Improving independent institutional representation of consumers is essential to Canada’s public discussion about energy policy, and hyperbolic points about electricity prices in Ontario are unhelpful to that discussion.
That was the theme of a letter to the editor sent by Consumers Council of Canada President Aubrey LeBlanc today to The Globe and Mail in response to its May 18, 2016, editorial “Less central heating, more central planning”.
The Consumers Council of Canada is the major intervenor for Ontario’s retail electricity consumers at the Ontario Energy Board, in concert with a diverse group of other intervenors focused on industrial, institutional, environmental and anti-poverty interests.
The Council, a national non-profit voluntary organization headquartered in Toronto, works in conjunction with these other intervenors, to keep electricity distributors and local power utilities accountable in the price review process at the OEB. However, many costs of many kinds that contribute to current rates are not reviewed by the OEB.
Despite tremendous change in the global energy sector, Ontario consumers pay middle-of-the-pack retail prices for electricity in North America, as indicated by a HydroQuebec report. Price comparators for U.S. states are readily available, too.
LeBlanc raises the Council’s serious concerns in the letter about the need to improve institutionalized consumer representation in national policy and decision-making concerning energy.
“Consumer groups need greater capacity to engage public planning and policy processes related to energy,” LeBlanc wrote. “Consumers need assurance they will have effective, independent representation. And consumer groups have a responsibility to demonstrate they provide it. Otherwise public distrust for and discontent with business and government will continue its growth.”
The Council hosted a major research project recently concerning consumer representation in public policy setting concerning internal trade matters. The research included a national survey of Canadians about their attitudes towards business, consumers and consumer groups concerning internal trade matters. It dealt with consumers’ attitudes towards consumer representation and it explored consumer concerns in many sectors of the economy that are trade related.
A strong theme emerging from the research was that Canadians, distrustful of business and government, with which they have consumer relationships, expect strong, institutionally robust consumer representation on their behalf, made possible at arm’s length by the resources of business and government.
“We think Canadian consumers believe they have paid for consumer protection, to be delivered by both business and government, and that this includes the accountability oversight provided through institutional consumer representation,” said LeBlanc. “Today Canada could do much better at enabling this. But consumers share some responsibility for their weak representation, lacking an understanding of the sophistication of consumer protection regimes, the need to balance sources of influence, and that this requires resources, voluntary and financial, provided in some share by them working in association.”