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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds his first news conference as leader on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 25, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The defining sound of the recent Conservative Party leadership race was the sound of someone barking up the wrong tree. Such is certainly the case with the winner Erin O’Toole and his “Defund CBC” plan.

On his website there is this: “As Conservative leader and Canada’s next Prime Minister, I’ll defund CBC television and save taxpayers billions. Here’s how I’ll get it done: End all funding to CBC Digital; cut funding for CBC English TV and News Network by 50%, with the goal to fully privatize CBC by the end of my first mandate; maintain funding for CBC Radio and Radio-Canada. It’s 2020. Canadians have hundreds of channels to choose from, thousands of online options, and lots of Canadian content. We don’t need CBC Television. When I’m Prime Minister, they will lose their funding. None of this will be easy, but it’s long overdue.”

By the way, if you go to his site be prepared for a pop-up prompt asking you for five dollars. Five bucks is an interesting figure, since CBC costs Canadians roughly thirty dollars each per year. That’s among the lowest costs-per-capita for public broadcasting in the world.

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O’Toole’s plan amounts to a ruse. The enemy he sees is CBC TV and CBC News. He acknowledges that CBC Radio is popular and that, in Quebec, CBC/Radio-Canada is a vital service. The ruse is to eliminate the annoyance that is CBC English TV and keep the good bits of CBC. It is bogus policy. CBC TV’s mandate needs to be reassessed and its performance vigorously scrutinized. Declaring “Defund CBC” before that scrutiny is done amounts to empty sloganeering.

Reading O’Toole’s plan to keep part of CBC/Radio-Canada and throw away the annoying parts, this column was reminded of the famous “What have the Romans ever done for us” bit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Agitator Reg wants rid of the Romans and asks that broad question. The upshot is, “All right, but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?” One can imagine O’Toole’s team trying to placate supporters who loathe CBC by instinct, and want it defunded and dead. A voice chimes in, “But CBC Radio is popular. Can’t kill that.” Another voice asserts, “We’d lose Quebec if we killed Radio-Canada.” Finally, O’Toole is all, “Okay, okay, we’ll just kill off CBC English TV!”

This country needs a national public broadcaster in the television arena. It’s not about choice, it’s about cultural safeguarding. We sit next to the culture behemoth of the USA and Canadian TV storytelling would wither and die without a public TV broadcaster.

Besides, it’s about jobs, dollars and common sense. The impact of arts and culture spending in the economy is vastly underrated by Conservative politicians. According to Statistics Canada, in Ontario alone in 2019, arts and culture represented $25-billion, or 3.3 per cent of the GDP, and 286,232 jobs. Those are jobs allowing people to spend, save and pay taxes. It costs money to make Canadian drama and comedy for CBC TV, and in pure economic terms, it’s money well spent.

In this Defund CBC debate it’s always illustrative to look at what Canadian commercial TV is offering. On Monday August 31 in prime time, CBC TV is airing repeats of Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake Mysteries. Two middling-good dramas but both Canadian-created and -made, and sold to broadcasters around the world. CTV simply simulcasts two American reality series, American Ninja Warrior and Love Island. City TV channels offer a mind-numbing two hours of The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons – Ever. Global has two U.S. network sitcoms and a repeat of the Canadian-made Private Eyes. In terms of sensible investment in Canadian creativity and job creation, CBC TV wins the night.

As long-suffering readers will know, this column takes a dim view of CBC TV’s current situation. It is poorly run by mediocrities and the pandemic has illuminated CBC weaknesses, just as it has thrown light on many institutions that failed the test that the pandemic emergency presents. CBC TV failed to execute its role as a public service during an emergency; it has not been a vehicle for the public good, as envisioned in its mandate.

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Now is the time to fix all that, not cancel CBC TV, as Erin O’Toole envisions. “None of this will be easy,” his plan states. Well, fixing CBC TV will be even harder but it must be done.

The entire plan is, of course, a sop to Conservative CBC-haters. They are noisy and go about the world – well, Twitter – convinced that Rosemary Barton is in love with Justin Trudeau and that, as a result, all CBC TV News is biased. Recently, outgoing leader Andrew Scheer made a point of attacking CBC TV news while being interviewed by the outlet, failing to see the irony of complaining about unfair coverage while being covered. He was barking up the wrong tree, as usual, and O’Toole’s Defund CBC plan is just as bogus.

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