By Ian Morrison
In a recent edition of the National Post, Gerry Nicholls, a former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition, wrote about why the Coalition "chose a young MP named Stephen Harper as its new president in 1997":
"Being NCC president is not a run-of-the-mill job. First of all, you need to be an ideologically pure, small "c" conservative. That means you must reject Pierre Trudeau and all of his works. You must view the CBC as a socialist-run boondoggle. In general you must believe that whatever the private sector can do, the public sector can do – worse."
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has tracked Harper’s comments on public broadcasting and cultural sovereignty over the years. Clearer evidence of a ”˜hidden agenda’ would be hard to find. Here are a few of those hints.
In 2004, when Harper was asked by a CBC reporter in Winnipeg to comment on his plans for CBC, Harper said, "I've suggested that government subsidies in support of CBC's services should be to those things that are not... do not have commercial alternatives". He then added: "When you take a look at things like main-English language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could there (sic) at putting those on a commercial basis.”
The Conservative Candidates' Pocket Policy Guide from the 2006 election states that, "arts and culture make essential contributions to our national identity. A Conservative government will ensure that the CBC and Radio-Canada continue to perform their vital role as national public service broadcasters."
Yet in May 2006, when the Liberals moved the following resolution in the House of Commons—"That the House insist that the government, its departments and agencies, maintain the program policies and regulations in support of Canada's artistic and cultural industries, in particular, by maintaining or enhancing: (a) existing Canadian cultural content requirements; (b) current restrictions on foreign ownership in the cultural sector; and (c) financial support for public broadcasting in both official languages"—the resolution passed in a recorded vote with 155 MPs in favour and 121 opposed. All 121 opposing votes came from Conservative MPs.
The next year, Harper appointed Hubert Lacroix president of the CBC. Lacroix, who contributed $1,000 (the maximum legal amount) to a Conservative candidate during the previous general election, is a Montreal-based mergers and acquisitions lawyer. His only known broadcasting governance experience has been as executive chair of TeleMedia during the period when that family–controlled company sold off its broadcasting properties some years ago.
Why would Stephen Harper appoint someone with no management experience in radio or television production, programming, or scheduling as president of the CBC?
In February 2008, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage released a major study on the future of the CBC. Among its recommendations was for the annual parliamentary grant to the CBC increase over a seven-year period from the current $33 per capita to $40 per capita and that the government commit to multiyear funding. The Conservative members of the Committee dissented.
Just before Harper announced the general election in early September 2008, Conservative Party Campaign Director Doug Finley wrote to Conservative supporters to solicit funds and ask them to complete a "2008 National Critical Issues Survey", which he described as "extremely important" and promised that he would “personally share the overall results and any comments with the Prime Minister". The fifth question read: "The CBC costs taxpayers over $1.1 billion per year. Do you think this is a good or bad use of taxpayer dollars?”
Just two weeks later, Glen McGregor wrote in the Ottawa Citizen:
Mr. Harper was asked yesterday by a reporter if he believes the $1.1 billion annual parliamentary appropriation for the CBC is a good use of taxpayers' money. The question was apparently inspired by a fundraising letter sent out before the election from Conservative campaign Rasputin Doug Finley. The letter includes a survey that asks the same question. The Conservative leader replied to the question with telling brevity. “All I can say is I support government budgets.”
Late last year, Friends learned from a reliable source in the Conservative Party's headquarters of the existence of an official document calling for a cut of $200 million from CBC's annual parliamentary grant. In response, Friends developed a research briefing note to highlight the impact of such a cut. on CBC's public broadcasting operations.
A few weeks ago on As It Happens, President Lacroix said that the CBC was in financial trouble and that "ads on CBC Radio are on the table”.
In an interview on CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show on January 21, 2009, Harper's Heritage Minister James Moore promised there would be no cuts to arts and culture spending in the upcoming federal budget. Asked specifically whether there would be cuts to the federal allocation to the CBC, Moore denied there would be cuts.
However, the following month when Harper's government tabled its spending plans for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2009, the allocation to the CBC was reduced by 5.6 percent from $1,115,424,000 in 2008/09 to $1,052,608,000 in 2009/10—a cut of $63 million. With inflation, this amounts to a year-over-year cut of $75 million—a pretty good down payment on $200 million.
There is a pattern in all this—say one thing, do another. Despite the shortcomings of its management and Harper’s antipathy, the CBC does have one big asset: public opinion. When Friends asked Nanos Research to find out how Canadians would respond to the question that Harper’s “Rasputin” posed in that fundraising letter, Nanos found that 63 percent of Canadians think that spending $1.1 billion a year on CBC is a good use of taxpayers’ dollars, while only 25 percent disagree.
Ian Morrison speaks for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.