Canadian consumer groups are “small, lack profile and are seriously underfunded for the task at hand” compared to their counterparts in other advanced industrial countries, according to the former chairman of the OECD consumer policy group.
Michael Jenkin served as Chairman of the OECD Committee on Consumer Policy for eight years and also the former Director General of the Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada. In an opinion piece published by Options consommateurs, he describes how Canadian consumer group potency has fallen from its peak in the mid-1960s and makes the point that the government needs to level the playing field for consumer interest advocates.
His column describes the growing risks to Canadian consumers from the online marketplace to identity theft and diminished marketplace choice. Consumer issues are both a federal and provincial concern, and governments have integrated consumer protection within larger departments or multiple ministries. “All of this makes lobbying in the consumer interest more time-consuming, expensive and difficult, especially when it comes to obtaining ministerial attention and focus.”
The consumer movement, he wrote, is struggling to keep up. While there are a number of dedicated consumer groups, they are small in comparison to counterparts in other nations, struggle to maintain staff to research, lobby and respond to government demands for input, and have serious problems generating revenues.
Government support has declined. Major assistance was eliminated in the early 1990s and replaced by project funding, which “doesn’t cover the long-term costs of maintaining the organization." When regulatory agencies seek consumer group intervention at consultation or hearings, “government departments often expect consumer organizations to make submissions or provide testimony without payment, or only provide travel expenses, ignoring the very substantial costs that such work can entail in terms of staff time and research costs.” Consumer groups often choose not to participate because doing so is unaffordable.
Jenkin recommends an increase in the support provided from the current “very modest” levels. Governments should consider assisting with overhead costs to allow consumer groups to maintain research and operational staff, he noted. Because private companies have significant incentive to invest in lobbying for their interests, Jenkins recommends governments need to fully fund consumer groups when conducting regulatory hearings or public consultations.
Jenkin, who formerly served on the board of directors of consumer group Public Interest Advocacy Centre, expressed support for coalition building by consumer groups, strategic alliances and partnerships, while warning “there is a very real possibility that several of the existing organizations that are in precarious financial circumstances will close and the skill sets they have developed will be lost.”
A sidebar article provided a startling comparison to other nations. Australia’s national consumer organization CHOICE has revenues equivalent to C$17.6 million and more than 200,000 subscribers. Holland’s Consumentenbond has 500,000 members in a nation with less than half of Canada’s population.