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A glimpse behind the curtain that hides the Harper Conservatives: Are plans afoot to kill the CBC?

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ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Are plans afoot to destroy the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if the Harper Conservatives get their longed-for majority?

A tantalizing hint by Edmonton-St. Albert Conservative Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber at an all-candidates' meeting Thursday evening in this Edmonton dormitory city of 60,000 suggests this may be so.

"I don't know that we need a national broadcaster in 2011," Rathgeber told about 100 people at a Chamber of Commerce all-candidates' forum in a local hotel. "…We have to wean them off … of the taxpayer's dollar…"

It is well known, of course, how since Stephen Harper became prime minister of Canada, the Conservative Party has become a tightly disciplined organization, especially during election campaigns.

No Conservative candidate strays far from the official talking points, and if that means repeating the phrase "constant bickering" seven times in an introductory speech to a local all-candidates' meeting in a Prairie town, as Rathgeber did at another forum last week, you can be confident the same phrase is being repeated a similar number of times at dozens of other meetings across English Canada.

Moreover, since any Conservative in Western Canada has a chance of being elected, and because practically all of the party's candidates in Alberta are a virtual shoo-in, the party tends to attract potential MPs disciplined and smart enough to stay on message through thick and thin. Rathgeber is no exception, normally sticking manfully and at times artfully to his talking points, no matter where his interlocutors want him to go.

Still, now and then -- notwithstanding the best efforts of the Chamber of Commerce types who organize these events to serve up only softball questions from a Conservative perspective -- one slips through that really resists a retreat to the official party line. This is especially true, of course, when there are no talking points available about the topic.

So when a seemingly innocent written question about the future of the CBC was handed to the a moderator of the St. Albert Chamber's forum, Rathgeber's commentary was interesting -- revealing, as one suspects it surely must, the Harper government's actual direction on the future of our national broadcaster if it gets the chance to act as it wishes. Remember, after all, that Rathgeber is a careful backbencher who never strays even one iota from the party line.

I pulled the key points out of Rathgeber's remarks above. Here they are in context, as recorded by my handy-dandy iPhone:

"…There was a time when the CBC was necessary because nobody would broadcast in rural parts of Northern Alberta, Northern Saskatchewan or in the Arctic. But with the advent of satellites, I mean, now anybody anywhere can get a thousand channels!

"So, I don't know that we need a national broadcaster in 2011. Um… Sun TV launched this week and they have an annual budget of $17 million. Well, the CBC in addition to its revenues that it gets from advertising, gets a billion dollars from the taxpayer every year.

"I think that has to change. They have to become more competitive. We have to wean them off, uh, of the taxpayer's dollar…"

Sun TV. Really? Think about this for a moment, people, as the Conservative model to replace the CBC. We're talking about an organization that premieres its vaunted political commentary program with cartoons considered sacrilegious by adherents of the world's second-largest religion -- an item that is offensive to a million or so Canadians and was old news at the same time.

What's next for the geniuses behind Fox News North? Piss Christ as the backdrop to the national news?

Never mind that the CBC budget Rathgeber attacks includes the costs of coast-to-coast radio and television news, public affairs and cultural programming in two languages. This in fact costs more than merely running cable news for bigots.

Never mind that the $17-million Sun TV figure he quotes is obviously bogus, as it does not include the cost to Quebecor Media of pressing reporters and newspaper operations from coast to coast into service as low-rent videography studios.

And never mind the cozy relationship between Sun TV and the Prime Minister's Office, which intends to use FNN as the PMO's own electronic version of Pravda.

There are probably enough people in a typical Alberta audience who agree with Rathgeber's sentiments about the CBC that for all I know they're outlined in the Conservative Party's talking points.

The Edmonton-St. Albert MP is certainly not shy or repeating over and over and over again with clear PMO sanction that no serious economist supports the idea of tax increases -- although many, including at least one still-living Nobel Prize winner, manifestly do. But maybe he doesn't read the same newspapers that I do.

But somehow I doubt these particular remarks about the CBC were in the official Harper government MPs' briefing book. Since the CBC has its supporters, why would the Conservatives encourage a controversy that no one's talking about just now?

I think Rathgeber unintentionally let the veil slip aside for just a moment and gave us a glimpse of one of the many things that's behind it: the destruction of the CBC.

If you care about Canadian culture, and if you prefer news not to see what's left of the media completely dominated by the northern equivalent of Fox News, I think you should pay attention to what Rathgeber had to say on Thursday night, and I think you should take it seriously.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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