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Kirk LaPointe: Fed up with disorder, British Columbians are desperate for change. That’s bad news for the NDP

Commentary

B.C Premier David Eby during a news conference in Vancouver, on Friday, May 31, 2024. Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press.

Spring became summer over the weekend in Vancouver, bringing along the prospect of mid-20s temperatures and sunshine for the next three to four months, sprinkled occasionally with miserly rain and more often with back-baking heat.

As part of Vancouver’s civic rhythm, the warmth also shoves an even larger cohort from the city’s Downtown Eastside to the curb and into life on the streets, to escape sweltering shelter when the sun is high in the sky.

This district, for those unfamiliar, is a depot for multi-generational trauma stemming from abuse and violence, mental health problems insufficiently treated, or flat-out poverty with no path toward opportunity. People care for each other much more than they are cared for by the state.

In other cities, SRO largely means Standing Room Only and describes well-attended concert venues. In Vancouver, it defines the many, mostly decrepit Single Room Occupancy hotels and their desecrated shared bathrooms, all within a despicable containment strategy of a city, province, and country that is incapable of putting a serious dent into the day-to-day conditions of Canada’s poorest postal code. It is a vivid national display of disgraceful destitution and harm. The warm weather reminds us visibly of how it’s not getting any better for many people here.

That string of Hastings Street blocks shocks anyone at first sight; visitors wonder how a place like this could countenance a place like that. The powerlessness of its residents has much to do with it. Their despondency used to be a unique, isolated feature. They were voiceless in British Columbian political discourse—something elected officials could elide while claiming concern and promising to fix it.

But in more recent years the lack of hope has spread into the kitchen of a governing NDP, presumed to be champions of social equity. One-third of British Columbians, and one-half of young people, tell pollsters they’re seriously considering moving from the province. Just as drug safety issues were once the scourge of others, we British Columbians now have merely two or fewer degrees of separation from a victim of opioid poisoning; more recently, we now know, or know of, people ready to pack up and head east. They are unable to afford to be where they are, uncertain they’ll ever own a house to provide wealth for their last decades. They are even more uncertain that the health-care system will be there for their families. When pessimism crawls up the income ladder, a government is made vulnerable, which in part explains the sudden sharp rise of the BC Conservative Party, as the NDP goes about steadily threatening to unelect itself.

It doesn’t matter—even if it will before long—that more than half of those polled can’t match leader John Rustad with his party. It isn’t relevant to many if some of his party’s social views are unpalatable, or if he as a leader doesn’t tick every box. If Rustad can lay the most credible claim as the hopeful agent of sharp change by the October 19 provincial election date, he can win—that’s how unsettled voters are at the moment.

Rustad has already swiped two more BC United MLAs, and if his former party’s fortunes continue to decline, there are bound to be additions—and before long, an opportunity to deliver real change. He has a lot of work to do to build his team, but time is still on his side and his opponents appear to be most helpful to his cause. The B.C. economic data is also a great argument on his behalf.

The math at the moment isn’t quite where it needs to be, and former premier Christy Clark stepped forward at a Business Council of B.C. gathering to add her voice to the chorus chant for a unite-the-right agreement. Otherwise, she insists, the province gets four more NDP years. While her calculation may not be wrong, her timing is. There are too many candidates for each party already campaigning and no evident plan that would create a coalition. Each is just hoping the other will dissolve as the vote approaches.

Critics find their voice

Only a few blocks from the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s retail and commercial hub is gradually hollowing out like those in many other cities. There is a new strain of casual vandalism that businesses wake up to each morning, an extension of a permissive city dating back decades that focuses more on down-the-road climate change than down-the-street broken windows. Quite a few stores have shuttered and moved. A few days ago, the Vancouver Sun headlined: “Is Vancouver on the brink of becoming a retail dead zone?”

If it seems that the withering criticism of David Eby’s government involves critics only talking to themselves, spare a few seconds to take in what former NDP premier Glen Clark has to say. Clark, who lost the job in 1999 after allegations he’d secured a casino licence for a friend (he was later acquitted of breach of trust), remains a dedicated social democrat and a card-carrying NDPer. But his eyes were opened in two post-politics decades running the company The Jim Pattison Group for the province’s wealthiest resident, and he still serves on boards for the Rogers communications firm and the forestry giant Canfor.

