TORONTO - Draft measures to reduce sticker shock when Ontario consumers open their cellphone bills passed a crucial vote in the legislature Thursday, but still face significant hurdles before they could become law.
The private member's bill would make the cost of using a cellphone more transparent, and clarify contracts so that customers know what they're paying for.
The bill easily passed second reading Thursday, with Consumer Services Minister Margarett Best and several of her cabinet colleagues lending their votes to the unanimous consent.
But the minority Liberal government still controls which legislation is called for third and final reading and there's no indication it will allow the bill to reach that stage.
Government House Leader John Milloy wouldn't say whether the cellphone bill, which has now been sent to committee for study, would get final reading.
While the bill received strong all-party support, the government needs to look at how it fits in with its agenda, he said.
"I want to be cautious until committee has had a chance to look at it," he said.
"We'll make a decision at that point."
The bill marks the second attempt by Liberal member David Orazietti to protect consumers from what he says are high fees and confusing contracts.
"This is a huge consumer issue," he said.
"The price gouging that is taking place in this sector because of the lack of competition is absolutely horrendous."
Measures are long overdue in Ontario, where about 70 per cent of residents use cellphones, Orazietti said. Quebec already has a law to protect cellphone users, while Manitoba is mulling similar legislation that will likely pass this year.
Ken Whitehurst, executive director of Consumers Council of Canada, said consumers want clarity and plain language when they sign up for a mobile phone so they can choose the right service provider.
"It sometime seems that rather than getting competition and delivering cellular service, we're seeing competition between the cellphone companies to figure out who can create the most incomprehensible agreements," he said.
Orazietti's bill would reduce cancellation fees, force companies to warn users when they're outside their local areas so they won't be surprised with roaming charges, and prevent consumers from being billed while their phone is being repaired.
The draft legislation would also require companies to "unlock" any phone once it's paid for, so customers can switch service providers without buying a new device.
The government has urged consumers to look carefully at the fine print when they're signing up for a cellphone, Best said.
"We want to raise awareness and educate people about the importance of making smart choices," she said before the vote.
While private member's bills rarely become law, the Liberals have previously backed two of Orazietti's bills, including a ban on smoking in cars with kids.
The Liberals should either support Orazietti's bill and make it law, or oppose it and risk the wrath of cellphone users, said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.
"Pick a side," he said.