New Democratic MP Peter Julian entered the House of Commons in 2004, after an election that produced a minority Liberal government under Paul Martin.
Perhaps that is why Mr. Julian, who this week accused the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper of having “gutted” the CBC when it was in office, got it wrong. He was not in Ottawa when Mr. Martin, as Jean Chrétien’s finance minister in 1995, undertook budget cuts so devastating that many of the country’s institutions, including the CBC, still bear the scars. Talk about gutting.
Mr. Martin’s cuts, in case anyone has forgotten, were not driven by ideology or antipathy toward the public broadcaster. They were the result of a spiralling federal debt that had left Canada facing a currency crisis; international investors were increasingly refusing to lend us money.
No department or program was spared in Mr. Martin’s efforts to put federal spending on a sustainable track. The Liberals slashed CBC/Radio-Canada’s funding by 15 per cent in the 1996-97 budget and by another 19 per cent in 1997-98. Overall, the public broadcaster saw its government appropriation fall from nearly $1.2-billion in 1995-96 to barely $800-million two years later.
Compared to the Liberals that preceded them in office, the Harper Conservatives went relatively easy on the CBC, despite their evident dislike of the public broadcaster.
The CBC’s federal funding stood at about $975-million in 2006. By 2015, it had risen to slightly more than $1-billion. It peaked under the Tories at about $1.15-billion before Mr. Harper’s government implemented modest budget cuts as part of efforts to eliminate the federal deficit after the 2009 recession. All in all, there was no gutting of the CBC on Mr. Harper’s watch.
Mr. Julian nevertheless has his own ideas.
“Having lived through what was a very difficult decade for public broadcasting – when Mr. Harper was running the government – we saw a marked reduction in funding for journalism and CBC, and newsrooms closed right across the country,” Mr. Julian told the Commons committee examining Bill C-18, which would force Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for linking to their content. “We saw over a number of years how quickly journalism can be gutted at the CBC when a government, like the Harper government, cuts funding.”
Here again, Mr. Julian gets it backward. Any reduction in local news programming during the Harper years was the result of decisions by CBC managers about how to spend the public broadcaster’s revenues, and not imposed by its political masters. CBC brass talk a lot about their commitment to local news, but they have systematically chosen to favour questionable dramatic and reality shows over the public affairs programming at the heart of the broadcaster’s mandate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who have boosted CBC/Radio-Canada’s funding to more than $1.2-billion annually, and last month announced an additional $42-million top-up to the public broadcaster’s budget over this year and next, have allowed the public broadcaster to continue to stray aimlessly from its mandate. If you have any doubts, check out the CBC’s winter programming line-up, which takes the public broadcaster even further downmarket, all in the name (if you believe the network’s executives) of promoting diversity.
In October, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that public and private broadcasters would reap the lion’s share of compensation paid out under C-18, despite the bill’s purportedly primary objective of helping independent newspapers and digital media offset lost advertising. The PBO estimated Bell, Rogers, Shaw and the CBC would get about $248-million of the $329-million paid out annually under the bill. The CBC could even be the single biggest winner.
“So the CBC that is already taxpayer-funded is going to be able to elbow out the little guys and get more money because of this bill,” Conservative MP Rachael Thomas told the committee.
Conservatives on the Heritage committee sought to amend C-18 to prevent CBC/Radio-Canada from receiving compensation from big tech players altogether. NDP and Liberal members on the committee not only blocked that attempt, they ensured that a section of the bill that said the federal cabinet could determine whether a public broadcaster could be considered an eligible news business was changed to prevent a future Tory government from excluding the CBC.
“Canadians and the government [have] an interest in making sure that the value that CBC/Radio-Canada puts into its news content is part of the [C-18] framework and again, the goal is to make sure that those revenues, just like for other news businesses, get reinvested in news and journalism,” associate assistant deputy Heritage minister Thomas Owen Ripley told the committee.
The people running the CBC have already shown they have different ideas.