David Anderson – Hansard 163

David Anderson
Cypress Hills—Grasslands, Saskatchewan
House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I thank the House for the opportunity to speak to this legislation this morning.

Like my colleague, when I was asked to speak to the bill, I decided I needed to go to our policy and see whether this is something I can support, and I actually came to the opposite conclusion of that of my colleague.

I will read again the part he read, that we believe that the “CBC-SRC is an important part of the broadcasting system in Canada”. That is true. It plays a major role in Canada across the country. It says that “[i]t must be a true public service broadcaster”. When I read that, I wondered what this is specifically talking about. The bill says “public service broadcaster”. It does not say publicly owned broadcaster. We heard some comment earlier about what this would imply. Does it mean the CBC should be covering emergency services? Should it be covering cultural events, as my colleague just spoke about? Is it about public information? I do not know that it says that the CBC has to be a publicly owned, taxpayer-funded regular broadcaster. That is not how I read that.

It says that the CBC needs to be “relevant to Canadians”. As we have heard in the debate in the House, both from the Liberal side and our side, there is some concern about whether the CBC is relevant to Canadians and how relevant it really is.

What could show public support for a broadcaster more than having private shares issued and having the public decide if it wants to support it? Those Canadians who want to step forward could then put their money where they want it to be. It would be a test of whether the CBC has the support of the public if the bill successfully passes.

I am here to speak to Bill C-308, a bill brought forward by my colleague from Saskatoon—University. I was going to discuss the CBC and its potential future, but I want to talk a bit about the history of the CBC as well, which has been covered a bit here.

During the 1920s in Canada, a number of private media outlets were being set up, particularly radio stations across Canada. It is my understanding that the Canadian National Railways was one of those companies that was establishing media outlets across Canada. It had stations in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Moncton, and Vancouver and covered things like concerts and comic opera, school broadcasts, and historical drama, the kinds of things my colleague just talked about. At that time, no full national program had been developed, but it was coming along.

A Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting, under the chairmanship of John Aird, was appointed by Mackenzie King in 1928. The concern was that some of the private Canadian stations were falling into U.S. hands. The BBC was also being held up as an example. There were those who felt that private broadcasting in Canada could not provide an adequate Canadian alternative to the United States. It is interesting to note that almost 100 years later, we are still hearing some of those same arguments.

The private CNR radio stations and other private broadcasting stations were seen to be not enough to stop the idea that public ownership of the media was important. There was a feeling among some that the taxpayer needed to contribute to this media as well.

The moving force within the Aird commission was Charles Bowman, who was the editor of The Ottawa Citizen at the time. He argued that public ownership of broadcasting was necessary to protect Canadians against American penetration. It would be interesting to understand a bit more about the politics that would have been revolving around those decisions at that time as well.

In 1929, just before the stock market crash, the Aird commission presented its report. It recommended the creation of a national broadcasting company. The commission saw it being set up as a public utility but funded by the taxpayer. It would have a responsibility for “fostering a national spirit and interpreting national citizenship”.

Specifically, the report called for the elimination of private media stations. The commission did not want any private stations at all. It thought they should be compensated but removed from the networks. Obviously, when the stock market crashed, that changed a number of things.

It took a while for CBC/Radio-Canada to be set up, but it was established as a crown corporation in 1936. While it may have had a mandate to foster national spirit right from the start, it has always been controversial. My colleague just talked about some of the early controversy even about that.

The question Canadians asked then and are asking now is whether Canadians need a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. For many years it was argued that the CBC was necessary because Canadians did not have direct media service. I come from probably one of the least populated areas of the country, but I think that argument only holds true as new technology is introduced and as it takes time to spread across the country.

I would like to use a couple of examples. There was radio service across Canada in the twenties, thirties, and forties. As TV developed, obviously it took a while longer for TV to get into the rural areas. Would it not have been a better argument at the time to actually spend taxpayers’ money to provide the hard infrastructure, the things like the towers, so that people in rural communities actually had the infrastructure to carry those signals, rather than having control of the content, which is what the argument was about the CBC?

