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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Trudeau team will have a big job when the House returns on Monday

| January 22, 2016
Trudeau team will have a big job when the House returns on Monday

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Parliament gets back to business on Monday and, with renewed public attention to federal politics, the new government will face some big challenges.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a preview of what he might be in for when he telephoned Yves Richard, the husband of one of the victims of the Ouagadougou attacks.

Richard was not impressed. He hung up on the PM.

The grieving husband later told a radio station that he was annoyed it took the Prime Minister three days to call. Worse, he said he did not appreciate one bit what he called 'the canned patriotic/political blather' he got from Trudeau.

One clear fact emerges from this incident: Trudeau's was a tone-deaf response.

Some have gone further and tried to argue that the Prime Minister's feeble and inadequate show of solidarity with Canadian victims of political violence is a sign that the government is weak on terrorism. They link the phone call about Ouagadougou to the U.S. Secretary of Defense's snub of Canada this past week. Secretary Ash Carter pointedly excluded his Canadian colleague from a select meeting on the war against the Islamic State.

The connection between the two events is pretty tenuous, and those who trot it out are mostly motivated by partisan considerations.

There is, however, a real lesson for the new Prime Minister in that hung-up phone, and it is that sunny ways alone do not always work.

A cheerful and optimistic demeanour can never even appear to be calculated and artificial. And even if those sunny ways are entirely sincere and genuine, they have to be matched by real substance.

We are beginning to feel rumblings -- especially in the French language media -- of a weariness with the  whole "Prime Minister selfie" image (to use Frank Magazine's sobriquet).

Promises kept and promises unfulfilled

In the House of Commons there are no selfies. There, the new government will have to demonstrate its mettle on the hard business of government.

To its credit, the Trudeau team has, to this point, made a number of significant and bold moves.

The Liberals are winding up the Harper government's nasty and politically motivated audits of charities, though there are reports certain audits continue under the old, unfair rules.

They also plan to take a hard look at the Harper government's mean-spirited changes to the criminal pardons system. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has virtually commited to reversing the Harper changes, which impose lifelong stigmas on supposedly rehabilitated and pardoned people.

That initiative is an especially good sign. It shows a measure of principled courage, because there is little political mileage to be gained in taking the side of convicted criminals.

We mentioned a number of other quick Liberal actions in this space before, including the restoration of the federal refugee health program and cancellation of the victims of communism monument, just down the street from the Supreme Court building in Ottawa.

Still, as the House gets back in session the Trudeau government's as-yet unfulfilled expectations are extremely high.

The Liberals promised much, and some of their promises seem to have been rash and unrealistic.

Take Syrian refugees, for example.

The government, with the active collaboration of engaged citizens, is moving forward on this with speed and determination.

But Trudeau pledged to bring in 25,000 by the end of last year. It was never a feasible target and the government did not achieve it.

That is forgivable.

What may not be is the way the government's improvisation could, in some cases, be doing as much harm as good.

For instance, Immigration Minister John McCallum decided to waive the requirement that Syrian refugees repay their travel and other expenses.

That is good, in a way -- except that it creates a two-tiered system. Why is a Syrian family with three children more worthy than an Eritrean refugee family, with a single mom and five children, which has been in a camp for many years?

As well, there are many reports from inside the bureaucracy that the intense focus on ramping up the intake of Syrians has slowed down other departmental processes, including processing non-Syrian refugees and facilitating family reunifications.

Tax cuts and billions for infrastructure

We have written here about another Trudeau government promise that, although technically fulfilled, seems to have gone awry.

That is the tax cut for middle incomes paired with a tax hike for upper incomes.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has weighed in on that one and confirms that most of the benefit of that measure goes to taxpayers near the top of the income pyramid. 

Call it taking from the super rich to give, mostly, to the very rich.

The PBO also added that the entire exercise will result in a significant net loss of revenue for the government. His analysis shows that the extra taxes garnered from über-high incomes will not pay for the money given back to (mostly) merely high incomes.

And so it turns out that the promised middle class tax relief does not significantly help middle income Canadians -- the people the Liberals have said do most of the "heavy lifting" in the economy -- and will cost the treasury more than the Liberals said it would.

We can expect opposition questions on that when the House returns.

