Saturday, 22 February 2014

Competition Makes the World Go Round.....But Not in Canada

At the heart of freedom, capitalism and democracy is competition and the right to choose.  But unfortunately in Canada, this is all too often not the case.  In the Great White North, various levels of government, big corporations and powerful interest groups are out to make sure you don't get to make the choices that you deserve to make on everything from booze to what you watch on TV.  And personally, I'm sick of it.

You don't have to be an avid follower of politics or current events to know when someone high up is trying to dictate the choices that you make.  For example, any person who has ever purchased a case of beer or a bottle of wine in Ontario, the country's most populous province, knows that he or she can only get that case of beer or bottle of wine from the Beer Store and LCBO monopoly.  Any suggestion of allowing other sources, such as supermarkets or convenience stores, to sell alcohol to the Ontario public is quickly quashed by the usual suspects: the left-wing Liberals and NDP and their big union friends who cringe at the idea of competition, because as long as Ontarians can only buy their booze from one source, the source that only employs their members, the union coffers will be full and the union bosses can continue to pig out at the trough financed by the average Ontarian.

Oh well, if we can't choose where we buy our beer and wine, maybe we'll have better luck choosing what to watch on TV....FAT CHANCE, Joe Canadian.  Every one of us who has cable or satellite knows that when we pick the channels we want to watch, we don't usually get to pick and pay.  Nope, the big wigs at Rogers, Shaw, Bell or Telus present us with "bundles" of channels that we have to choose from.  Are you a big hockey fan who just wants to watch hockey on TV and nothing else?  Tough luck, because not only will you be paying top dollar for all that hockey, but you'll also be paying for a bunch of other channels that you'll never watch.  The folks at the big cable and satellite companies don't mind this arrangement because they know they'll never see competition from the likes of Time Warner or DirecTV (at least on a legal basis) since their friends in the federal government will never open the Canadian market to non-Canadian competition.  It's pretty much the same with cellphone service providers.  You have the big three companies, Rogers, Bell and Telus all selling plans and contracts at some of the highest rates in the industrialized world.  Good luck to upstarts like Wind Mobile trying to break into the Canadian market since government red tape and foreign ownership restrictions pretty much guarantee that the big Canadian companies will continue to gouge us.

But before we blame the federal government and big cable and satellite companies for our high-priced telecommunications, we should first look at some of the interest groups that are also making our bills skyrocket.  Do you think that you have to pay for channels you don't want to watch just because Rogers makes you?  Think again!  Government regulations require TV providers to force you to pay for channels you don't want.  Why?  Because powerful lobby groups, like the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting want to make sure that the folks in this country who make TV series, films and music don't have to compete with their fellow entertainment providers abroad.  These folks say they're out to promote and protect Canadian content, or Can-Con for short.  The problem is that they don't care how good or bad that content is, nor do they want to have to compete with content from the U.S. or any other country that might be more appealing to consumers.  That's why instead of watching Comedy Central, we're stuck watching an inferior, Canadianized version called The Comedy Network.  Want American channels, like the USA Network or TNT?  Good luck getting them legally as long as the Can-Con watchdogs are on patrol and as long as people in government are beholden to them.

Of course, this kind of useless protectionism is not unique to the film, TV and music industries.  For instance, chances are that when you have to do your banking, you'll be doing it with one of this country's big five banks: TD Canada Trust, the Bank of Montreal, CIBC, Scotiabank and Royal Bank of Canada.  And as long as these big five monsters have control over the Canadian market, you'll continue having to pay outrageous fees to access your own money.  Granted, we should all be thankful that our laws prevented the type of banking crises that have recently occurred in the U.S. and Europe, but I'm pretty sure that keeping the Big Five almost immune from competition was not part of what saved us from such dire circumstances.

The fact of the matter is that Canadians are sick of being gouged and having their choices limited when it comes to how they bank, watch TV or use their cellphones.  So what do we do about it?  Well, as in any democratic country, our first inclination is to use our hard-won right to vote to elect leaders who will bring about changes so that our bills will be lower and our choices greater.  Unfortunately, it's not so simple because even our electoral choices are severely restricted by a system that discourages principle-based politics and encourages one-party government.

For those of you who don't know about how our elections work, we have what is called a winner-take-all or first-past-the-post system in which whoever gets the most votes in any riding wins the right to represent the riding in parliament, and whoever wins the most ridings gets to form the government.  As for the folks who didn't vote for the winning candidates in each riding - well, their votes basically don't count.  And since our system rewards parties who can manage to win the most ridings rather than the most votes, what we get are manufactured majority governments.  Yes, that's right.  Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons, but only because they won the most ridings.  The majority of Canadians did not actually vote the Tories into power.  In fact, Canada is one of the very few countries in the modern, democratic world that still uses this antiquated electoral system (the other two prominent examples are the U.S. and U.K.).  Most other industrialized democracies use proportional representation or some kind of system that mixes proportional representation with geographical representation.  I won't go into details about how these other electoral systems work.  What you really need to know is that in these systems, every vote counts and the popular vote is represented fairly and accurately in national legislatures.  They also produce multiparty systems with many different political groups on both ends of the political spectrum.  Here in Canada, we've historically had to choose between either the Liberals or the Conservatives.  Basically, it's like choosing between dumb or dumber, and it's up to you to decide which is which.  Yes, the NDP is there too, but they've never taken power federally and they never will unless they water down their principles or merge with the Liberals, just like the folks in the Reform Party did when they merged with the Progressive Conservatives to form today's much less principled Conservative Party.  The point is that our electoral system discourages real choice so that we only get to choose from what amount to different shades of the same colour.  Sound familiar?  If it does, it's probably because we have to make the same kind of choice when it comes to how you watch TV, do your banking or use your cellphone.  In other words, whatever choice we're making, we always have to choose from among a few fat cats that at the end of the day are all pretty much the same.

Now I know that lately, the folks in both the government and opposition parties have talked about doing things to alleviate the lack of choice that Canadians have to deal with on several fronts.  Hence, for example, new regulations putting an end to those annoying 3-year cellphone contracts.  But these kinds of changes are merely cosmetic.  What Canada needs is more competition so that we have more, better and cheaper options for how we watch TV, use our cellphones, do our banking, buy our booze or elect our politicians.  The question is, will this ever happen?  Will there be a freer market for goods, services and ideas in Canada any time soon?  Not unless we take action.

I wrote this because writing is my way of taking action.  There's no reason why many other people can't do the same thing.  And if writing isn't your thing, there are other things you can do.  For instance, if you don't like government, special interests, or big cable and satellite companies telling you what to watch on TV, cut the cord and stream your TV programs and movies from the internet.  Don't like paying a fortune to the cellphone providers?  Use free or cheaper services, like Skype or WhatsApp.  And if you don't like bank fees, there are a growing number of outlets providing banking services without them.  The point is that there are ways to get around the restrictions placed on our choices.  Do some of these ways involve breaking the law?  Perhaps, but as the great philosopher, Plato once said, those who are just disobey unjust laws, and in my mind, any laws that limit the choices of Canadians without a good reason are clearly unjust.    

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