Our first TV station was the CBC, in the early 1960s. CTV followed a few years later, and, it was interesting, so did stations from Montana. We were served by five national broadcasters in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan in what many would have considered the back of beyond.

I remember CBC in those days. Hockey Night in Canada was one of the first programs I remember watching on a black and white TV. We had to get fairly close to it. We could not see the puck. We could just see these grainy figures moving around. In those days, I was actually a Montreal Canadiens fan. Over the years there was a whole pile of other teams and it kind of got diluted, but obviously, the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins were what we watched on Hockey Night in Canada.

There were other things like Bonanza and Red Skelton that came up from the States, and we thought they were great entertainment. Front Page Challenge was another one people watched. I think it was Sunday night when people sat in front of the TV and watched Front Page Challenge.

However, times changed, and other networks were developing with private money. The CBC lost its uniqueness long before Front Page Challenge went off the air, I would argue, as other commercial alternatives developed. Even in our remote part of the world, as I mentioned, we had three U.S. networks, CBC, and CTV, and certainly there was nothing we saw that was unique about CBC. It was mostly the same types of shows, the same types of news, just maybe at different times. Hockey Night in Canada stood out as one thing that was unique, as I mentioned, but even a new CTV without the subsidy was able to develop and go head to head with CBC with its taxpayer assistance.

From my Conservative viewpoint, I think what a shame it was that a company, trying to develop, would have to compete directly with taxpayers’ money, and on the flip side of it, that taxpayers were stuck paying for the development of a structure that was being duplicated commercially. It was just, from my perspective, a lot of wasted money. The opportunity for change came and went without adaptation, guaranteeing that CBC would become more and more irrelevant.

CBC and its supporters have always tried to convince Canadians that it is some sort of national institution, but practically, it never has been. The only thing that has made it national is that taxpayers across this country have been stuck paying the bill. The notion that it provides some sort of unbiased Canadian content has not been proven, even as recently as last week, when two provinces were already taking great exception to the latest history project that is going on.

A second example of this failure, I would think, was evident yesterday. I went on the online website, and among dozens of headlines on there, I could not find one, not one, that was critical in any way of the present government. That seems to be quite a change from a couple of years ago. There was not a single critical headline on its website, in spite of the fact that we have a government that is mired in corruption, following a budget that has been universally panned, and in the midst of an attempt to unilaterally change the rules of the national legislature . I do not know where all of their investigative reporters went to. Perhaps they have left, but I doubt it. I think it is just that they actually cannot find anything to criticize.

A constituent called me a couple of weeks ago disgusted by some of the content he saw on TV early in the evening. It was 8 o’clock at night, and his seven-year-old son was with him, and he said it was completely inappropriate content for young people. He contacted the CBC. They told him that he did not actually watch it and that it was not shown at that time of night, so what he thought he saw, he did not see. That was their way of dealing with his complaint about content. I do not think the CBC is actually listening to Canadians at all.

The establishment of the CBC meant that right from the beginning, the taxpayers were paying the bill. Right from the beginning, I would argue, the cost was just too high to be justified. It still is in this day of media expansion.

Let us talk about the taxpayers. We sit here with 100 or 200 TV channels on most of our televisions. We have 1,000 or 2,000 internet channels. We have instant news from all over the world. We have movies and videos from dozens of sources. We have cable TV that has the capacity to charge for what people use but that is burdened with having to carry unpopular subsidized channels, and we have private companies delivering professional production and news services that are paying their own way.

In the middle of all this, there is a $1-billion-plus annual bill to the taxpayer for a provider that no longer provides anything that is unique, and a provider that many Canadians believe fails to provide a balanced and comprehensive view of the issues.

If we look at the mandate, it is not successfully addressing that. It is unnecessary that the CBC be supported by governmental intervention in order for it to continue to exist. It should have been done decades ago. Taxpayers have borne the burden for many years longer than they should have. It is time to make this a commercial entity and let it compete directly with its competitors.