MASSE IN THE NEWS: MP wins one for motorists

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
NEWS, Page: A3

MP wins one for motorists
Chris Vander Doelen, The Windsor Star

Brian Masse got a standing ovation in the Saskatchewan legislature earlier this year because of his private members' bill on car repairs.

Last week, Masse's Bill C-273 was abandoned at the side of the road, so to speak, by the House of Commons. It will not pass into federal law now, which is the fate suffered by nearly all private members' bills.

"It became unnecessary," Masse said proudly of his bill Monday. Because Masse -- and Canadian consumers -- won anyway. The law became redundant after automakers caved into the overwhelming public support Masse developed across Canada for his proposed "right to repair" act.

Bill C-273 would have forced automakers to make their engine computer codes and other proprietary technical information available to anyone. It was intended to give consumers the freedom to take their vehicles wherever they like for repairs and maintenance.

Until Masse took up the fight last year, that right was very much in doubt in Canada. In the U.S., the Clean Air Act forces automakers to make their engine secrets available to any garage or qualified technician who asks for them. But the same manufacturers were trying to prevent that free flow of information in Canada.

Looking for ways to shore up struggling new car dealerships a few years ago, several major automakers had started withholding crucial computer engine codes from technicians in competing dealerships and private garages.

About 80 per cent of all car owners take their vehicles to the dealer for service anyway. But some automakers wanted to enforce 100 per cent compliance. That's not free enterprise, it's hostage taking.

I first learned of the problem a few years ago from John Sawatsky, the owner of the MSJ Automotive in Windsor, the shop I take my beat-up Chev Impala to for its infrequent repairs (knock on wood).

Sawatsky's staff of more than two dozen services everything from police cars and utility bucket trucks to German and Japanese luxury yachts. There isn't much on wheels that his people can't fix.

But Sawatsky told me he was being forced to turn away an increasing amount of work on imports and Detroit luxury cars owned by his customers because certain manufacturers were withholding technical information.

On some makes, the secret codes prevented Sawatsky's expert technicians from doing as little as resetting an engine warning light.

They had no choice but to have those vehicles towed to the closest dealer for the completion of a tuneup or whatever it was they were doing do it.

Masse used Sawatsky's shop on Holden Avenue as the backdrop last year for a news conference to launch a national campaign for Bill C-273. The MP and his staff ended up criss-crossing the country to talk about the issue, hosting hundreds of meetings in garages, town halls and basements.

"I don't know how many people we had meetings with -- maybe thousands," says Mo Peer, Masse's executive assistant.

Masse had a hard time explaining the "right to repair" issue in urban settings. But rural voters got it right away because so many of them are affected by it. When they took their road show west, "everybody knew about it," Peer says.

They got an especially warm welcome in Alberta and rural Saskatchewan (see standing ovation, above), where car owners don't have much choice about which garage to take their vehicles to for repair: it's the same place they take their trucks and tractors. In many such towns, the same technicians service every vehicle for a 50-kilometre radius.

But it wasn't until former Industry Minister Maxime Bernier's car broke down in rural Quebec last year that Masse got a big break on his bill. Bernier discovered he couldn't get his car fixed -- Masse forgets which brand he was driving -- because the manufacturer refused to release the required information to the closest garage.

Bernier called Masse and pledged help in getting the Opposition member's bill passed into law -- which is just about unheard of the parliamentary form of government.

In May, the bill passed second reading with an overwhelming 247 votes. Chrysler and Toyota were the companies most hostile to his proposal, Masse says, while General Motors seemed the most open to giving consumers their freedom to choose their own technicians in the multibillion-dollar aftermarket.

Last month, the industry as a whole agreed to voluntarily begin releasing all the needed information on all of their vehicles, starting in May. Some have already begun. Last week the Commons unanimously endorsed Masse's victory.