Ask not what your country can do for you but … just answer a few simple questions. "What is being done in other countries, jurisdictions and the private sector that could be instructive to the Government of Canada in terms of best practices for supporting content creation and discovery in a digital world?" Stumped?
Maybe instead you can help out your grateful nation by identifying "What are the most urgent challenges facing the culture sector in the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content in a digital world?" No dice? Okay, maybe you should just move on to the part of the survey where you will be able to complain about the CBC.
No sooner had Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly announced a broad review of Canadian cultural policy last week than her staff released an online questionnaire designed to solicit opinions about how Canadian culture might compete in the global and digital era.
You can identify yourself as a consumer or a stakeholder when you fill it out but the questions are the same and so steeped in the lingo of the culturecrats you have to wonder if anyone without a body's worth of skin in the game would not give up in disgust after the first page.
Like many of the new Liberal government's initiatives, the cultural-policy review seems long on good intentions and short on coherent planning.
The questionnaire is merely intended to shape larger consultations to follow but it makes you wonder who exactly the department thinks it will be consulting. The only questions that would seem to elicit useful opinions from the general public are ones that ask the respondent to rate the importance of access to local content and to Canadian content.
It would be very interesting to hear how those Canadians who bother to fill in the survey rank their desires in those categories, since the toughest nut any cultural-policy review will have to crack is how to update Canadian-content regulations designed for linear television and terrestrial radio so that they make sense in an online, on-demand world.
Of course, some people will say – and are saying – the regs are out of date and should simply be jettisoned. That's one reason those who work in the cultural sector, and in the screen industries in particular, are very nervous about Joly's review; they fear she will throw out current protections without replacing them with anything new, and distrust a process where "everything is on the table." Really? Everything? Like the CBC is on the table?
It seems highly unlikely that the minister wants to launch a divisive national debate about whether we still need the CBC, an institution which a majority of Canadians tell pollsters they greatly value – whatever criticisms they may make of individual programs or services – and to which the government did just give extra money.
If the consultations are not to be totally derailed, they'll need strong direction. When asked to comment on Joly's review by The Globe this week, her predecessor, former Conservative minister James Moore, pointed out that such exercises are politically difficult because the public demand is mainly for more consumer choice while the stakeholder demand is for subsidy or regulation.
What he didn't say, of course, is that his government did everything it could to exacerbate that divide by considering citizens almost exclusively as consumers and leaving the larger policy questions untouched while encouraging the CRTC to toss a few bones to voters in the form of pick-and-pay cable packages and access to American advertising during Super Bowl telecasts.
Somewhere between Joly's bold musings and the Tories' cynicism, there has to be a middle way.
There has to the leadership that will bring Canadians together to find a workable solution to outdated and uneven cultural policies without simply giving in to the technological determinists who seem to believe it's a good thing that Canada is losing an estimated $800-million in annual cultural spending to U.S. providers such as Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.
There are some easy fixes waiting to be made – for example, money spent advertising on Canadian websites should be made a tax-deductible business expense in the same way as a Canadian TV ad buy – and some much harder ones like getting companies such as Rogers and Bell to start contributing to content funds not only as television providers but also as Internet service providers.
After almost a decade working for a government that simply chose to kick the cultural-policy can down the road, the Department of Canadian Heritage does at least seem to have a firm handle on why it's doing this – to judge from the rather intelligent introduction to those bizarre questions.
It summarizes the challenges succinctly, identifying new models, new players, increased opportunities for creators but also more competition and, most importantly, heightened consumer expectations.
And it combines economic, psychic and civil-society arguments for the importance of Canadian culture, arguing "Creativity is the engine that drives economies and societies forward and improves quality of life."
Joly's job is to build a consensus on those kind of issues rather than letting a cultural-policy review degenerate into a discussion of the easiest way to fool Netflix into believing you are one of its American subscribers or of how much Rick Mercer gets paid.