So far, the new Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, has tried the friendly, bland approach in his communications with Canadians. He may feel the need to get sharper edged and more aggressive when he has to wrangle with his critics on the other side of the House.

The biggest item on the government's agenda, in dollar terms, is the plan to spend $60 billion on infrastructure.

The provinces are lining up to get their part of that money.

Ontario and the Western oil and gas exporting provinces say they are ready to spend federal dollars, and need the stimulus soon.

When word got out that the Trudeau government was considering an immediate stimulus injection of $1 billion into the Alberta and Saskatchewan economies, a Conservative Senator from Newfoundland, David Wells, shot out a news release demanding that his province be included in any funding package.

Newfoundland is not only suffering from low oil prices, its economy has never been as robust as its fellow oil and gas producers in the West. Newfoundland and Labrador's unemployment rate is about twice those of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The below-the-radar reaction of one senator gives us a glimpse of the sort of vigorous back-and-forth we can expect when the House is back in session. And what happens in the House will get a lot more attention than a lonely senator's news release.

Public broadcasting is essential infrastructure too

Finally, while it is quite possible nobody in parliament will bring this up, the new government might want to consider how two of its commitments -- to ramp up infrastructure spending and to reinvest in public broadcasting -- might dovetail.

Infrastructure is not only bricks and mortar. There is also cultural and information infrastructure.

Investing in the audio-visual, film, television and radio sector will create jobs and product to export.

The Americans know the economic value of culture. The U.S. is the world's biggest exporter of cultural product.

As well, the crisis (and that may be an understatement) in the Canadian newspaper industry should motivate the government to assure the viability of the public broadcaster as a newsgathering and news disseminating institution.

All governments are, despite their best stated intentions, inevitably ambivalent about funding an arm's length journalistic organization that will then turn around and expose their scandals and probe their weaknesses.

Trudeau's father was typical of many prime ministers. He was no fan of the CBC. Pierre Trudeau was convinced CBC's French networks were full of separatists, and even mused about shutting the doors of the broadcaster.

Conservatives have, mostly, been ideologically opposed to using taxpayer dollars to fund a service they see as properly part of the private sector.

So the CBC has few long-term political friends, unless one counts the now third place NDP.

In that light, the current government might profit by considering the matter of funding and fostering Canadian content in media of all kinds to be more than something worthwhile to do, but an essential task of nation-building -- part of basic national infrastructure, if you will.

When it comes time to get down to cases on the CBC and other cultural entities, the Trudeau government might want to look at the whole broadcasting, media and cultural package and see how it fits together.

The goal should be to assure that Canadian stories are told, that Canadians have access to a Canadian perspective on the world and that Canadian creative and artistic talent thrives.

In the digital age, the key task is creation of content, not distribution

There was a time, not too long ago, when the CBC thought it was all about hardware and real estate.

It conceived of itself more as a distributor of programming and less as a creator of content, which it could buy from independent producers.

With the advent of digital, online means of distribution -- and assuming we maintain Internet neutrality -- the Corporation (and the government that funds it) may want to reconsider that out-of-date paradigm.

The government might want to consider that where we need direct public investment is not primarily into an acquisition-and-distribution bureaucracy, but directly into the creative cauldron of production. And by that we mean production of all kinds: from daily news to point-of-view documentaries to music, comedy and drama.

Years of petty and vindictive cuts, on the part of both Liberal and Conservative governments, have significantly weakened both the public broadcaster and other similar entities such as the National Film Board.

CBC TV, for instance, no longer produces in-house documentaries and commissions many fewer from Canadian filmmakers than it did in the past .

It has closed down its once highly respected radio drama department, and killed a world-leading (and not expensive) radio program on international affairs.

The prime time television news hour once featured in-depth, long-form reports, for which it sent teams around the world. Now it fills the air time with much cheaper panel discussions, which vary from enlightening to fatuous and tiresome.

The list could go on and on.

The point is that, given all the damage that has been wrought over more than a decade, the government must do more than merely pump money into the public broadcaster. It has to, frankly, reinvent the CBC -- and must do so in the context of the entirety of the publicly funded media and film sector in Canada.

Getting this piece right would be a true and lasting legacy for this government. 

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