Opening Statement of CAMP Executive Director Keldon Bester to the Standing Committee on Finance

Thank you to the committee for inviting me to speak today on this important topic.

My name is Keldon Bester and I’m the Executive Director of CAMP, a Canadian think tank dedicated to addressing the issues caused by monopoly power in Canada. This is an exciting time for competition policy, and CAMP is glad to see parties across parliament putting forward plans to strengthen Canada’s competition law and protect affordability for Canadians.

C-56 is an important investment in the future of competition in Canada, and CAMP is happy to support it. By removing the efficiencies defense, giving the Commissioner of Competition the power to conduct market studies, and expanding the scope of enforcement against anticompetitive agreements, C-56 makes material positive contributions to the Competition Act

I’ll be frank, these changes will not make groceries more affordable tomorrow. The situation today is the result of decades of thinking at the heart of the Competition Act that supported consolidation and reduced competition at the expense of Canadians. The work to reverse that thinking will take time. As I mentioned, we see these proposed changes as investments that will pay off for Canadians in the coming months, years, and decades and in sectors far beyond just grocery.

That being said, within the current scope of C-56, we propose two changes to strengthen the bill so that it might better serve Canadians in the near term.

First, the Commissioner of Competition should have the independent authority to conduct market studies without the direction of the Minister. C-56 provides appropriate checks and limits on the Commissioner’s use of the market study power, and as such independent study authority should be granted to preserve the agency’s independence.

Second, powers related to anticompetitive agreements should be further strengthened to ensure meaningful enforcement. This means adding the ability to pursue past agreements and penalties for those who engage in these agreements, the absence of which currently renders the provision ineffective. 

With these changes, C-56 will deliver more benefits to Canadians sooner. Looking beyond C-56, more comprehensive change is still needed to the Competition Act to ensure competitive markets for Canadians going forward. 

Even with the removal of the efficiencies defense, Canadians will not be fully protected from further consolidation of important markets. Future reform should introduce presumptions against mergers in already concentrated markets, banning them outright in highly concentrated ones. It should also set the standard for remedies to harmful mergers at preserving or improving competition for Canadians, not making things worse at a more acceptable pace.

For markets already characterized by a small number of players, we need stronger provisions to ensure that any dominance isn’t abused at the expense of Canadian businesses, consumers and workers. Today abuse of dominance cases are few and far between and can take years to investigate. Expanding the scope of the provision and streamlining its enforcement should be a key priority for reform.

Finally, the enforcement of the Competition Act should be more transparent and decentralized. The Competition Bureau has made important strides in communicating how it works to Canadians, but the agency remains largely a black box and we fall short of peer jurisdictions like the United Kingdom. Canada’s competition law enforcement is also quite centralized, with the Competition Bureau responsible for all markets across our 2 trillion-dollar economy. By allowing private parties to seek damages under the Competition Act, Canada will have more eyes on the ground to identify and address unfair methods of competition going forward.

Today, with C-56 this committee has an opportunity to make material improvements towards a more robust competition law. After C-56, the priority should be to finish that work with more comprehensive reform of the law that Canadians depend on to protect competition and affordability.

Thank you for your time today and I look forward to your questions.