Hamilton Spectator
November 23, 1996
page B1 (Opinion)

Canada: Land of Regulation

by Andrew Coyne

Until this week, it had never been quite clear why it was necessary that Canada should lead the world in the creation of obtuse, interfering, illogical, and just plain malevolent regulations, with which to harass its citizens. Now, thanks to Liberal MP Paul Zed, we have our answer. It is to give politicians something to do.

Rebuking critics of that much-loved Parliament Hill ritual, the annual backbench threat to set legal limits on credit card interest rates -- Mr. Zed snapped: "We are legislators. What we do every day of the week is legislate."

That's a lot of time to fill.

This is a little closer to the truth than the excuse offered the last time a Liberal MP sallied forth in defence of the oppressed shopaholics.

Testifying before the Commons industry committee, MP Paul DeVilliers urged support for his private member's bill capping credit card rates, on the grounds, as it was reported in a press account, that "legislators have a duty to protect society, just as they are obliged to make seat belts and other safety measures necessary."

Consumers, it seems, can't be expected to shop around from any of several hundred card issuers, many of whom offer no-frills, low-rate versions -- or better yet, refrain from carrying a balance. They must be protected from themselves.

The seat-belt defence -- "if we can legislate the use of seat belts, surely we can ..." -- has become a staple among advocates for fresh intrusions on personal liberty.

This line of reasoning validates the concerns of those who saw this bit of smothering state-concern for our well-being as the thin edge of the sword.

It is frequently invoked by proponents of legislation, in Ontario, B.C., and (soon) Québec, making it illegal to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

In recent days, it has been taken up by the militant wing of the anti-smoking league. Not content with banning smoking in all public places, in shops, restaurants, and bars, the campaign is now shifting into the private realm.

The Ontario Medical Association has just issued a report suggesting it might be time for a legal prohibition on smoking in houses with pregnant women or young children.

Child abuser

Old dad, contentedly smoking a pipe by the fire? According to the OMA, he's a child abuser. "Parental tobacco use in the home", says the report, "is a form of physical abuse."

The OMA admits the notion of sending police sniffing through people's houses might be controversial.

"But as with other laws", it brightens, state control of home life will, "like the use of seat-belts in cars", become the accepted norm.

Ah, but it isn't only possession of the demon weed that might invite that midnight knock upon your door.

The federal government has lately published a helpful brochure, informing Canadians who subscribe to U.S. satellite services that they are liable to "criminal prosecution".

The RCMP will have a busy time of it, given the number of illegal satellite dishes in use is now said to exceed 200,000 -- the produce of federal regulations that have thus far succeeded in preventing any competing Canadian service from getting off the ground.

But then, the police may decide to hold off a while, since it hasn't yet been established that watching HBO is in fact a criminal offence.

Regulation: Canada being overly protective

It doesn't matter -- just as it doesn't matter that the statistical likelihood of sustaining a fatal had injury while riding a bike is about one in 14 million-cyclist-kilometres -- nor that health risks from "second-hand smoke" in most ordinary circumstances are negligible.

The satisfaction that so many Canadians seem to feel from telling others what to do is wholly unrelated either to the necessity of the intervention or the chances of its success.

It is a pleasure in itself.

When the CRTC declares, as it did the other day, that it intends to regulate the Internet, to ensure adequate levels of Canadian content, it is quite irrelevant to object that the exercise is a ludicrous waste of time; that it is impossible to regulate the Net; or that it's already clogged with Canadian content. The facts have nothing to do with it.

Or as the new chairwoman of the CRTC, Françoise Bertrand, put it: "One thing I know is, certainly, from the start, to say there is no place, or no role for the CRTC, is certainly not in my mind."

The puritan, it is said, disapproved of bearbaiting, not because of the suffering of the bear, but because of the enjoyment it afforded the spectators. The desire for regulation has similar origins: not the misdeeds of the regulated, but the pleasure of the regulator.


Copyright © 1996 by Southam News. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.