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Federal Budget Bill Threatens The CBC’s Independence

Today parliament is set to end debate on the federal omnibus budget bill C-60 — a bill that could prove a serious threat to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) journalistic independence from the government.

As the Toronto Star points out, buried in the 111 pages of Bill C-60 are "unprecedented provisions that will allow the government to intervene in the collective bargaining and executive salary negotiations of more than 40 Crown corporations," including the CBC.

Yesterday, during debate in the house, NDP MP Andrew Cash said such interference could make life harder for workers in Canada's cultural sector.

"Too often…we have seen the current government reach into cultural institutions and attempt to compromise their independence. In fact, the Conservative cabinet, if Bill C-60 passes, will attempt to dictate rates of pay for non-unionized workers and terms for collective agreements at many cultural agencies, including the CBC and the Museum of Civilization, or as it will soon be called, the museum of Canadian history.

For the Conservatives, it is always a race to the bottom, though, on the environment, on ethics, on transparency in government and, most importantly, on wages.
The government is ideologically committed to pushing wages down, breaking unions and privatizing key cultural institutions. This ideology fails the people of Canada…" he said.

Huffington Post Canada reports that the bill would force the CBC to "get approval from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Treasury Board Committee for any collective bargaining agreement the broadcaster reaches with its employees." It would also give the Treasury Board "power to approve or deny pay and benefits for non-unionized employees."

The bill would also give the government similar powers over the Canada Council for the Arts, the International Development Research Centre and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The Huffington Post quotes Liberal MP Scott Brison as saying that the institutions affected by the bill "represent public broadcasting, culture and scientific research, three areas where the Conservatives have been antagonistic."

Since many of the changes Bill C-60 proposes are non-fiscal in nature, it falls to the House of Commons finance committee to examine even the parts of the bill that it has no expertise on. Furthermore, the Toronto Star points out that the committee was given the "impossibly tight time-frame" of four days to hear expert testimony on the legislation's consequences. And as the amendments in question are at the very end of the 111-page bill, they were given little attention in the committee's hearings.

It's clear that this is another move by the Harper government to assert tighter control over the media, even as it faces accusations of muzzling scientists from speaking out about climate change. The Toronto Star reports that some 173,000 Canadians have already signed a petition urging the government to back down and keep the CBC independent.

The Canadian Press writes in the Tyee that several journalists are also appealing to the Canadian public to write to their MPs and demand changes to Bill C-60. Arnold Amber of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression says that the bill could "skew the CBC's news coverage," and urges "the Canadian people to react as quickly as possible to bring the government to its senses."

The NDP has said that they will table an amendment to exclude the CBC from the bill, "in response to the concerns of Canadians, journalists, unions, civil society and CBC's management, who all feel that Bill C-60 threatens the independence of CBC and violates the Broadcasting Act."

NDP Heritage critic, Pierre Nantel, has called out the bill as "problematic for all Crown corporations, but…particularly critical for a broadcaster that must absolutely remain independent from the government." Nantel challenged the Harper government's need for such brazenly dictatorial tactics, asking, "What do the Conservatives have to hide? Why does the government want to dictate the working conditions of media employees?"

As Nantel observes, if the Conservatives have nothing to hide, they'll accept the NDP's amendment to protect the CBC's independence. In the meanwhile, there's still time for the public to add their voice to petitions both offline and online.

Image Credit: Liam Richards / Flickr

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