Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Conservatives eye the CBC - updated

Updated (Thursday 6 pm) below.

Every once in a while, Harper exposes his fangs. This is one of those moments: "Budget bill gives Harper Cabinet new powers over CBC."

It's a Harper special, naturally. Mix the CBC in with a pile of other Crowns who can be portrayed as bloated public entities whose employees are getting more than in the private sector. So we hear Clement say this “is part of a broader issue, which is aligning the public-service compensation and benefits to private-sector norms and expectations...”. Sell it to the public as a sensible economic measure then. Try to massage it into one more incremental logical step that won't raise hackles.

Nothing sensible or reasonable about this one though. The public broadcaster should not have its salaries explicitly overseen by the federal Conservative cabinet. Or any other stripe of cabinet. The implications for the independence of the institution are clear. Politicians weighing in on journalistic salaries? That has no business in a modern western democratic nation. And what breed of conservatism is this?

At least Scott Brison is serving notice that Harper is playing with fire and will be carefully watched: “We will thoroughly scrutinize actions by this government towards these agencies.” The politicians will have lots of help in that task.

Bravo to the CBC, by the way, for blowing the lid off the temporary foreign workers programme. Nothing like a few whistle blowers leading the national news describing how their jobs are being farmed out to bring it right into every living room and made meaningful to the average Canadian.

Happy two year Harper government anniversary, everyone...

Update (Thursday 6 pm): A must read follow-up to the above in the Hill Times today. Tim Naumetz has reviewed the Crown corporation annual reports and discovers, lo and behold, that the CBC is essentially the major Crown whose collective bargaining agreements could possibly be affected in the near future by the Conservatives' insertion of the cabinet over those negotiations. There is a CBC agreement that comes up for renewal in March of 2014:
But of the three Crown corporations, only the CBC will have its major collective agreements expire between now and 2014 as the 2015 federal general election nears, including one covering 5,000 English-language news personnel and journalists that expires March 31, 2014.
Also notable, this excerpt referencing a statement by the CBC in response to the government's move:
The statement also noted the Broadcasting Act gives the CBC board of directors the “explicit authority” to determine the salaries of its employees and that CBC and Radio Canada employees are not public servants.

The budget bill would give Cabinet the power to order Crown corporations to have their mandates for collective bargaining approved by Cabinet’s Treasury Board committee of ministers and allow for a Treasury Board employee to monitor negotiations.
Yes, if you look at the Broadcasting Act, there are clear distinctions drawn which separate the CBC's power to hire and set salaries versus the cabinet's power. For example, the federal cabinet has a say in the Chair of the Board and the President's salary but it does not with respect to any employee:
Remuneration

Chairperson’s and President’s remuneration

43. (1) The Chairperson and the President shall be paid by the Corporation remuneration at the rate fixed by the Governor in Council.

Fees of other directors

(2) Each director, other than the Chairperson and the President, shall be paid by the Corporation such fees for attendance at meetings of the Board or any committee of directors as are fixed by the by-laws of the Corporation.

Expenses

(3) Each director is entitled to be paid by the Corporation such travel and living expenses incurred by the director in the performance of the duties of that director as are fixed by the by-laws of the Corporation.

Staff

Employment of staff

44. (1) The Corporation may, on its own behalf, employ such officers and employees as it considers necessary for the conduct of its business.

Terms, etc., of employment

(2) The officers and employees employed by the Corporation under subsection (1) shall, subject to any by-laws made under section 51, be employed on such terms and conditions and at such rates of remuneration as the Board deems fit.

Not servants of Her Majesty

(3) The officers and employees employed by the Corporation under subsection (1) are not officers or servants of Her Majesty.
It's very much a clear policy distinction being made here in the Broadcasting Act. The intent is to leave staffing and remuneration decisions within the CBC as an internal matter, free from government intrusion. This is entirely understandable. The CBC is a Crown like no other at the federal level. The CBC is part of the free press in Canada.

Granted, the government appoints the Board members who provide oversight of the CBC employee salaries and employment whom the CBC chooses to employ. But the Board's primary duty is owed to the corporation within the context of the particular Crown's public service mandate.

What Harper is now doing is reaching in and making CBC employee salaries - journalists - subject to the federal cabinet's influence, contrary to section 44(3) above. Typically, he's doing it without explicitly amending the Broadcasting Act but through the budget bill. It's quite an intrusion. The Treasury Board representative doesn't even have to do anything by way of taking action in the negotiations. The presence of this representative is influence enough.

As a majority government, these Conservatives can do what they choose, essentially. But no Prime Minister to date has gone this far with the CBC.

Stephen Harper has no business inserting himself in the salary negotiations of journalists within the CBC. Period.