By Greg O’Brien
OTTAWA – In his first public appearance as chair of the CRTC where he was the one answering and not asking the questions, Jean-Pierre Blais gave the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage a brief look at the direction and the future he envisions for the Regulator so many Canadians (including some MPs) misunderstand.
Chairman Blais has already put his stamp on the CRTC by signalling rather overtly that under his watch the Commission will be consumer, or citizen-focused like never before. He has already hired a chief consumer officer, Barbara Motzney and during the hearing into Bell Canada’s purchase of Astral Media he asked rather often about the effect of the deal will have on Canadian citizens and consumers. (Blais has made the key distinction between the two terms often enough to be of note and said Thursday under questioning from MPs, as he did during the Bell/Astral hearing. “I think it’s important I also referred to citizens. It’s not only about consumers,” he said yesterday.)
As well, and as reported by Cartt.ca, the Commission has been quite forceful in demanding that Canadian wireless companies do better when it comes to handling customers who lose their smart phones – and all the data those handsets now contain.
Noting that Canadians want to be informed and entertained, but also demand choice, affordability and to have their privacy protected when it comes to their media and communications, Blais said the hiring of a chief consumer officer will help imbue everything the Commission does with the requirements of regular Canadians. “I saw a need for heightened integration of consumer issues in all aspects of the CRTC’s work. The chief consumer officer will ensure that the needs and interests of consumers are at the heart of our decision making process, our research, our outreach – basically everything we do,” he said in his opening remarks… I want to make sure that Canadians are at the centre of their communications system.”
Later, during the question and answer portion, Blais (pictured in a ParlVu screen capture from Thursday’s appearance) added that he wants the Commission “to apply a consumer lens to everything we do… It’s not that we weren’t doing it before, but I want it systematic.”
When it comes to the wireless industry in particular, Blais explained further during the Q&A that it should be easier for consumers to know what they’re buying and that the CRTC can play a role since he’s “looking for a bit more clarity when a customer decides to buy a cell phone package, what are their rights and obligations under that contract?” he said. “The CRTC is not there to hold consumers’ hands but I do think we have a role to give them the tools – whether it’s information through a better and less dense web site or through standards that we require from cell phone companies… to have a bit more clarity in their contractual relationships with subscribers.”
Blais also explained his three-year, three-tenet plan of “connect, create and protect” and how he hopes to make the CRTC easier for Canadians to deal with and to understand. He wants to make the notoriously difficult to navigate Commission web site more consumer-friendly, take some of the intimidation factor out of hearings and make the Regulator a resource of useful information so that it can help Canadians “make informed choices in an increasingly competitive and complex communications marketplace,” he said.
“In 2017, I want to leave behind an institution that is more trusted by Canadians and that enables them to benefit fully from a world class communications system.”
* After his opening remarks, committee members questioned the chair on a number of items (he would make no comment on the Bell/Astral deal now before the Commission, except to say all options are on the table), and Blais showed he is a bit different from his predecessor, Konrad von Finckenstein. Where von Finckenstein often used public forums to ask for changes in the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts, or to ask for increased powers to level administrative monetary penalties on those companies who contravene regulations, Blais made no such requests.
Noting that the Acts are well-drafted and flexible, “my job is to execute the Acts as they are drafted currently,” he told the committee. “We’re able to tell Canadians a story about what our work is under pillars of ‘create connect and protect,’ without falling in the trap of ‘is it broadcasting?’ ‘is it telecom?’ ‘Under what statute?’ … For most Canadians, the distinction is not very important to them, particularly as everything converges to broadband networks.”
* Blais also said when head-hunters first approached him to see if he would be interested in the job as CRTC chair, he laughed them off. “It is a very, very daunting position,” he said. “What seems to be the future today, changes tomorrow.”
* Perhaps the question from the furthest out in left field came from Liberal MP Denis Coderre who noted (in French, so we heard it through the translator) he believes the current federal government “doesn’t really believe in the CBC” and wanted to know from Blais if it “is part of your mandate to scrap CBC/Radio-Canada?” He replied simply that the Broadcasting Act calls for the CBC to exist and explained: “so, it is in your hands as parliamentarians.”
Blais also shot down suggestions from Coderre that the federal government or the Heritage Minister is whispering in his ear, telling him what to do. He reminded Coderre that as former assistant deputy minister in the Department of Canadian Heritage he often advised Minister James Moore and insisted to Coderre the CRTC is an arm’s length governmental body and that Moore “has a full understanding of that concept.”
* Blais agreed with committee members that the CRTC web site is difficult to surf through and find things, even for those in the industry – and that it will soon be changing. The site has long been organized by file numbers and dates, things Commission staff and industry regulatory folks recognize, but not Canadians. That said, “Even sophisticated companies have to have that one person who knows how to navigate the web site,” he said.
* Besides a new web presence, look for some changes to how the Commission operates publicly, beginning with November’s CBC license renewal hearing. Blais says the hearing will use technology to draw people in from remote regions into the process and he plans to hold evening sessions so those who work all day can still attend the public hearing phase.
* The chairman also noted the Canadian wireless industry dropped the ball this summer when its initial reply to the Commission’s request that it do more about mobile phone theft was found wanting by he and his staff. “With their first response, we felt that they weren’t grasping the importance of this,” said Blais. “We don’t want to regulate it. We just think it’s the social responsibilities of certain companies that are in the marketplace and they should just do the right thing… I’m convince that M. Lord and his colleagues in the wireless industry will come around and do the right thing… We would rather not go down a regulatory route.”
* The NDP on the committee and Conservatives running it had a bit of a spat during the meeting when NDP MP Andrew Cash insisted on asking chairman Blais about the recent newspaper story on a visit vice-chair broadcasting Tom Pentefountas made to the Bell luxury box during a Montreal Canadiens game last winter.
Parliamentary Secretary to Canadian Heritage MP Paul Calandra said the question was off-side since the committee asked Blais to come in to talk about the CRTC’s future and not of potential conflicts of interest – especially one that took place prior to Blais’ hiring. The MPs then went in camera for about 15 minutes and returned with a more general question about codes of conduct for CRTC staffers and commissioners.