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Peter Menzies: Commercial enterprise or public broadcaster? The CBC wants it both ways

Commentary

Like many Canadians, I start my days by listening to my local CBC Radio One morning show.

In Regina, that’s The Morning Edition with host Stefani Langenegger. In the evenings, I sometimes listen right through The World At Six, As It Happens, and Ideas. On a Sunday drive, I’ll tune in to Cross Country Checkup followed by Tapestry with Mary Hines. 

A lot of Canadians and a lot of the Mother Corp’s staff want to love the CBC. They want it to be a public broadcaster as it was envisioned, connecting Canadians, advertising-free. Trouble is, it doesn’t care. It wants to be something else. Just being good at being a public broadcaster isn’t good enough. It sees itself as a publicly-funded commercial broadcaster and the nation’s dominant online platform. For the past decade or so—since that description was spelled out at a regulatory hearing—there has been tension between the two visions.

But when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) recently rolled out a new licensing decision for CBC/Radio Canada—the single largest player in the national media biosphere—it was pretty obvious the debate was over and the commercialists have won.CRTC adopts modern approach for the CBC/Radio-Canada’s traditional and digital services https://www.canada.ca/en/radio-television-telecommunications/news/2022/06/crtc-adopts-modern-approach-for-the-cbcradio-canadas-traditional-and-digital-services.html 

Our $1.3 billion federal subsidy2020-2021 Annual Report: Financial Highlights https://cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/impact-and-accountability/finances/annual-reports/ar-2020-2021/highlights/financial-highlights isn’t enough to make the CBC love us back. It wants more.

The deciding panel of five CRTC CommissionersOur Leadership https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/acrtc/organ.htm was split. Very broadly, two were inclined to impose strict “conditions of license.” The winning three preferred “expectations,” based on the fact they trusted CBC to do the right thing. 

As Vice Chair Caroline Simard wrote in her dissent:

“I am of the view that the CBC’s accountability to the government, to Parliament, to its Board of Directors and to the Auditor General does not absolve the Commission from fulfilling its own mission and its own mandate under the Act. There is nothing in the public record that allows me to conclude otherwise.”

But, as it turned out, she and Ontario regional Commission Monique Lafontaine couldn’t carry the day. Outgoing Chair Ian Scott cast the deciding vote and a new, more laissez-faire framework is now in place. The heck with this public broadcaster business. And the heck with the impact on other media.

First, expect CBC to avail itself of its new freedom to do less TV news.

“The union representing most of the Corporation’s workers calls the decision unreasonable,” the Canadian Media Guild announced after reading the CRTC’s determination. “It fears CBC will use this to cut down television production in favour of spending on online content.”

Of course it will. The CBC has for years been shifting more resources away from broadcasting and into building its online presence. That, after all, is where it can monetize Langenegger and other radio hosts that it can’t make go “ka-ching!” on ad-free Radio One

Online is where CBC and Radio Canada can swamp the boats of Canada’s struggling newspapers with subsidized content. Online is where the money is and it’s where CBC has every intention of scooping up more through Bill C-18.“This enactment regulates digital news intermediaries to enhance fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and contribute to its sustainability. It establishes a framework through which digital news intermediary operators and news businesses may enter into agreements respecting news content that is made available by digital news intermediaries. The framework takes into account principles of freedom of expression and journalistic independence.” https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/bill/C-18/first-reading Intended as a rescue mission for newspapers, the biggest recipient of funds redistributed from Facebook, Google, and other tech giants will be the already subsidized “public broadcaster.” Newspapers may eat. CBC will dine.

The CRTC even provided an additional fork by approving the CBC’s sponsored content initiative. Called “Tandem’” this involves presenting advertising as if it were real news. Previous generations of journalists—CBC and otherwise—considered this to be an appalling practice, particularly when it involves, as it does in this case, slapping a For Sale sign on the brand of a Crown Corporation and standing it on a street corner. Numerous interventions in the CRTC’s process made the same point but, nope, it said:

“In the Commission’s view, the revenue-generating activities of the Tandem initiative are onside with the general approach that has been taken with the CBC in the past and consistent with the context in which the CBC currently finances its operations.”

Oh, the public broadcaster hat—worn, tattered old 1950s thing that it is—still comes in handy.  

It allows for virtuous excursions like the CRTC ordering CBC to spend 30 percent of its independent programming budget on shows produced by Indigenous, official-language minority, racialized, disabled, and LGBTQ2 producers. Radio Canada has to spend similarly, but only 6.7 percent. 

Pretty much a straight subsidy/splitting arrangement, neither party has to even care if anyone watches anything folks on those designated lists produce. Some of us might find that approach condescending but here, where it’s convenient for the CBC to throw on its “public broadcaster” chapeau, the CRTC is happy to help out.

“Since the CBC is a cultural institution,” states its decision, “audience success for certain types of programming in a commercial sense is not necessarily of paramount importance…the Commission has therefore focused most heavily on obtaining quantity and perception-based data to assess whether the CBC is successful at meeting its mandate.”

This, then, is how the Great Canadian Broadcasting Game is played.

The CBC, considering itself the CRTC’s equal, pretty much charts its own course—but will take minor directions on relatively inconsequential matters so the commission doesn’t lose face. In exchange, the CRTC stays out of the way as CBC hides a commercial warrior behind the shield of a public broadcaster.

