Tories blur public policy and partisan politics

When James Moore began his counteroffensive against Canada’s large telecommunications companies, he trumpeted a website that asked Canadians whether they agreed the country needed more wireless competition.

When James Moore began his counteroffensive against Canada’s large telecommunications companies, he trumpeted a website that asked Canadians whether they agreed the country needed more wireless competition.

“We’re putting consumers first and standing up for choice in Canada’s wireless industry — are you with us?” asks the website, which then requests your name and email address to show your support.

On the surface, it looks like the government is preparing to present itself with an online petition to push itself to do something it has already announced.

That is, until you scroll down to see that this is in fact a website sponsored by the Conservative party, not the federal government, and that this is just the latest example of the party trying to raise funds and mine voter data information on the backs of the big three.

Moore says his “consumers first” telecom policy is good public policy, not politics. But he, and his party, are trying to have it both ways.

The survey is merely a tried-and-true method of soliciting donations and support.

The government is supposed to craft public policy it feels is best for all Canadians.

But to then turn around and use the telecoms as whipping boys to raise money and support is the ultimate blurring of government policy and partisan party politics.

This is, in fact, the second time the Conservatives have used the telecom giants this way.

In June, when then-industry minister Christian Paradis blocked a $380-million Telus deal for Mobilicity, the government crowed that it was taking on big telecom.

Hours after the announcement, the Tories appealed for money from backers, saying it was “standing up for wireless consumers” against “the big telecommunications companies.”

“Our Conservative government is taking action to reduce your cellphone bill — and we wanted to make sure you have heard about it,” the party said in an email.

The Conservatives have regularly used government policy to pad their coffers, usually on matters of law-and-order, most notably its long road to elimination of the gun registry, a drawn out process that was the subject of numerous fundraising campaigns.

And to be sure, all parties do this.

The NDP’s Roll Up the Red Carpet campaign, which asks voters to sign a petition backing Senate abolition, has garnered the party “tens of thousands” of new email addresses apart from its usual base, a spokesperson says, addresses that will be crucial as we head to the 2015 campaign.

The Liberals have a bevy of online petitions.

An online demand that Stephen Harper explain the $90,000 payoff from his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to former Conservative senator Mike Duffy has been accessed by more than 33,450 persons, while legalizing marijuana has more than 21,000 hits.

Close to 111,000 have clicked to demand Harper “keep our hands off our reproductive rights,” smaller numbers have signed petitions on everything from trans-fats to search-and-rescue stations.

But neither the Liberals nor the NDP are supposedly governing for the good of all Canadians, or using public policy as a wedge issue, or building support by taking on companies that have played by the rules and invested in this country.

The Harper government has been consistent on its policy of fostering competition in the wireless industry, so no one should be surprised.

Still, the big three have already lost $14.5 billion in market value because of the Verizon speculation and pension funds have lost close to $500 million.

Rogers, Bell and Telus are now warning of slower wireless speeds if Verizon gets to bid on two of four spectrum blocks available. Rogers has called for the auction to be delayed and Telus chief corporate officer Josh Blair has proposed limiting Verizon to one block so four companies can win four blocks.

“Four winners is better at enabling competition than having just three winners,” Blair said.

One of the existing three will be shut out, resulting in slower service for a growing customer base with a growing bandwidth appetite.

Moore is well within his rights to ignore those arguments.

But it is unseemly for this government to turn Canadian companies into the bad guys in its white hats-black hats world.

We’ve heard the Conservatives bash “big unions,” now it’s “big telecom.”

This is a government that will find — or create — its enemies wherever it needs them, if it can use them to raise a few bucks and win a few votes.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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