Feds threatening journalist independence of CBC under new power over wages, benefits, collective bargaining, say critics by Tim Naumetz

May 1, 2013

The government is threatening the journalistic independence of the CBC with legislation that will give Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Cabinet power over CBC collective bargaining with unions representing several thousand news and current affairs personnel, MPs and critics say.

Source: The Hill Times

PARLIAMENT HILL—The government is threatening the journalistic independence of the CBC with legislation that will give Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Cabinet power over CBC collective bargaining with unions representing several thousand news and current affairs personnel, MPs and critics say.

The government move, which will give Cabinet control over all aspects of contract settlements with its employees, comes as five of the CBC’s six collective agreements are set to expire prior to the 2015 federal election and the other, which expired last September, is under negotiation.

The unprecedented extension of Cabinet control over collective agreements and bargaining covers all major Crown corporations, including Canada Post, but critics say the measure risks politicizing the relationship between the government and the CBC because of the public broadcaster’s range of cultural and news coverage roles.

Canada’s leading proponent of public broadcasting called the measure a step toward “radio Moscow” after The Hill Times reported on the proposal on Tuesday in the government’s bill to implement the March budget sparking an outcry shortly after the story was posted.

Ian Morrison, spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, which has for years promoted continued government funding for the CBC as well as its independence from the government of the day, made the comment after news of the Conservative government’s plan created a storm of denunciation on Twitter and also drew strong NDP and Liberal criticism in Parliament.

“It’s moving in the direction away from the kind of independence that we need in a democratic society from the public broadcaster, especially at a time of huge concentration of ownership and decision-making in the private sector broadcasting. It’s very troubling. I suppose they might have thought it would slip through and no one would notice,” Mr. Morrison said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) likened the measure, contained in an obscure section at the end of the government’s 115-page budget implementation Bill C-60, to other steps the government has taken to increase political control over federal institutions or agencies that have either resisted government policies or directly confronted the Conservatives.

In the past, those confrontations have included management of the Nuclear Safety Commission, cuts to scientific research, the independence of Statistics Canada, limitations on federal environmental reviews and even the National Capital Commission, when the government incorporated an NCC branch responsible for overseeing national events and anniversaries in Ottawa into the Canadian Heritage Department, controlled by Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, B.C.), who is also responsible for the CBC.

“This is something that does indeed worry me, it’s yet another example of this government operating in a way that creates fear and dominates anyone who tends to disagree with them or dare ask questions about what it is they’re doing,” Mr. Trudeau said to reporters outside the House of Commons.

“When we look at the kinds of decisions that this government has made in the past, taking a more direct oversight over not just the CBC, but other cultural and even scientific institutions, it is worrisome, just because this is a government that has consistently balked anything content creators or cultural workers or scientists have gotten in the way of their ideological agenda,” Mr. Trudeau said.

CBC spokesman Angus McKinnon told The Hill Times the CBC has six collective agreements, five of which are set to expire before the 2015 federal election.

Two of them, the Canadian Media Guild, whose contract expires in March, 2014, and the Syndicat des communications de Radio-Canada, whose contract expired last September and is currently being negotiated, cover 6,600 journalists. Two other collective agreements have been renewed, but for only one year.

Mr. McKinnon said the CBC first learned of the proposed changes to its collective bargaining regime on Monday and had no immediate comment.

NDP MP Andrew Cash (Davenport, Ont.) said he believes the measures are “absolutely” a threat to the independence of the CBC.

“On the one hand, government, when cuts are made to the CBC and then they throw it on the management to plunge the knife, they always say, ‘Oh, look, these are third-party arm’s-length agencies of the government, we have no way of impacting these decisions,’” Mr. Cash said.

“Well, with what we’re seeing here, that jig is up,” he said.

“These guys have their sights set on the public broadcaster and as much as the Heritage Minister wants to be the warm and fuzzy face of Heritage for this government, he’s got a den of howling wolves behind him who want to see this thing [the CBC] go,” Mr. Cash said.

 Following The Hill Times report on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Morrison and his association released a tabulation of $14,500 in political contributions that seven members of the CBC board of directors, all appointed by Mr. Harper and his Cabinet, have donated to the federal Conservative Party since 2006.

“Thousands of those employees are journalists, and their unions now will get the message that really who’s in charge, in terms of financial arrangements, is the Cabinet,” Mr. Morrison said.

“Even if the board of directors is not as arm’s-length [from government] as it should be, this all undermines something very precious in all the western democracies, which is the editorial independence of a public broadcaster as opposed to a state broadcaster. This is maybe just a small step, but it’s moving in the direction of radio Moscow,” he said.

The list of CBC directors who have donated to the Conservative Party includes the latest appointment, Terrence Leier of Regina, who contributed a total of $3,700 from 2008 through 2011.

The other directors who donated to the Conservatives include: Remi Racine, the newly-appointed chair of the CBC board of directors, who contributed a total of $3,300 from 2008 through 2011, prior to his appointment to the board in 2012; Hubert Lacroix, who donated $1,000 in 2006, prior to his 2007 appointment; and Marni Larkin of Winnipeg, who contributed $700 in 2011 before her appointment last year.

The other CBC directors who donate to the Conservative party are: George Cooper of Halifax, who contributed a total of $3,700 from 2007 to 2011, before and through his 2008 appointment to the board; Brian Mitchell of Montreal, who was appointed in 2008 and contributed a total of $2,000 during 2007 and 2008; and Edna Turpin of St. John’s, who donated $600 in 2006, the year she was appointed to the CBC board.

Mr. Morrison said contributors who donated to the federal Liberal Party in the past have been appointed by Liberal governments to the CBC board, but not on the same scale.

The board has 11 members, including the chair.

A spokesperson for Mr. Moore did not directly address the issue of appointing directors who had contributed to the Conservative Party of Canada.

“We appoint accomplished Canadians with broad and diverse skills to the board,” said communications director Jessica Fletcher.

Ms. Fletcher referred questions about Cabinet control over CBC collective bargaining and other salaries and terms of work to the office of Treasury Board President Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.).

Mr. Clement’s director of communications, Andrea Mandel-Campbell, said the federal budget stated the government would “look at options” to improve the financial viability of Crown corporations, including compensation levels.

“We are ensuring that public service labour costs align and that taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars are used efficiently,” said Ms. Mandel-Campbell on behalf of Mr. Clement.

“We will also ensure consistency throughout government on this plan. The government has been working to align federal public service benefits and compensation with other public employers and the private sector,” she said.

Bill C-60 gives Cabinet the power to stipulate contract bargaining mandates for Crown corporations, setting salary limits and other conditions, through the Cabinet’s Treasury Board Committee of ministers. It also allows Cabinet to assign a Treasury Board Secretariat employee to oversee the negotiations. The CBC’s  board of directors would be responsible for ensuring CBC followed the orders.

The budget bill maintains exemptions for the CBC and three other Crown corporations under some areas of a federal statute that governs relations between them and the government, but specifically includes them under the new sections covering cabinet control over collective bargaining.

The three other smaller Crown corporations also covered by the measures are: the Canada Council for the Arts; the International Development Research Centre; and the National Arts Centre. Telefilm Canada.

© The Hill Times