping or unfair trading of foreign cars. The next day, declaring that “I don’t think we as a nation owe the Soviet Union anything,” the premier urged a ban on the import of inexpensive, Soviet-made Lada cars. In Quebec, meanwhile, responding to the cutoff of water for two months in the Eastern Townships community of Farnham, the government threatened to revoke permits for pig farmers who dump waste into the polluted Yamaska River. The farmers retorted that when they sought government help to build a waste-treatment plant in 1976, it was denied.

Nor were any political voices raised in protest against a series of major regulatory decisions announced last week. Among them:

• The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruling to end Bell Canada’s equipment monopoly—and $2.00 monthly levy per extension phonedeciding that citizens now have the right to buy their own extra sets and plug into Bell lines.

• Mr. Justice Thomas Berger’s ruling that Aluminum Co. of Canada Ltd. would have to obey a federal order under the Fisheries Act to increase the flow of water over a dam into the Nechako River in central B.C. [Maclean's, Aug. 11). Just 30 minutes after the ruling by Berger, whose celebrated report effectively killed the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline in 1977, Alcan increased the flow of water.

• A federal environmental assessment panel finding that Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., a Crown agency, would have to produce more research on the social impact before it can go ahead with five-year-old plans for a $100-million uranium refinery at Warman, Sask. (see story page 16).

The Eldorado response reflected a genuine quandry for many companies dealing with regulations. It already has spent $1 million on the refinery proposal and on environmental hearings and argues there is no way it can now produce an objective finding on the social impact. Yet, when the panel first asked Eldorado for guidance last November, before formal hearings began, the company did not produce the information.

Companies have other ways of being un-co-operative with regulators who, in turn, are jumpy among the giants. Inco Ltd., whose infamous stack at Sudbury is one of the largest single sources of acid rain pollution in North America, last week moved again to resist Ontario government orders to reduce sulphur emissions between now and 1983. When Ontario finally did impose the order, after a one-month delay, it set no date for its start. Inco, meanwhile, can appeal to the environment minister, the cabinet and, ultimately, to the courts.

In Ottawa there have been similar experiences with toothless regulatory tigers. Under a regulatory reform begun in August, 1978, and welcomed by industry, the feds undertook to do studies on the socioeconomic impact of new regulations in areas such as job safety and environmental health. The first of two reports released in December, 1979, recommended a partial ban on certain chlorofluoromethanes in aerosol spray cans, which are said to destroy the Earth’s ozone layer and produce skin cancer. The report, according to an analysis by Ottawa’s Institute for Research on Public Policy, “does not establish a case for chlorofluoromethane regulation” and “concedes that regulation of Canadian chlorofluoromethane use may not directly benefit Canadians at all, since Canada is responsible for only a tiny fraction of the ozone-depletion problem—a problem which can only be solved by global action.” The regulations were finally passed in April anyway, but only after Dupont of Canada Ltd., one of the major fluorocarbon producers, dropped its bid for public hearings. The other study, on regulating arsenic poisoning produced by gold mines in the Northwest Territories and Northern Ontario, so far has not resulted in any emission-control order.

The struggle to regulate—and the high cost to society—constitutes a saga that is as old as time. In 2200 BC, the Code of Babylonian King Hammurabi stated starkly: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.” That was consumer home protection on a scale unimaginable to dwellers in the 20th century. The rules and procedures were clear to all. There was no paperwork. The regulation was a success in all respects—except that the society died.