Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Let’s hope there’s no devil in the details…whenever they come

I feel like I have federal budget hangover. I drank in all these numbers last night, and all I feel this morning is confused.

Why? The budget brew had a lot of stuff in it, but in the cold light of the day, nothing that really matters. And the people directly affected by the recession, the unemployed? They got nothing. It’s no easier today to qualify for employment insurance than it was yesterday. In our industry, that means all those people who are casually employed and, because of the recession, no longer get a call to come into work will likely get nothing.

I’m equally puzzled by the approach to the CBC. Canadians still don’t know what this government is going to set aside for our public broadcaster, the centerpiece of any national culture policy.

There are some signs that things are ok. Heritage minister James Moore promised there would be “no cuts” to the CBC’s allocation in an interview he gave to CBC radio. But that’s all we really have to go on.

As CBC president Hubert Lacroix wrote in a staff memo today: “The questions of our base parliamentary appropriation and the $60 million in non-recurring funding for programming initiatives, which we we’ve received each year since 2001, remain unanswered.” (CBC employees can find the full memo on iO!).

In my ten years of doing this job, this is what I’ve seen when it comes to the federal budget and CBC: sometimes the CBC is mentioned directly on budget day, sometimes it’s an item in the “main” line-by-line budget documents that come out weeks later, and sometimes it’s in the supplementary departmental estimates, the numbers that come out months later. And no one, outside of Finance, seems to know which it will be in any given year.

And there’s another trick. In 2001, the then-Liberal government recognized that mid-90s cuts went too deep and that the CBC needed more money if the country’s broadcast system was going to boost Canadian programming. As we know, none of the other broadcasters were going to do it. So, in the context of heady surpluses, they handed the CBC a “one-time” $60 million for Canadian programming. Now the $60 million has been there every year since, but you can never tell if, when and where you’re going to find it. Especially this year.

Here’s what someone on Parliament Hill told us last year about the history of the budget and the $60 million: “In 2001-02 it was in the ‘supps’ (the supplementary estimates), in 02-03 it was in the ‘mains’ (the main estimates), in 03-04 it was in the supps, in 04-05 it was in the mains, in 05-06 it would have been in the supps but there were special circumstances, I’m not sure but $10 million had to come out, but then in 06-07 it was in the mains but initially frozen, in 07-08 it will be in the supps.”

Ahh. Thank you. Much clearer now.

What’s even more disappointing is that the government missed an opportunity to take a pragmatic, bold and relatively cheap step to renewing culture right across the country. For less than $50 million this year, it could have enabled the opening of 12 new CBC radio stations in high-growth places like Barrie, Ontario, and Red Deer, Alberta. The stations would create good-paying jobs while providing a platform to promote what’s going on in those blossoming cities. Talk about win-win.

But the sad reality is that the CBC question was dodged and, given the rumours and the economic climate, a promise of “no cuts” is gratefully accepted, even if there’s nothing to back it up.

1 comment:

  1. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff mentioned in his press conference that he had been expecting to see changes to employment insurance access, like the wait period. It could become one of the amendments to the budget.


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