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Campaign silent on the future of the CBC

Ten days before the federal election, only the Conservative and Green parties mention the CBC in their platforms, despite the fact that the national public broadcaster’s future will be on the table when its license comes up for renewal at the CRTC at the end of this year. But there are more questions about the vague position of the front-running Conservative Party than answers.

“I recognize that this election campaign has been fought on a handful of core issues. But it is troubling that the future of Canada’s largest cultural institution is being virtually ignored, even though reaction to the recent lockout showed us all that the CBC is a valued part of Canadians’ lives from coast to coast to coast,” says Lise Lareau, national president of the Canadian Media Guild.

“We are seeing lots of grassroots support from candidates across the country, but the main parties all seem to want to avoid public debate on the CBC. And this is the time for it. It’s wrong to leave the future of a major public service in the hands of the CRTC alone.”

The CBC has been struggling for more than a decade with inadequate government funding. There were 15,000 fewer hours of local news and cultural programming on CBC radio and TV in 2004 than there were in 1989. But a CBC-commissioned survey conducted in 2004 indicates that 80% of Canadians favour “an increased presence for CBC/Radio-Canada in their part of the country.”

A year ago, the CBC submitted a plan to Heritage Minister Liza Frulla about increasing local and regional programming, which would require an additional $83 million in annual funding.

The government set the CBC plan aside, saying instead it would direct the CRTC to make sure there is enough local and regional news and public affairs programming “from a variety of sources.” The government said it is up to all broadcasters, including private and community stations, to make sure that communities get enough local programming.

The Guild has asked all candidates across the country whether they support an increase to the CBC’s parliamentary funding of 1 cent per day per Canadian to pay for increased local and regional programming. The Guild sent a questionnaire to all candidates from the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the NDP, the Bloc Qu?b?cois and the Green Party. So far, we have received more than 80 responses.

Below is an analysis of the parties’ records, statements and promises related to the CBC:

The Liberal Party
After implementing cuts of more than $400 million in the mid-1990s, the Liberal government has since refused to provide any increases to the CBC’s ongoing funding for programming despite record federal budget surpluses. Instead, for the past four years, CBC has been granted an additional $60 million to “strengthen” its programming on a year-to-year basis, making long-term planning impossible.

And although the all-party parliamentary Heritage Committee asked the CBC to provide a plan on how to increase local and regional programming, Heritage Minister Liza Frulla ignored the plan the CBC submitted at the end of 2004.

The Liberal platform book, released on January 11, makes no mention of the CBC. Liberal incumbents who have responded to the Guild’s questionnaire point to their government’s record as evidence of support for the CBC and do not promise anything to increase local and regional programming.

The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party says it will “ensure that the CBC and Radio-Canada continue to perform their vital role as national public service broadcasters.” The statement does not clarify leader Stephen Harper musings during the 2004 campaign about putting English TV and Radio 2 services “on a commercial basis.” In the final days of this past parliament, Conservative Heritage Critic Bev Oda introduced a motion at the all-party the Heritage Committee calling on the government to undertake a review of the CBC’s mandate, role and services.

The motion passed but it’s unclear what direction such a review would take under a Conservative government. The Conservative Party’s policy on the CBC, from their March 2005 national policy convention, says: “The Conservative Party will focus the CBC-SRC services on its mandates as public broadcasting services.”

Star Conservative candidate Peter Kent is on the record as saying CBC TV should focus on a “strictly national service.” In a letter to the Globe and Mail from October 2005, the CanWest Global executive applauded CBC president Robert Rabinovitch’s initiatives to reduce local and regional programming and complained about the public broadcaster’s mandate to provide a spectrum of local and regional television services.

On the other hand, Conservative incumbent Gary Schellenberger, who was the vice-chair of the Heritage Committee during the last session of parliament, told the Guild that the “Conservative caucus in the next parliament will indeed fight for stable funding for the Corporation, and to properly support the local and regional strategy plan that is suffering under the present government.”

The NDP’s official party platform, released January 11, is silent on the CBC.

The party has responded to questions from arts and other groups, saying that it “is committed to increasing and stabilizing funding for the CBC.” Twenty-nine NDP candidates from across Canada have responded to the Guild’s questionnaire, saying that they support increased funding for the CBC to provide more local and regional programming.

NDP culture critic, Charlie Angus, raised the issue of increased funding for the CBC numerous times during the last session of parliament.

The Bloc Qu?b?cois
The official election platform of the Bloc Qu?b?cois does not mention CBC/Radio-Canada.

The party responded to the Guild’s questionnaire, saying it supports “stable funding for CBC/Radio-Canada that is sufficient to allow it to fulfill its mandate.” The Bloc wants to see an increase of local and regional progamming and says the CRTC should impose the condition on the CBC’s license renewal.

The Green Party
In its election platform, the Green party vows that its MPs “will work to provide stable, base funding for the CBC to provide quality television and radio programming in both official languages.”

Dozens of Green Party candidates from across the country responded to the Guild’s questionnaire, saying they support increased funding for the CBC to provide more local and regional programming.

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