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May 21, 2013

Stand against Harperization of the CBC

Scott Stockdale

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The Harper government is quietly seizing greater control of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, while a public advocacy group accuses the Tories of stacking the CBC's board with political allies.

Canada's Broadcasting Act (first version passed in 1932) ensures the CBC has "freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence.”

But the Harper government's budget implementation bill - Bill C-60 -has a clause buried in the back of the 111 page bill that allows the prime minister's cabinet to approve salaries, working conditions and collective bargaining positions for the CBC.

This will effectively eliminate a longstanding arm's-length relationships between what is supposed to be an independent CBC and the government. Journalists can’t ask hard questions to ministers if they fear layoffs and budget cuts.

Bill C-60 would require Harper's Treasury Board Committee to approve any collective bargaining agreement the CBC reaches with its employees. The Treasury Board would also have the power to approve or deny pay and benefits for non-unionized employees.  

Critics say this bill is an attempt to turn the CBC into a state broadcaster, not an independent one.

The budget bill would also extend the same powers over the CBC, to three other cultural and scientific agencies: the Canada Council for the Arts, the International Development Research Centre and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

This appears to be part of a trend whereby the prime minister's office dictates and controls public information, something one would expect in a dictatorship, not a liberal democracy, which is what Canada is supposed to be.

The CBC’s public mandate has long been questioned in conservative circles, with many criticizing the network for taking taxpayers’ money while competing with private-sector broadcasters for advertising revenue. Thus it's not surprising that the government says it wants to bring the CBC in line with private sector standards, but it's hard to see how giving the government control over the CBC brings it in line with private sector standards.

Over the years it has been in broadcasting, it's common to find people in power who aren't comfortable with CBC programs such as The Current, As It Happens, The Sunday Edition, The Nature of Things and The National.

These programs offer Canadians investigative journalism, which often exposes government and corporate activity contrary to the public interest. But now it appears that the Harper government intends to stifle this truth-telling network, once and for all.

Meanwhile, public interest group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (FCB) issued a statement accusing the Tories of “stacking the [CBC’s] board with Conservative supporters.”

Using Elections Canada data, FCB said eight of the board’s 11 current members donated to the Conservative Party, including  Remi Racine, the chair of CBC’s board, who donated $1,200 to the Conservative Party in 2012, while sitting on the Board.

According to the CBC’s website, all current members of the CBC's board began serving since the Harper government came to power in 2006.

The new powers over CBC pay and the heavy presence of Conservative Party donors “will further undermine the CBC’s independence from government,” FCB said in a press release.

Recently, conservative bloggers attacked the CBC over allegations the network was running Liberal Party ads featuring Justin Trudeau, while refusing to run Tory attack ads. According to the CBC, the Conservative Party has not approached the network yet to run its current negative ad against Justin Trudeau.

Weighing in on the issue, amid the controversy, Avaaz -   a global civic organization launched in January 2007, that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, animal rights, corruption, poverty and conflict – is circulating a petition to pressure members of parliament to ammend Bill C-60 before it passes into law. The petiton can be accessed at http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_cbc_2013_b/?bXLQhcb&v=24788

Currently 57,745 people have signed the petition. Avaaz's website statement said that when they have 100,000 signatures they will send their petition directly to the Finance Committee - hopefully before the hearings begin, days from now.

The Avaaz statement reads in part: “We can get this small collection of MPs to amend the bill and take their hands off our CBC before it's too late.”

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Scott Brison told The Hill Times he was surprised the government would go this far in compromising the independence of the CBC and the three other institutions.

“These Crown agencies represent public broadcasting, culture and scientific research, three areas where the Conservatives have been antagonistic,” Brison said. “We will thoroughly scrutinize actions by this government towards these agencies.”

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