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Parliamentary pilgrimage

Last year's Hike the Hill, credit unions' annual visit to the nation's capital, held special importance, with delegates lobbying MPs to accept a proposed Market Conduct Code that would allow credit unions to self-regulate relations with members.

Last November, more than 100 credit union delegates converged on Parliament Hill for the annual lobbying of federal legislators called Hike the Hill. They came bearing a secret weapon — thousands of SuzyQ specialty doughnuts. After they were done handing out their pastries, virtually every inhabitant of Parliament Hill knew that credit unions had been there as they swept crumbs off their desks and licked sugary fingers.

Credit union delegates wanted to make an especially memorable impact due to the importance of the Market Conduct Code (MCC), a principles-based set of guidelines that would allow credit unions to self-regulate member relations. In conjunction with provincial Centrals and the Canadian Credit Union Association (CCUA), credit unions are developing the code to demonstrate that the sector is working to protect its members against such predatory practices as abusive debt collection practices and aggressive sales tactics.

The end goal is recognition in federal legislation that a self-imposed MCC can act as an alternative to regulation. (The MCC would also serve as a model for provincial regulators to follow.) It is being developed in response to last fall’s 2018 Budget Implementation Act Bill C-86, which proposed new measures to standardize the bank-consumer relationship. Minister of Finance Bill Morneau stated that the act would protect “the rights and interests of consumers when dealing with their banks.” Although the act is federal, provinces are under pressure to structure their regulatory frameworks to closely match Ottawa’s lead. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, have indicated their intent to enact regulations mandating certain customer service levels. Saskatchewan already has a credit union market code.

Details about the MCC are still being debated among credit unionists, as there are different viewpoints within the system about how encompassing it needs to be. It is expected that some type of vote on the code will happen at the upcoming CCUA National Conference for Credit Unions this May in Winnipeg.

With consumer protection, the government’s default position is to regulate unless the industry can demonstrate that it can self-regulate to the satisfaction of government. The MCC would provide that reassurance to government. It can be of further value to government because it encourages companies and organizations to conduct themselves in ways that benefit their customers and community without regulatory interventions that would stifle innovation or consumer choice. It is also more flexible and adaptable than regulations, which can take years to develop or amend, says Athana Mentzelopoulos, vice-president of government relations at the CCUA. “We believe the MCC is the most effective means of red-tape reduction and avoidance,” Mentzelopoulos says. “A voluntary market conduct code will better protect the interests of consumers, while ensuring credit unions are not burdened by undue red tape.”

Once the doughnut supply was exhausted, credit union delegates attended meetings with MPs and senators. In each meeting, the delegates introduced themselves and their credit unions, made their pitch about the importance of the MCC and answered questions. Before the meetings, many MPs had been unfamiliar with the complexities of the MCC, highlighting the value of Hike the Hill. At the end of each meeting, delegates asked the legislator whether he or she would be willing to either write a letter to Morneau in support of the credit union-proposed MCC, or take some other type of action in support of the sector. With credit unions in 97 percent of all 338 ridings, representatives shouldn’t be shy about asking for help from their elected leaders, says Rhonda Choja, vice-president of corporate and advisory services at Libro Credit Union (104,818 members, $3.7 billion in assets). “We need their voice to support us,” says Choja, who attended Hike the Hill as a delegate.

Dan Albas, Conservative MP for Central Okanagan – Similkameen-Nicola, echoed Choja’s advice. “Train your MP to be your champion,” Albas says.

“We need their voice to support us.” – Rhonda Choja

While delegates were meeting with MPs and senators, CCUA CEO Martha Durdin spoke to the Standing Committee of Finance about Bill C-86.“We urge the government to continue to take account of the specific regulatory needs of our sector and try to craft policy through the lens of financial institutions with a view to enhancing competition,” Durdin told the committee.

How effective is advocacy?

To stand out from every other group lobbying for changes to a government program or regulation, credit unions must convince their MP that they benefit electorally by championing the issue in question. Not only do credit union delegates address the burning issue of the day (in this case the proposed MCC) but MPs and staff attend events sponsored or hosted by their local credit union, where they see the impact of sponsorships, scholarships and other community impact initiatives.

“Everything we do during Hike the Hill is designed to get the maximum attention from legislators,” says CCUA’s manager of advocacy Jay Denney, who helped organize the event. “The feedback we get from MPs is generally supportive towards the credit union system as a whole,” Denney says.

While there won’t be a Hike the Hill in 2019 because of the Oct. 21 federal election, credit unions continue to sell the value of the code to legislators and regulators so that they know that the sector will always have a best-in-class commitment to consumer protection. ◊