09/30/2013 09:54 EDT

Conservatives' Consumer Protection Track Record Dismal, NDP Says


OTTAWA — The Conservative government's new pledge to fight for consumer issues is not sitting well with the NDP.

New Democrats say the Tories' track record on consumer protection is dismal and they don't intend to let the government get away with rhetoric when their actions in Parliament prove otherwise.

"Conservatives have not been pro-consumer, they have been voting against consumer initiatives for the last five years that I've been around," NDP consumer protection critic Glenn Thibeault told reporters Monday. "They can say one thing, but their actions are demonstrating another."

The NDP says the Conservatives increased the price of more than 1,200 imported everyday goods by raising tariffs, and made parking more expensive at hospitals, schools and municipal lots by imposing the combined GST and HST.

They ignored their party's calls to force banks to field their customers' complaints through the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investment and hurt customers who use credit unions by forcing those institutions to pay more taxes.

While Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has suggested she is open to the idea of an air passenger bill of rights, Thibeault noted that Conservative MPs twice voted unanimously against such legislation when it was proposed by the NDP.

Tory MPs also voted against a successful NDP opposition day motion to create legislation to protect consumers from what New Democrats view as unfair practices of credit card companies. And when the motion passed, the Tories ignored it. Instead of implementing a bill, the NDP says the Conservative government enacted a "toothless and voluntary code of conduct for credit card companies that is riddled with holes."

"We are the only party who really takes this issue seriously," Thibeault said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's press secretary Marie Prentice told HuffPost in an email that the Tories have acted aggressively to protect consumers by strengthening mortgage rules, cutting taxes, establishing the Tax Free Savings Account and creating a position of a Financial Literacy leader. (No one has yet been appointed to fill the position, however). Prentice said the Tories also took action to protect Canadians using credit cards by ensuring prepaid cards never expire, banning unsolicited credit card cheques and ensuring contracts are written in plain language.

"It’s interesting that the NDP have lately discovered consumers, after voting against all our measures to protect against overextended household debt and to encourage better financial decision making," Prentice said.

Industry Minister James Moore recently told a business audience that the government was going to start putting consumers' interests at the forefront of its decision making.

"In the months ahead, we will continue to move forward on a path that ensures that consumers' interests are at the core," he told a gathering of the Canadian Club of Ottawa earlier this month. He pointed to Conservative action on wireless policy, consumer product safety and truth in airline pricing.

On Saturday, the Conservative Party sent a fundraising note asking for $25 or $50 donations to help the party stand up for Canadian consumers and fight the big three wireless companies and their $18.7 billion in profits.

"Since 2008, our pro-competition, pro-consumer policies have driven down the average cost of wireless services for Canadians by nearly 20% – and we are just getting started," said the note from the party's director of political operations, Fred DeLorey.

The Conservatives' wireless policy spurred initial competition in the market but it is unclear that cellphone costs will drop without a new larger player in Canada.

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The NDP, like Liberals, have yet to propose a wireless policy of their own but they say household cellular phone bills have not decreased under the Tories but increased. Thibeault said Canadian families spent on average $67 a month on cellular services, up from an average of $61 a month in 2011.

Liberal industry critic Judy Sgro told HuffPost the Conservatives mishandled the wireless file by failing to open the system to increased competition and failing to increase rural access. "Now, they are left, frankly, with mud all over their face," Sgro said.

"As with everything that they have done in the last eight years, they do a lot of talking but they deliver very little."

The Tories have enacted several consumer-friendly policies such as dropping the GST two percentage points and the introduction of the Universal Child Care Benefit and the Children's Fitness Tax Credit. But Sgro says that while those policies may be really good for families to have access to, it is also costing an "awful lot of money to make those little tax credits to buy their votes."

The NDP said Monday it will focus this fall on pushing for more consumer friendly policies such as:

  • Proposing a $0.50 cap on ATM withdrawal fees;
  • Forcing banks to offer a no-frill credit card with an interest rate no more than five per cent over prime;
  • Cracking down on pay day loan companies that charge extra fees on top of the legal lending rate;
  • Stopping companies from charging customers more for choosing to receive paper bills;
  • Strengthening the mandate of the Competition Bureau by creating a prosecution arm to prosecute offences under the Competition Act.

Without being specific, Sgro said the Liberals would support any common-sense proposals. "We would be supportive of anything that would help the consumer in these difficult times that we are dealing with today," she said.

Thibeault told HuffPost earlier this month that the Tories have never been pro-consumer.

"[At] a moment of political desperation — they are reeling from scandals in the Senate and the Prime Minister's Office — they are really trying to change the channel," Thibeault said.

"I don't think they have any real interest in trying to help consumers."

Moore's office has yet to return calls for comment.