Rajan Sawhney: Albertans need relief. Here’s how I would fight inflation

Commentary

Just as we all hoped to put the past two-and-a-half years in the rear-view mirror, along comes debilitating increases in the cost of living—runaway energy and food and house prices are making life unaffordable, particularly for the vulnerable among us.Inflation Expectations Hit Record in Bank of Canada Surveys https://financialpost.com/pmn/business-pmn/bank-of-canada-says-near-term-inflation-expectations-hit-record

Inflation is something most Canadians have never experienced. Sadly, younger Canadians are learning a lesson the rest of us learned the hard way: Inflation hurts. It hurts a lot.Half of Canadians Who Have a Car Cannot Afford to Fill Their Gas Tank https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/half-of-Canadians-who-have-a-car-cannot-afford-to-fill-gas-tank?utm_source=The+Hub&utm_campaign=e3199c1e40-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_07_04_07_21&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_429d51ea5d-e3199c1e40-460240366&mc_cid=e3199c1e40&mc_eid=c0315500bf

It hurts low-income and vulnerable Canadians the most. Particularly those on income assistance and disability programs, low-income seniors, and working Albertans struggling to get by. In Alberta, Trevor Tombe, our resident economic number cruncher, has estimated that inflation is currently reducing disposable income by as much as ten percent for those with low incomes.Inflation’s bite is big. Alberta’s capacity to help is bigger https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/opinion-inflation-alberta-windfall-revenues-buffer-1.6503349

A ten percent pay cut would be devastating for most of us. But for those on income support, low-income seniors and struggling to get by, it is simply debilitating. 

I am running to be the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, and premier of Alberta. I want to be a premier that brings conservative principles to the challenges of today. That means helping Albertans—especially the most vulnerable among us—deal with the real challenges of today. It does not mean tilting at constitutional windmills.

A few years ago, the Alberta government—a government of which I was a cabinet minister—decided to delink critical programs, and the Alberta tax system, from inflation. At the time the Alberta government was running unsustainable deficits and inflation was at historic lows. Spending needed to be controlled. I was in the cabinet at the time and was a part of those discussions. I agree that Alberta needs to control spending.

But the reality is that in the current high-inflation environment, the Alberta government is set to get a windfall not just from rising energy prices, but from the overall rise in inflation. That’s right—Albertan’s pain is the Alberta government’s gain. 

Alberta is witnessing the most massive turnaround in its budget in Alberta history. We are on track, according to Tombe, to be running surpluses of one billion dollars per month above the budget forecast.

This provides the Alberta government with an enormous opportunity to cushion the blow of inflation for Albertans.

Which is exactly what I would do.

First, I would, as premier, re-index five critical programs that support low-income Albertans, Albertans on disability, and Alberta seniors. Those programs include Income Support to People Expected to Work or Working; Income Support to People with Barriers to Full Employment; Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) Grants; Seniors Benefit and the Seniors Supplementary Accommodation Benefit.

If the inflation rate over this year averages four percent, indexing these programs will cost $116 million this year. If inflation averages eight percent, the annual cost will be double that, $232 million. Fully half of that money will go to AISH recipients.

I was the minister of community and social services when the Alberta government de-indexed AISH. It is no secret that I fought against further reductions. AISH should be indexed to inflation, full stop, and a government led by me will do so immediately. This is the first and critical step in helping these vulnerable Albertans at this time.

Second is to do the same for all Albertans who file income taxes. When we fought the deficit, it made sense to ask all Albertans to do their share. But in a world with high and rising inflation, it makes no sense for the Alberta government to reap a windfall while Albertans are drowning under a waterfall of rising food, energy, and other costs. Reindexing the tax system means not only increasing all the tax brackets, it also means increasing the basic personal and spousal amounts, age amounts, medical allowances, and all the other credits in the tax system. If inflation runs at four percent this will cost $251 million this year. At eight percent it will cost $496 million.

Third, the Alberta government should not just do no harm. It should do some good. 

Albertans need relief now.

That is why, should I become Alberta premier, the Alberta government would immediately start writing Affordability Cheques to every Alberta household for $75 per month. Families with children would get an additional $25 per child under 18. And, because rural Albertans drive more and face even higher costs for food, the program will include a supplement for rural Albertans boosting the per-household amount to $90 and per-child amount to $30 per kid.

These Affordability Cheques would cost $225 million per month—just over one-fifth of the unanticipated surplus due to rising energy prices. Funds that belong to Albertans. This leaves four-fifths of that unanticipated surplus for debt reduction, savings, infrastructure, and other priorities. 

Incomes for lower-income families with kids will increase by as much as six percent (credit to Trevor Tombe for running these numbers). Together with re-indexing the tax system and re-indexing those five critical programs, low-income Albertans will see significant protection from more expensive groceries, gasoline, and electricity.

Affordability Cheques would be phased out on the same scale as the government will phase out the Fuel Tax Holiday—as the price of oil falls, the program will be reduced. This will be evaluated quarterly.

Alberta is incredibly fortunate to have the energy industry. It not only employs Albertans (including me for over two decades) but through the windfall revenues it produces when energy prices rise, it allows our government to protect our population from the rising cost of living. After all, these dollars belong to Albertans.

Those windfall revenues should do more than reduce our debt, as important as that is. A portion should also be used to protect Alberta families from something many have never experienced—the unaffordable rise in the cost of living from rising inflation.

And as Alberta’s premier, that’s the first thing I would do.