It’s touching, during the current strike, to see CBC management hold the fort for the antiquated economic gospel of the 1980s and ’90s, when even its original boosters are fleeing the ship.

Listen to the clichés in their “open letter to Canadians,” paid for by us: “the need for change in today’s fast-evolving . . . meeting the significant challenges . . . using public funds responsibly . . . become a much more flexible, agile, nimble operation . . .” I like the last the best. It always means: Kick around employees as if they’re spare parts, not human beings with families and responsibilities, while hectoring them to accept the inevitability of change, i.e., total lack of control over their fates.

It sounds as if CBC bosses have been to the Niagara Institute courses on management, which, in fact, they have, again on our dime. There they learn to produce little skits and cheers, anything to make the work force feel better rather than do something to concretely improve their lot. A CBC journalist says: We used to expose those places; now we pay to get in.

This is the language free trade was sold with, back in 1988, when it sounded mildly fresh and energetic. It was never really about trade, which was already pretty free. It was about a business vision of reality, a cultural revolution. Its agenda included smaller government, death to deficits, declining taxes and public funds, gettin’ lean and mean, letting the free market solve social and individual problems. What’s wild is that the original missionaries for the position have expressed doubts lately in the wake of U.S. behaviour, wondering whether free trade was a mistake we should retract: Pat Carney, Derek Burney, even Tom d’Aquino.

But CBC president Robert Rabinovitch (in The Globe and Mail) still talks like a Reaganomics zealot: “Make the money the CBC has go further . . . internal efficiencies . . . generating income from existing assets — from programming content to real estate . . . entering into new entrepreneurial partnerships.” There’s a mite of deference for the CBC “mandate,” but all his passion goes to the “efficiencies,” like renting out some of the floor space. What tiny thinking.

Management in the public sector is filled with these latecomers and wannabes. CEO Rabinovitch was a wunderkind in the Trudeau-era civil service. With the neo-con, free-trade culture of the 1980s, he shipped off to the private sector to apparently learn the new rules, even as they were already starting to wear thin. Then he parachuted back, via the CBC, in time to talk about public broadcasting as if it’s a pop quiz in bookkeeping.

Is anyone surprised the union doesn’t want to cave on more contracting out? What union would put its members, now or future, in jeopardy rather than fight for their security? Is there an alternative? Sure, but it involves a different kind of thinking. If the work force is expected to change constantly, and can’t count on security from its employers, then provide universal guarantees through public programs: affordable university, solid retirement support, retraining etc. If that were available, you wouldn’t find unions fighting so fiercely to hang onto contract provisions.

This is no time to contemplate public needs in dime-store (or Fortune 500) terms. Reality has outpaced that fusty gospel. Post-9/11 and the war on terror, government is back. You can’t fight a war on terror, or Iraq, or anywhere, with MBA skills and obsessions — or be fastidious about deficits. You can’t respond to tsunamis by letting market forces do their stuff, or leave it to corporations to figure out global warming.

Look at the pictures from New Orleans: the chaos, death, neglect. There are times, like the 1930s, when people everywhere conclude that more is needed than the random outcomes of private, market-driven behaviour. Public action and commitment (yah, yah, bigger government than ever — deep breaths now — though I’d rather call it a revitalized public realm, or even, gulp, socialism, in the sense of social versus isolated forms of problem-solving) are required. Even the old free-trade fanatics are figuring that out. But the bosses at the people’s network, of all places, still lovingly mouth the phrases.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.