His perspective has lived for ages but in private conversations. He never wanted to shake the tree. But this Monday, four months from an election, Clark strategically chose to speak to the same Business Council of British Columbia meeting as Christy did later in the day. He was music to their ears. He said the government needs to shift from “wealth redistribution to wealth creation.” He called Vancouverites “arrogant” and said his party is like many others around the world who fail to understand the needs of those outside of our cities. Canadians buy pick-up trucks as their vehicles of choice for good reason, he said.

He chided the NDP for making an incoherent miasma of moves involving natural resources and land management. “Stop making changes,” he implored. “We need a lengthy period of stability.”

Much of this could have been scripted for Rustad, who before he was booted from the BC United Party (the former BC Liberals) was contemplating retirement. By moving into the provincial Conservative leader’s role, he likely thought he’d revive it for someone else after this next election. Now, he realizes he could be premier.

Michael Geist: Your Netflix could be getting a lot more expensive, Canadians—and you can thank the government

Commentary

In this Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, file photo, a person displays Netflix on a tablet in North Andover, Mass. Elise Amendola/AP Photo.

Last December, I appeared before the CRTC as part of Bill C-11 hearings, where I emphasized the need for the commission to pay attention to competition, consumer choice, and affordability. My takeaway from that appearance was that “my intervention met with skepticism from some Commissioners who see their role as guardians of the broadcasting system on behalf of longstanding beneficiaries with little regard for the impact on consumers or the risks to competition.”

It turns out that was a pretty good read of the situation as this week’s Bill C-11 streaming ruling acts as if consumers, competition, and affordability are irrelevant issues that are at best someone else’s concern. The result is that Canadians have been largely removed from broadcasting and Internet policy at the regulator. They are expected to foot the bill and not ask any questions.

Stakeholders are still processing the decision, but my general sense is that it has fallen flat with much of the creator lobby and sparked genuine anger among streaming services. There have been rote statements of support that have come at the urging of Canadian Heritage, but the government touted a billion dollars in new money, not the $200 million estimated by the CRTC. That isn’t chump change, but the allocations are so micromanaged that the Canada Media Fund, which has a program budget of over $350 million, could see as little as 0.5 percent of streamer revenues. Given the costs of production, this is not the game-changer that was promised.

Bigger winners include the news production side of Rogers and Bell, who get more money from services that have nothing to do with news, and BIPOC and Indigenous creators, who get specific allocations. But this new money comes at a price: increased fees for consumers and the potential for reduced or stalled investment by streaming services left unsure if their spending “counts” for the purposes of government policy. Much like Bill C-18, there are a few winners, more losers, and many left to wonder if years of lobbying were worth the trouble.

There is still much to decide with Bill C-11 as the CRTC has pushed money out the door without figuring out what a modernized definition of “Canadian content” even means or addressing how to treat the various other contributions from services that include significant investment, promotion, and discoverability measures. Further, it has treated the streaming services as a monolith despite different business models, profit margins, and revenue streams. This has huge implications for competition in Canada, but the CRTC seems either oblivious or perhaps just unconcerned with the market effects of its ruling.

The decision deserves criticism on those grounds alone, but the most unforgivable aspect of the decision is how presentations or submissions from individuals are ignored and never referenced. The CRTC says it wants to hear from Canadians, but then proceeds to ignore everything they have to say. It says it received over 360 submissions and heard from 120 witnesses, but the only views that count are those from formal stakeholders, described as the “parties.” The hundreds of individual submissions and the many individual presentations are not cited or addressed. The Parliamentary and committee processes may be imperfect, but committee reports take the time to engage with what they have heard, regardless of the source. Indeed, I recall the 2019 copyright review by the Industry Committee making a point of citing each of its witnesses in the final report.

That the CRTC sees no problem with ignoring the views of the public who navigate a challenging process to participate cuts to the very legitimacy of its decision making. The word “consumer” does not appear even once in the decision. The costs associated with its decision are not considered, the competition impact is not considered, and the views that the commission heard from the public are not considered.

The CRTC once said it wanted to place Canadians at the centre of the broadcasting system. With this decision, Canadians have been removed not only from the centre, but this CRTC has removed them entirely— other than leaving them to ultimately foot the bill. The commission’s new mantra to Canadians is clear: pay up and shut up.

This column originally appeared at michaelgeist.ca.