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Liberal/NDP consensus position on CBC cutbacks

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Government Orders
Business of Supply
Opposition Motion—CBC/Radio-Canada

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, this is what the then Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, today the Minister of Industry, had to say on CBC News in Vancouver on May 3, 2011, the morning after the Conservative Party’s re-election:
We have said that we will maintain or increase support for the CBC. That is our platform and we have said that before and we will commit to that.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government once again broke its commitment. Budget 2012 took a hatchet to Canada’s national broadcaster, slashing $115 million from the budget.

That figure is a known fact. It is on page 34 of the 2014-15 estimates. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, CBC/Radio-Canada has lost $227 million in parliamentary appropriations, in 2014 dollars, which is equivalent to a cut of 18%—nearly one-fifth—of its budget.

Furthermore, CBC/Radio-Canada lost $7 million with the reduction of the Canada media fund and $47.1 million as a result of the CRTC’s decision to put an end to the local programming improvement fund. When I asked a question in the House about how the cuts were affecting CBC/Radio-Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages replied that the government was not involved in the corporation’s decision to cut to services and jobs. How can she make such a claim? The budget cuts imposed by the government are certainly forcing the corporation to make drastic decisions, such as eliminating 657 full-time jobs and cutting a number of programs.

Today, in parliamentary committee, the minister told me that she was not the one who promised not to cut the CBC/Radio-Canada budget in 2011, only to cut it in 2012. She dissociated herself from her government. It is understandable that she did not want to be associated with a broken promise. In this context, it would be wrong to liken the cry of alarm from CBC employees to a corporatist reaction. Yes, the CBC is slowly dying, and we are reaching a breaking point.

It is important to realize that our public broadcaster has been living in the shadow of budget cuts since 1990. According to CBC/Radio-Canada’s figures, in 2014 dollars, the corporation received $1,673,000,000 in parliamentary appropriations in 1990 and, in 2014, is receiving no more than $1,038,000,000, which represents a 38% decrease. Naturally, the combined effect of these cuts has weakened the institution. CBC/Radio-Canada has quantified the results.

Following recent cuts to parliamentary appropriations, the reduction of the Canada media fund and the elimination of the local programming improvement fund, the amount allocated by the government to the public broadcaster is only $29 per Canadian. That is much less than the $87 average for other developed democracies. Per resident, countries like Japan, Spain, Belgium and France financially support their public broadcaster twice as much as we do; Austria and the United Kingdom, three times more; Germany and Sweden, four times; Switzerland and Norway, five times. Only the United States and New Zealand are cheaper than we are.

Is there another country that needs a public broadcaster more than we do? Ours produces more national programming than all the private broadcasters combined. It offers local talents an irreplaceable springboard. It almost single-handedly provides broad coverage of international news. It is the only one to be required to provide programming that reflects a diverse country with two official languages, a country the size of a continent. It admirably serves the French cause in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, in addition to providing English-speaking Canada a voice that differs from the voice of American culture.

More than ever, Canada needs a quality public broadcaster. However, the broadcaster must receive the means it needs to carry out its mission in a rapidly changing world. The CBC does not have those means.

The corporation is increasingly forced to go after advertising revenue, at the risk of undermining its special status as a public service.

As our friends of the CBC remind us, our public broadcaster has increased its TV advertising by 33% since 2012, from 12 minutes to 16 minutes per hour. However, not only is the advertising market more segmented than ever, with 742 competing channels, but it is difficult to succeed when, like the CBC, a broadcaster does not have access to revenue from digital broadcasting. In a decade, the revenue from digital content has caught up with and is now exceeding the advertising revenue of traditional television.

CBC/Radio-Canada must stop being haunted by budget cuts that, year after year, are forcing the broadcaster to take a short-term patchwork approach. It is high time to provide the corporation with the resources it needs for proper planning—like the resources BBC has—and with multi-year, stable and predictable funding, over a five-year period perhaps.
The Broadcasting Act must be reviewed, because it has not been reviewed since 1991. The act does not even address digital content. It is crucial to reaffirm the independence of the public broadcaster, and as a first step to restore its autonomy in labour relations, which have been undermined by the Conservative government.

To justify the current cutbacks, the Conservative government often mentions those made by the Liberals, but that argument cannot hide a fundamental difference. We Liberals were forced to cut government spending to eliminate the huge structural deficit left behind by the previous Conservative government.

Despite that, we kept to the objective of preserving the public service, because we believed in its mission. As soon as the budget was balanced, we cautiously resumed investment in government action. That was true for CBC/Radio-Canada.

It is a fact that the Chrétien government had to reduce our public broadcaster’s budget to get the nation’s finances back in order. However, we did our best to protect its ability to fulfill its core mission, and once the budget was balanced, the Liberal government invested in the prestigious institution.

What a difference from today’s situation, with the Conservative government imposing repeated drastic cutbacks on CBC/Radio-Canada motivated not so much by financial necessity as by the ideologically motivated desire of a large part of the Conservative caucus to dismantle this public institution.

It is a given that the Liberal government, if elected by Canadians in 2015, will impose an ironclad fiscal discipline on itself. However, this discipline will be based on proven and impartial data, not on ideological obsessions like the one of the Conservative government against the CBC.

The Liberal Party will combine fiscal discipline and firm support for CBC/Radio-Canada, as we believe that a strong public broadcaster is a critical part of maintaining and promoting Canada’s diverse and rich culture in both official languages.

Conservative cuts have served as a severe setback for both the development and diffusion of innovative bilingual programming and have undermined CBC/Radio-Canada’s capacity to fulfill its mandate, especially as it works to realign operational models to reflect 21st century program and consumption demands.

This brings us to motion moved by our colleague, the hon. member for Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher, who is calling on the House to:
(a) reverse the $45 million in cuts for 2014-2015 in Budget 2012; and
(b) provide adequate, stable, multi-year funding to the public broadcaster so that it can fulfill its mandate.

The Liberal opposition supports this motion in that it is consistent with what we have been saying for some time now.

We would also add the notice of motion moved unsuccessfully, unfortunately, on May 13, 2014, by my Liberal colleague, the hon. member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain that the Standing Committee on Official Languages undertake a study on the impact of budget cuts on Radio-Canada’s programming for rural and urban francophone communities across the country.

There are many more things to be done, but the most important is for the government itself to truly believe in the essential mandate of a top-notch public broadcaster. The government must acknowledge that CBC/Radio-Canada provides an essential service to Canadians. It must acknowledge that and prove it through tangible actions, starting with supporting this motion.

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