It is a Dickensian democratic conundrum: Election campaigns are both the best of times and the worst of times to talk about political issues. On the one hand, millions of people take time out from their busy lives for a heated national conversation about their collective future; on the other hand, most of the conversation ends up being about money. If politics used to be the art of the possible, it's become the art of the pecuniary.
Don't know what I mean? Take the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation … "Please!"
(Sorry, I channelled former Sun News's Brian-Lilley-as-Henny-Youngman there for a second.) Outside of the campaign cycle, the CBC is one of those national preoccupations that turns wholly civil Canadians into frothy-mouthed lunatics, like a bad EDM drug, or your local Tim Hortons prematurely running out of Roll-Up-the-Rim-to-Win lids. For fans and haters alike, when they start talking about CBC, their brains begin to seize and all rational thought evaporates.
It's understandable. In any given month, especially over the past year, from last fall's Jian Ghomeshi revelations to last winter's paid-speech scandal, to last spring's local service cuts, to last month's pouting refusal by CBC News to carry any election debate it didn't produce itself, the public broadcaster has seemingly alternated between shooting itself in the foot and eagerly handing out buckets of buckshot to its critics and purring: Well hi there, happy Saturday, please shoot.
With so much going wrong, supporters sometimes feel like Abraham negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: Okay, yes, says Abraham, they're doing some wacky things over in S&G, I grant you that, God. But – speaking hypothetically for a moment – let's just say there are 30 righteous people over there; will you promise to not smite those towns? (Pause) Wait, really? You promise? Huh. (Pause) Okay, well, what about 20? Wait, I mean 10! What if there are only 10 righteous people? Huh, God? You're still not gonna kill them all, are you? What if CBC is still doing some great stuff? Think of Rosie Barton! Think of Mamma Yamma; you wouldn't kill an innocent tuber would you? Think of Michael Enright! Think of Shad, man! I mean, c'mon God, what has Shad done to deserve this?
And fans are fighting the good fight. The advocacy organization Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has conducted a petition drive and distributed mock election signs for citizens to place on their lawns stating: "We Vote CBC."
What does that mean, exactly? Of the three leading federal parties, two have announced renewed financial support for CBC: The NDP's platform pledges to reinstate the $115-million in annual government funding the Tories cut in the 2012 budget, while the Liberal Party says it will throw in an additional $35-million in annual funding on top of the $115-million cut that it, too, will reinstate. Both parties have also expressed concern over the governance of the CBC, whose board members are currently appointed by the Prime Minister.
Near as I can tell, the Conservative Party has taken no stand at all on the CBC during the campaign. True, I have not read every word in the Conservative platform's 159 pages, but I did execute a number of searches for relevant keywords in the document, and I can say with certainty that neither "CBC" nor "broadcasting" show up. A search for "radio" (as in "Radio-Canada") turned up a note that Canada's contribution to the Ukrainian military effort includes "helmets, protective vests, high-frequency radios, night-vision goggles and ballistic eyewear." So, let it never be said the Tories do not support government-funded radio(s).
But what are we actually talking about when we talk about CBC? It's not really whether we're getting $1-billion worth of value from the broadcaster's service, which represents about 0.34 per cent of this year's federal budget spending. We've committed 35 times that much money for the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, subject to far less debate.
It's about the sort of things that don't get discussed during election campaigns.
On Tuesday evening, Noah Richler, the writer and NDP candidate in the riding of Toronto-St. Paul's, convened an arts forum at the local Tarragon Theatre. He brought together four arts leaders – broadcaster Denise Donlon, Matt Williams of House of Anansi Press, Tarragon's artistic director Richard Rose and TV and film producer Sandra Cunningham – to listen to their hopes of what a new federal government might bring to the cultural sphere.
Richler began the evening with a statement that could only seem radical within the narrow confines of an election campaign: "I don't believe money is a policy," he said.
His guests picked up on the point. "We are bound together by the arts," said Rose. "I would love to hear a prime minister say that." Donlon added that Canada, which is viewed abroad in narrow terms (hockey, oil) should also take steps at the federal level to "be seen as an 'arts nation.'"
A few days earlier, I'd spoken by phone with the actor R.H. Thomson, who was in the midst of directing Theatre Calgary's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Last June, Thomson had helped the think tank C.D. Howe Institute convene a lunchtime discussion in Toronto on how "the public media space" might best serve the public interest. The event had left him disgruntled, in part because it had devolved into a grudge match between pundit Andrew Coyne and a couple of other panelists about market failure and the feasibility of regulation in the Internet age.
Before addressing the issue of funding, "I think the Canadian public has to understand the principle that a public media space provides, and what that can do for a nation," Thomson told me.
"You maintain public spaces for a municipality, for a province, for a nation. The easiest metaphor is a national park: That is a public space, maintained by the people of Canada, for all of the people of Canada.
"If you say, maybe the national parks should be privatized, they could be run by Disney – think about the repercussions of that."
It would be great to discuss these issues, which cut to the heart of who we are. Just don't expect to hear a politician talking about them during an election campaign. But hey, have you heard how much money they're promising?