Duff Conacher on the Silicon Chip of the Citizens Movement

In the 1970s, Ralph Nader had an idea. When consumers get their utility bills, require the utility company to include an insert in the billing envelope that asks the consumers to join a Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB) with a small donation of $5 or $10. 

Duff Conacher ‘
Democracy Watch
Ottawa, Canada

Four CUBs were created, the first one in 1979 in Wisconsin.

The CUBs countered corporate lobbyists at the regulatory bodies and saved consumers tens of millions of dollars.

Then came the United States Supreme Court in 1987 that ground the CUB movement to a screeching halt. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Pacific Gas and Electric v. Public Utilities Commission that corporations had a First Amendment right not to speak.

Justice William Rehnquist dissented, saying that corporations did not have the same free speech rights as individuals. 

“PG&E is not an individual or a newspaper publisher, it is a regulated utility,” Rehnquist wrote. “The insistence on treating identically for constitutional purposes entities that are demonstrably different is as great a jurisprudential sin as treating differently those entities which are the same.”

Now comes Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch in Ottawa, Canada.

Conacher agrees with Nader that these self funded citizen associations are the silicon chip of the citizen movement. And he would like to see them sprout up across the country to watchdog all industry sectors and governments too.

Does Canada have a CUB?

“We don’t,” Conacher told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “But we have the same method being used by all sorts of charities. For example, when you’re going to a food store, you’re asked in Canada all the time do – you want to give a bit of money to this charity or that charity? The question that should be asked at the checkout at a food store is – do you want to join the food industry watchdog group? And when you are boarding a plane, instead of selling you a credit card with airline points, instead, you should be asked – do you want to join an airline watchdog group?”

“Ralph Nader called this method piggybacking. You appeal to join a consumer group in a mailing or today in emails. This is the most low cost, efficient and effective path for consumers to band together into a group that will represent them, help them with complaining, provide free legal services for lawsuits when they’re abused by big businesses and also educate them in how to save money in that particular area of their consumer life.”

“It is also applicable to government institutions. Government – whenever they mail out tax forms – they could have a checkoff so that people could donate to a government ethics and democratic process watchdog group.”

“This generic method, if implemented, would exponentially increase the power of citizens and consumers to participate in government policymaking and key democratic government processes and also exponentially increase the power of citizens and consumers to hold the business and government institutions accountable for gouging, discrimination and other abuses.”

You refer to CUBs as Citizen Associations. Why did you change the name?

“Citizen Utility Boards were created for utilities. These citizen associations can be formed for any business sector and any government unit. It’s a generic method to form citizen associations to watch over every single business sector and also can be used through the tax forms to invite citizens to join a group to watch over government.”

One downside to the model is the public perception that you are creating another government bureaucracy to watch over the regulatory agency that is supposed to be representing citizens in the first place.

“Well, you have the business lobby, and you have the citizen lobby. And politicians and regulators sit in between those two and try to determine what’s in the public interest on any given issue.” 

“The Citizen lobby is outmatched in terms of funding and resources compared to the big business lobby. Big businesses can very easily add a few dollars to the price of everything they sell and raise billions and billions of dollars to fund lobbyists, political donations, lawyers,  advertising that all push the big business agenda.”

“Citizens cannot easily come up with that money and band together. They are also paying for all of the big business lobbying and advertising and lawyers that all push and defend the big business agenda.”

“The balance of power in the marketplace of ideas for this reason alone is all skewed in favor of the big business lobby.” 

“This CUB model doesn’t say – the government funds citizen groups. It doesn’t say –  business, you have to fund these groups. All it does is say business, consumers are paying for all of your advocacy now. And we’re just requiring you to facilitate consumers banding together to pay for their own advocates and their own research and their own education. And that’s why it’s such a great idea.” 

“If you ask a politician – are you in favor of this method? And the politician says no, then you know that politician is against citizens, voters and consumers being empowered. They do not want individuals to be empowered. They want them to be in a powerless situation where they can be abused and gouged and discriminated against by big businesses and abused by government and politicians.” 

“It’s a perfect test to ask any politician to reveal whether they actually represent voters or don’t care about voters. This method costs the business nothing and costs the government nothing. If you’re against something that costs nothing, and is going to exponentially increase the power of citizens and consumers, then you are just against citizens. It’s really difficult for politicians to come up with a reason why they wouldn’t do that. None of the reasons are valid.”

What is the status of the initiative in Canada?

