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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: ‘The CBC may think it is a special, independent, Crown agency. This is wrong.’ (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: ‘The CBC may think it is a special, independent, Crown agency. This is wrong.’ (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

JOHN DOYLE

Ottawa kicks the CBC, a wounded critter on a short leash Add to ...

In the midst of recent onrushing and attention-grabbing events, the president of the CBC, Hubert Lacroix, sent a letter to the Commons finance committee requesting an amendment to a budget-implementation bill.

This didn’t get the attention it deserved. The bill in question would oblige the CBC (along with other government agencies) to “submit to the minister responsible a draft document setting out the general components of a policy on remuneration and conditions of employment.” Lacroix’s letter quite sensibly warned of inevitable court battles, as the bill appears to contravene the broadcaster’s guaranteed independence as it is outlined in the Broadcasting Act. Possibly the new level of interference by the federal government would lead to court challenges, based on the Broadcasting Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This concern was dismissed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: “The CBC may think it is a special, independent, Crown agency. This is wrong,” he said, according to news reports. “All Crown agencies have a responsibility through ministers, back to Parliament, to the people of Canada. They can’t do whatever they want, particularly with taxpayers’ money. They can’t just go off and pay their executives and pay everybody else whatever they want to pay them.”

This is all very well, but Lacroix has a perfectly valid point. The Broadcasting Act is pretty darn clear, especially on what Flaherty refers to as “special” and “independent” in the case of the CBC. Litigation is inevitable and, pray tell, who is going to pay for all the government lawyers and years of war in court? You and me, that’s who.

This government’s reach into the CBC inner working comes at an odd time. The CBC is a wounded, bewildered beast staggering round, trying to figure out how to survive with a hostile government and an aggressive commercial broadcast sector that wants it dead.

Much of what Flaherty says echoes what Sun News has been braying about the CBC: When it cannot find bias or poor reporting, it complains about money, salaries and the CBC’s “money drain.” In this instance, the minister sounds rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy, with Sun News being the ventriloquist.

The great myth perpetuated by Sun News, and now spoken by Flaherty, is that CBC is an out-of-control spending machine. This is mere posturing, as ugly as it is untrue. Any outfits in receipt of taxpayer money to operate – Crown corporations, that is – are already studied closely by the government to guard against the misuse of funds. The CBC’s budget, ever dwindling, is set by Parliament, and CBC provides detailed financial reports, which also go to the Auditor-General. Further, the CBC answers to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in matters of spending and policy. And, by the way, the government appoints the CBC president and names the CBC’s board of directors.

Thus, the CBC is already on a leash, one held by the government. It is a wounded critter on the end of that short leash and, really it is now being given a vicious kick, to make sure it knows who’s boss.

And on the matter of who’s boss, the term “union bosses” has arisen in the CBC context. Last week, both Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Flaherty refused to answer questions about the new plan for Crown corporations, including the CBC. The government’s talking points were delivered by MP Pierre Poilievre. “I am not here to take marching orders from union bosses,” he said. “I represent taxpayers and frankly taxpayers expect us to keep costs under control so that we can keep taxes down. It is for those taxpayers that we work. Not union bosses.”

By “union bosses,” the government actually means, in many instances, guilds and associations representing those who are employed by the CBC in any number of roles, often temporarily. Sometimes it means guilds and associations that represent actors, writers, directors. And some of those represented are children. And here’s the thing about such guilds and associations: If you’re worried about your kid going into writing, acting or other arts/show business jobs, those groups are there to protect them from exploitation. To make sure they are treated fairly and paid fairly in a difficult, mercurial industry. That principle is getting a kicking too.

This is some scenario the government has created with this legislation. An inevitable legal battle over the Broadcasting Act. And for what? So that certain people’s spite can be satisfied by peering disapprovingly at what is earned by CBC employees, and then reduce it? So that the hard-earned, minimal protection of writers, actors and performers – from children to the elderly – can be scoffed at and erased?

On Tuesday, the CRTC renewed the CBC’s licences and allowed advertising on CBC’s Radio 2. The advertising is needed because the CBC is wounded after countless cuts to its budget.

Listeners will hate the ads. Little point in hating the CBC, though. Better to focus on the boss who continues to torture the wounded, bewildered beast that is CBC.

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