Three big issues emerged in the past week in Canadian politics — and in my opinion, the government struck out on all three: the Supreme Court’s ruling on Senate reform, the controversy over the Foreign Workers’ program, and Ottawa’s so-called “Fair Elections Act.
In Canada, the Senate is treated something like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody (well, almost nobody) does anything about it.
The Supreme Court spoke on Friday, answering a reference on several questions it had been sent by Prime Minister Harper. He asked if parliament alone could abolish the Senate, as well as questions on holding elections to determine Senate nominees, and limiting the terms of Senators (now to age 75).
In essence, the Court said, “No, no, and no again.” You can’t do any of these, the Prime Minister was told without unanimous or near unanimous agreement of all provinces, plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. The decision marked about the sixth time in recent months that the Court (made up of mostly Harper appointees) has slapped down the government.
So what does it all mean? Mainly, that it’s time to get the Senate back to its original purpose — as a chamber of sober second thought, with the duty of protecting Canadians against the excesses of a government emboldened by a Parliamentary majority..
The only action we’ve seen so far that would move in that direction is Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to cast Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus and require them to sit as independents — even though they still call themselves Senate Liberals. Trudeau would have future Prime Ministers make non-partisan appointments from a list of names drawn up by a special committee. The idea is to get outstanding Canadians into the Senate, not just party hacks and bagmen as is currently the case.
Even that proposal could run into trouble with the Supreme Court, if it required the PM to limit himself to those choices. Can’t interfere with any of the present rules of the Senate, the Court said, without revising the constitution . That’s something most Canadian politicians are loathe to attempt. Perhaps a saw-off would let the PM make his own choices while also picking from a select list of recommended appointees.
Conventional wisdom has it that it would be impossible to get the agreement of all the provinces to any particular change in the status of the Senate. Why so? Why not try? Why not put a referendum to the people, asking if they want to abolish the Senate? If it passed by a majority in every province — a very likely possibility — surely no premier would dare stand in the way of the people’s will.
The Foreign Workers’ mishmash
A mishmash it is, with increasing evidence that some employers are using the scheme to bring in cheap foreign labour while freezing Canadians out of jobs. Especially in the restaurant industry. Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the government wants the restaurant industry to raise wages, provide better working conditions, and do more to train workers. Traditionally, pay rises when jobs become hard to fill. Not under this scheme. The Foreign Workers’ program as it now operates provides no incentive to do any of the above. To the contrary, it is an encouragement to make NONE of these reforms. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, which studied the effects of the program in B.C. and Alberta, it has caused a rise in unemployment in both provinces.
And it’s not just the restaurant industry. We’ve seen examples of Canadians being phased out in favour of temporary foreign workers in both the information technology industry and banking. To say nothing of the shift of jobs to offshore locations.
Minister Kenney has put a freeze on the restaurant industry’s use of the program. For now. Perhaps the whole program should be put on hold while an independent inquiry looks at how it could be improved.
A Climb-down on the “Fair” Elections Act
The navigator of this bill, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, had called it “perfect.” Like the late and unlamented Charter of Values in Quebec, it was intended to solve problems where none exist. Such as assumed election fraud by ineligible voters being allowed to vote after being vouched for by a neighbour. Now, after weeks of controversy and almost unanimous condemnation by election experts, the media, and the opposition parties, the Harper government says it will accept some key amendments.
It was suspected all along that the main purpose of the bill was to make voting more difficult for transient groups such as university students, aboriginals and low-income people — most of whom would be expected to vote some way other than Conservative.
The climb-down, if it turns out to be indeed that, shows that even a majority government where the Prime Minister has quasi-dictatorial powers, can be forced to listen to public opinion.
Now that the people of Quebec have settled on their future — opting to stay in Canada with their dismissal of the Parti Quebecois — what are we to do about our second biggest problem: the CBC?
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been around since the mid 1930s, one of the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, public broadcasters. It created the first national radio broadcasting system, and pioneered in television. At one time, the CBC was both competitor and regulator of the country’s private radio and TV networks. Today, it’s struggling to survive.
The litany of CBC problems is almost endless. Reduced government grants (albeit at a still healthy $900 million per year). Splintered audiences, divided between itself and three private networks and rendered almost invisible by the rise of cable channels and new off-broadcast operations like Netflix.
The outlook is so dicey that Andrew Coyne, the perceptive national affairs columnist of the National Post, figures there is no hope for the CBC but to “limp on, purposelessly, through successive ‘action plans’ and ‘reinventions,’ for no reason other than that no one can be bothered to do anything else — and because no one expects them to.”
This is due in part, Coyne says, to our having a government without ambition or ideas.
If those qualities are lacking in Ottawa, there is no shortage of suggestions elsewhere — including from this blog.
The problems of the CBC became critical at least as far back as 2004. CBC television was attracting the smallest audience in its history. Everybody has an opinion on what was wrong: too left-wing, too right-wing, too commercial, too boring.
That year, the powers that be thought one man, Richard Stursberg, might have the answers. He blew into the Mother Corp’s inner sanctum on Toronto’s Front Street with the force of a prairie whirlwind. He left in his wake a demoralized staff cowering in the detritus of a dust storm.
Stursberg has told the tale of his tempestuous time in The Tower of Babel: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). He described his job as Head of English Services as the one “I had loved as no other in my life.”
It’s not a pretty story. Under Stursberg’s watch, the CBC locked out its employees, lost the TV rights to major global sports events (but not the National Hockey League), cut 400 jobs, fought the news department (“Fort News”) and won ratings success with new shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragon’s Den. He also had terrible flops.
A new round of CBC navel-gazing has arisen following its loss of National Hockey League games to Rogers Communications, who shaped a $5.2 billion deal to take over broadcast rights. Bizarrely, Rogers is allowing CBC to carry Saturday Night Hockey, but will keep all the ad revenue, will pay CBC nothing, and will make it bear certain production costs. Another 600+ jobs wiped out.
Surely the time has come to redress the set.
The CBC’s most fervent boosters, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it’s time to cut loose from “political interference.” It says 83% of Canadians believe the CBC protects Canadian culture and identify; 78% tune to the CBC every week, and 81% believe the CBC helps distinguish us from the United States.
Back in 1965 a noted public servant, Robert Fowler, headed up a committee to look into how the CBC could better serve Canada. Its No. 1 conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”
Now a myriad of ideas have been put forth on how to save the CBC. Some see it as a PBS North, sustained by viewer donations. Others, mindful of the ever-growing content brought to us through the Internet, would turn the CBC into a Netflix-style pay to view channel. Then there’s the Coyne alternative; to simply limp on.
Whatever form of technology the CBC might use to reach people, it’s essential that we hold on to this vital instrument of Canadian being. But at its most basic, the CBC should not be a commercial channel for the purpose of delivering, as is now the case, viewers to advertisers. Programs like Four Small Rooms and Recipes to Riches can be fun to watch, but they don’t belong on a public broadcaster. We need no more cheap comedies and simplistic reality shows.
The CBC must stay loyal to the minorities of viewers who wish to leaven their commercial TV with programs that inform, entertain, and appeal to niche interests; Canadian public affairs and news; quality drama, music and art, book talk and intelligent discussion of the world around us, superb children’s programming, all an antidote to the garbage of the Fox Network and Sun News.
Let the CBC keep commercials on its News Network; no advertiser dares tamper with Stursberg’s nemesis, “Fort News.” But free the CBC’s main channel of having to deliver seat bottoms to hucksters. Finance the CBC through public funding, viewer donations, and a surtax on the profits of private broadcasters. Let it be different, and let it help to shape our better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.