“In Canada, we had a House committee and Senate committee that recommended that the government do this back in 2000 for the financial services industry. Instead, the government set up a financial consumer watchdog group very similar to your Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

“We had one ten years before the one was created in the United States.”

How do you rate your CFPB?

“Bad, because of regulatory capture. They are not independent. It’s called the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. They report to the Finance Minister. They have had a horribly weak enforcement record.” 

“Paul Martin was the Finance Minister at the time. He went on to become Prime Minister. He did not ever respond to this recommendation by the House and Senate committees. He had no response. He couldn’t say no to it. We were calling for the Financial Consumer Organization. And he instead set up a Financial Consumer Agency. He essentially pretended that he was implementing the recommendations of the committees, when he actually wasn’t. That’s how much we had him cornered. He never said – I’m against this idea. He knew he couldn’t. There is no reason to be against it. The groups would be funded by consumers in whatever business sector you are watching over. Or if it’s watching over a government agency, it would be funded by citizens.”

“The group would be directed by a board elected by the members. It would be a democratic organization. It’s governed by a statute, so it would have to stick to its mandate of research, advocacy and education.”

Paul Martin was with the Liberal Party of Canada, which is the equivalent of our Democratic Party. Both are corporate controlled parties. Is there any movement to implement the idea now?

“We are still trying to win it. We have a petition that more than 120,000 Canadians have signed calling on the current Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to implement this idea.”

By implement, you mean push through the Parliament?

“Or any business could do it voluntarily.”

Why would they do that?

“If a business wanted to distinguish itself as actually concerned about consumers, then the CEO would jump at this idea because they’d be able to do ads saying we care about you so much, we’re helping empower you.” 

“In any industry sector, where you have essentially an oligopoly, a few big players, if one CEO wanted to distinguish themselves and try to win market share away from the others, what better way then to show you actually care about consumers by doing something that costs you nothing? And it will drive bad players out of the market because everyone will learn through this consumer group, doing surveys and research, which businesses serve people badly, gouge them and abuse them. And that consumer education will then drive people to your business if you’re the one who is the top rated in the industry.”

It would be like a government sanctioned Consumer Reports?

“Yes. But while Consumer Reports is large and the Consumer Federation of America is also large, these consumer groups will be exponentially larger and would reach many more people.” 

“And for far less money because it’s such an efficient fundraising method just to have a one line at the top of an email that has been sent to every single customer of every business sector, inviting them to join a group that watches over that sector. So you would get three to 5% of consumers in every single industry sector joining.”

“Let’s say in a sector, there are 100 million customers. Then you would have three to five million people joining. And if the membership fee was $10 to $20, you’d have an annual budget of $30 million up to $100 million depending on the response rate. And the cost of raising that money would be almost nothing because it’s all coming through a website based on the one line message at the top of the email that businesses in the sector have sent every single customer.”

You come from a family of political activists. Did you ever look at the political scene and say – nobody is introducing this citizen association legislation. I’ll run for Parliament, get in and do it myself?

“I don’t come from a family of political activists. I come from a family of jocks.”

Your grandfather was a member of Parliament.

“Yes. He was a member of Parliament because he was a jock. He became famous as an athlete – he played hockey, football, baseball, wrestling, lacrosse. His name was Lionel Conacher. He was recruited to run post-war against Tim Buck, who was the head of the Communist Party of Canada. And he was recruited to run because he had a high profile. He came from the riding where Tim Buck was running.”

“He had to quit school at grade eight. He had nine brothers and sisters. He had to go and help his dad cut ice on Lake Ontario in the winter to help the family survive financially. He became a famous athlete. All the mainstream parties were concerned about the growth of Communism post World War II. He was recruited to run against Tim Buck. Buck was a dynamic leader of the Communist Party of Canada. Buck was a great public speaker with a lot of charisma. And they were afraid that he was going to win a seat in Parliament.”

Your grandfather was one of those liberals who helped crush the radical movements eighty years ago.

How close did you come to running?

“It’s almost impossible to win as an independent in Canada. I have been recruited by every party. But I know they would use me in one election and then marginalize and isolate me and find some reason to kick me out if I made too much trouble. I’ve seen it done with activists. I would have less of a voice as a member of Parliament. Likely the party would place me into a riding where I wouldn’t have a chance of winning. And they would just use me as a show candidate to say – look, we are serious about cleaning up the government. We recruited this guy. And he has endorsed our party.” 

“As a non-partisan advocate, I can have much more of an ongoing voice and influence in winning these changes.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Duff Conacher, 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 47(12), December 5, 2022, print edition only.]

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