Friday, 25 May 2012

Op-Ed: Tories deny Liberal effort to protect cell phone customers


On May 9th, on behalf of the Liberal Opposition, I was proud to table a private Member’s bill that would have protected consumers from unfair cell phone billing practices in New Brunswick.
I was shocked and saddened when the Alward government rejected the bill last week. Tory MLA’s stated that they would not support the bill because there were no regulations tied to it. Instead of making a simple amendment, this government chose to reject a bill that was in the best interest of all New Brunswickers.
I want to explain to you what this bill was about and perhaps you’ll wonder like I do why it was rejected.
The Phone Contracts Act would have provided better protection to cell phone owners via new regulations for wireless companies. Similar legislation has been introduced in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba to help prevent cell phone bill shock.
The key issue at stake with this piece of legislation was transparency. Consumers often expect to pay one amount for wireless services and receive a bill that is double or triple the expected amount. Truth in advertising is paramount – people need to clearly understand what they’re signing up for when they enter a wireless contract. Currently, this is not the case. 
Cell phone contracts in their current form are difficult for many people to understand. Because of this, consumers too often experience sticker shock when they are charged for services they did not agree to or did not know would result in added costs.
The New Brunswick Cell Phones Contracts Act would have ensured contracts were written in plain language and that services included in the basic fees were itemized. Bills would also have had to clearly state services rendered that would result in higher costs. This legislation would have required wireless service providers to include clear disclosure of key terms, making them more understandable to consumers.
Another concern this bill addressed was the often exorbitant costs of cancelling a wireless contract – sometimes upwards of $600. This bill would have capped cancellation fees at $50. Furthermore, the legislation would have disallowed wireless companies from automatically renewing a contract or locking them in to begin with without proper and clear disclosure.
More than 80 per cent of wireless service agreements are post-paid, which means people are billed after they sign agreements and use the services. When the first bill is received, consumers tend to feel helpless since they have just signed a contract that could last up to three years. If the bill isn’t what they expect – and it usually isn’t – this legislation could have provided the protection they need.  
This bill also sought to regulate wireless advertising, and introduced requirements for record keeping. It would have provided protection against the unilateral amendment of a cell phone contract by a supplier and mandated that customers be provided with specific details on the terms of the contract, including minimum monthly charges, penalties, interest, and so on. It looked at several small issues as well, including a requirement that companies disclose whether a cell phone is new or refurbished.
New Brunswick families work hard for their money and cell phone bills are a universal source of frustration. Any family or individual using a cell phone would have benefited from legislation that ensured clear and easy-to-understand language in cell phone contracts. This legislation would have put the onus on businesses – instead of families – to make sure consumers know what services they are paying for.
This was a good bill – one we had hoped the Progressive Conservative government would move on. Unfortunately, this government has put politics first when it comes to Opposition bills in the legislature and this was no exception.
This private member’s bill was one that should have had no downside for the Tories. It’s a bill that would have protected New Brunswick consumers – something that should be the aim of all governments. This is no time to play politics, yet that is what they have done.
This bill was good for all New Brunswickers – all except for former Premier Bernard Lord and the telecommunications giant he works for. The Tory rejection of this bill has exemplified a simple truth: that this government is more interested in protecting its friends than everyday New Brunswickers. And that simply is not right.
With this legislation, the price shock that consumers face when opening up their cell phone bills would have become a thing of the past. We saw no downside to this legislation and believed it was something both sides of government could work on together. 
I am disappointed that this government has rejected a bill that protects New Brunswickers from unfair cell phone billing practices. If you live in a riding with a Tory MLA, I encourage you to ask them why they have rejected this bill. Ask them why they didn’t opt for an amendment and instead chose to reject it outright. Rejecting this bill was a blow to New Brunswickers and we all deserve answers on this regrettable decision by the Tories. 

Chris Collins is the Official Opposition’s critic for Post-Secondary, Education, Training and Labour and is the Liberal MLA for Moncton East.