This article originally appeared in iPolitics.
By Aaron Wudrick, May 30, 2022
The ongoing Conservative-leadership race has given fresh reason to fret over the perils of populist policy-making. Whether the topic is cryptocurrency or inflation, housing prices or climate change, it appears there’s no shortage of simple solutions to complex policy problems. It’s a legitimate critique, albeit one that applies to many political leadership races (and elections).
But while the Conservatives sit in opposition and wait up to three years for their next shot at power, the Liberal government is busy rushing through some troublingly simplistic populist policies of its own.
How else to describe the raft of half-baked internet-regulation policies, all of which conveniently assign the role of political villain to a clutch of big technology companies?
Let’s start with the government’s proposed changes to the Competition Act, first alluded to vaguely in the spring federal budget, then finally spelled out last month in an omnibus budget bill — the very kind of hydra-headed legislation heavily criticized by Justin Trudeau when he sat in opposition.
He was right to be critical. Omnibus legislation impairs Parliament’s ability to discharge its very important oversight function by rolling many unrelated changes to different pieces of legislation into a single bill, thereby depriving Parliament of the crucial opportunity to carefully examine each individual measure.
It’s not even necessarily an adversarial process: In many cases, it can simply be a useful exercise in refining the language of a bill to ensure it’s accurate, properly calibrated, and doesn’t lead to any damaging unintended consequences. A government truly serious about getting complex policies right should welcome such opportunities.
Given what’s being proposed, further scrutiny might clarify matters. The proposed changes to the Competition Act include everything from adding factors for consideration when determining whether a business is abusing its position, to permitting private actors to bring applications before the competition tribunal, to hiking maximum fines — up to a whopping three per cent of a business’s global revenues.
It’s no secret that online giants such as Amazon and Shopify are the juiciest targets of these changes. The Act would strongly discourage global companies from doing business in a relatively small market such as Canada.
Then there’s the government’s troubling “solution” to the financial troubles of Canada’s legacy news media. Bill C-18, the Online News Act, will force social-media companies to pay news outlets for linking to their content.
The most superficial reading of the bill exposes its absurd logic: Forcing social-media companies to pay to drive eyeballs to news outlets’ websites makes as much sense as requiring taxi drivers to pay a restaurant for the privilege of delivering their customers. (This is an accurate analogy, notwithstanding its recent use by the admittedly self-interested Google.)
Do you suppose the government might be interested in making sure this legislation doesn’t lead to a slew of harmful unintended consequences, from subsidizing outlets that peddle misinformation, to ruining search engines, to handing unprecedented power to the regulatory-agency overseer? Apparently not: On May 20, the government gave notice of time allocation for C-18, a procedural move that will cut off debate of a bill that will put legacy media deep into their debt for shaking down big tech to subsidize their floundering business model.
Indeed, the awkward and untenable position in which C-18 puts recipient news outlets should be reason enough for a rethink. Why should anyone ever again trust the objectivity of a news organization’s coverage of a government, when that same organization owes its continued survival to that government’s favour?
These are just two examples of the Trudeau government’s willingness to pursue populist policies, using a convenient political boogeyman as a pretext. Such an approach might very well be good politics, but it makes for bad policy. If the Liberal government wants to get these complex issues right, it needs to slow down — and let Parliament do its job.
Aaron Wudrick is the Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.