Bill C-60: An attack on CBC's autonomy

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The main piece of outstanding government legislation in this session of Parliament is the latest budget omnibus bill, C-60. This one is much shorter than its massive predecessors.

Those omnibus bills completely overhauled the federal environmental oversight process, abolished the venerable Navigable Waters Act, radically changed fisheries protection, and fundamentally reformed Employment Insurance.

Even the Conservative House Speaker found the procedure of cramming together so many disparate pieces of legislation to be disturbing. He said, however, that he did not have the power to stop it.

Among the gems hidden in the fine print of C-60 is a measure to allow the government to supervise the collective bargaining of Crown Corporations.

One of those "Crowns" is the CBC, which is governed by the Broadcasting Act.

That Act quite specifically (as we have pointed out in this space) gives the CBC total autonomy in staffing decisions.

But the government doesn't seem to care about the Broadcasting Act. Finance Minister Flaherty says the CBC is just another Crown Corporation, no different from the rest.

Amazingly, the Harper-appointed CBC President, Hubert Lacroix, is actually threatening to take the government to court over this.

But even that does not seem to worry the government.

Bill C-60 stipulates that the Government will make whatever amendments are necessary to other laws in order to bring them in line with the changes wrought by the current omnibus legislation.

Get ready for the government to quietly introduce amendments to the Broadcasting Act and push them through at one minute to midnight on a Thursday night in June.

Will the public push back against this attack on CBC's independence?

Those who are alarmed by this intrusion into the pubic broadcaster's autonomy hope there will be sufficient public backlash to deter the government, just as public opinion forced the Government to back-track on some of its temporary foreign workers' rules.

Unions, journalists and journalistic organizations have joined the fight.

They bought full page ads in the Globe and Mail and La Presse telling the government to stop its planned interference in the independence of the CBC, and they are engaged in an active advocacy and lobbying effort.

The government will continue to argue that it is only concerned with reigning in public spending, and has no designs on CBC's journalistic independence. The Harper government says it simply wants the compensation, benefits and pensions for all Crown Corporations to fall in line with those of the public service.

As it now stands, in fact, public service pay, pensions and pensions are often more generous than those at Crowns. That is definitely the case for CBC.

But the Government is out to change all that. It has public service pensions, sick leave, and salary levels in its sights.

As though to reinforce that point, on Tuesday the Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement is announcing new, stringent performance reviews for public servants. These will result on many more public servants being let go for cause, not merely laid off.

The government names CBC President and Board -- why does it need more control?

CBC employees, especially those on annual renewable contracts, are already subject to effective performance reviews that are far tougher than those in the federal public service. Job security has, for many years, been far more tenuous at the CBC than it is in the federal public service.

No matter.

The government will still argue that it must interfere with the CBC's staffing and collective bargaining processes, in order to make sure the Corporation is sufficiently hard-nosed in its treatment of its employees.

Of course, the government appoints a president for the CBC and names the Corporation's Board of Directors, all to assure that the public broadcaster is well managed in all aspects.

On Tuesday, the broadcasting regulatory agency, the CRTC, accepted CBC’s plans for the next five years and renewed its licenses.

If the government still has no confidence in CBC's managers. and thinks they need Treasury Board babysitting them at the bargaining table, Arnold Amber, President of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, has a suggestion: "Fire those managers and hire others, but do not undermine the programming and journalistic independence of the CBC."

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