moved that Bill S-7, an act to amend the Broadcasting Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour for me to initiate debate on the bill.The purpose of Bill S-7 is to amend the Broadcasting Act. The summary of the bill states:
This enactment amends the Broadcasting Act in order to enable the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to make regulations establishing criteria for the awarding of costs, and to give the Commission the power to award and tax costs between the parties that appear before it.
Within the context of the bill, I bring the full attention of hon. members to one significant area that requires further elaboration and is the basis for the amendment that I am advancing.
Consider the following. We know that under sections 56 and 57 of the Telecommunications Act, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, has the power to compensate the organizations or individuals appearing before it during proceedings on telecommunications. The act also authorizes the CRTC to establish the refund criteria and to determine to whom costs will be paid and by whom.
Conversely, the Broadcasting Act does not envision such provisions. Consequently, the CRTC has no power to either award costs or establish the criteria of awards under this act. This is an imbalance that causes concern and requires immediate rectification.
Why is it essential to amend the Broadcasting Act?
First, the amendment brings the Broadcasting Act into concordance with the Telecommunications Act, where the rights for cost recovery have existed for years.
Second, convergence and the information highway have created deep interplay between telecommunications and the broadcasting services used by the public, such as news media and the Internet. Often the CRTC has been faced with issues involving both the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act. Regardless of the validity of the arguments presented, the CRTC has been able to award only costs covered under the Telecommunications Act but not under the Broadcasting Act, even though the information provided under both acts has proven pertinent and value added.
Third, the vastness of the funding available to media companies is an outright contrast to the financial limitations faced by consumers and their representative groups. This condition therefore creates imbalances and inequalities that are inconsistent with our democratic system. Substantive and effective participation by consumer organizations representing the interests of citizens is often hampered by financial limitations owing to the fact that detailed research studies and expert assistance are very costly.
Fourth, this much needed amendment brings into symmetry and balances both acts. Thus, consumers will be fairly treated in all proceedings before the commission whether conducted under the Broadcasting Act or the Telecommunications Act.
Fifth, other regulatory agencies in Canada provide for the payment of intervener costs. Many tribunals that regulate public utilities or important public services award costs of public interest interveners to reimburse them for their intervention.
Sixth, this amendment will be extremely beneficial to the Canadian public. Cost awards would allow consumers and public interest groups as well as individuals to develop thorough research and substantial evidence to represent effectively the interest of citizens in broadcasting and cable television policy and regulatory proceedings at the local or national level. Locally, this amendment would permit our constituents to effectively challenge cable TV issues such as rate increases, channel packaging or licensing conditions of local broadcasters.
The issues examined by the commission could have wider repercussions on the population in general. For example, national issues such as television policy or cable television distribution regulations or more specific issues, such as the rate consumers pay for cable television services, could be potentially at stake.
Seventh, consumer groups across Canada strongly support this initiative since they are aware of the importance of equal representation under the Broadcasting Act.
Among the organizations supporting the proposed amendments are: the British Columbia Public Interest Centre, the Public Interest Law Centre, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Library Association, the Manitoba chapter of the Consumers' Association of Canada, and the list goes on.
Again I must point out that the high level of citizen participation in telecommunications matters cannot be compared to the level of citizen participation in broadcasting proceedings, for one reason. Simply stated, they have not been able to secure their participation because of financial restraints.
The issue of effective citizen participation has become even more relevant since the bill was first introduced. Over the past several months the CRTC has instituted a number of proceedings relating to convergence, pricing, service and industry consolidation, which are of great interest and relevance to consumers.
For example, broadcasters and cable companies will be changing the technology they use for broadcasting television signals from analog to digital. This will cost at least several hundred million dollars and change how channels are packaged and sold to consumers. Consumers will also be required to purchase new televisions or rent digital decoders. Who will bear the companies' costs? How will this technological change affect the pricing and choice of programming and channels for consumers?
Another example is the community channel on cable television. Four years ago many community groups lost access or control of their channel through regulatory changes. This year the CRTC initiated a review of this policy as well as new rules for the creation of community based over the air television. Without good legal representation, research and other resources, consumer groups were hard pressed to put forward good evidence and a strong case to strengthen community television at the local level. How can we expect the system to truly change to benefit our constituents without sufficient resources?
Without the ability to recover costs related to the gathering of substantial evidence, consumer participation is limited. While consumers and consumer groups may be able to present short briefs expressing general principles and expectations, they are not able to afford indepth research and testimony. Their meagre efforts crumble under the weight of evidence put forward by the industry.
In our changing communications sector, Canadians deserve answers to these questions. We know how industry and consumer points of view differ and how issues of this magnitude need to be treated in a fair and balanced way for the benefit of all of us.
Who will be funded? Not everyone who appears before the CRTC in a proceeding will automatically qualify for a cost award. With the passage of this amendment, the CRTC will draw the rules of procedure that will be used to determine the criteria for awarding costs under the Broadcasting Act. As with the criteria that already exist in telecommunications rules of procedure for costs, applicants must demonstrate to the commission that they are representative of a group of citizens, that they have participated in the proceedings in a responsible way and that they have contributed substantially to a better understanding of the issues in question. These are rigorous tests.
Who pays for these cost awards? The costs are met by companies that come under the jurisdiction of the CRTC and that took part in the proceedings and will be affected by the outcome. One of the principles of reimbursement is to compensate deserving interveners for the costs incurred by an intervention based on the fair market value of the work performed. Like the costs for company representation, the funds come from the key industry interveners services budget. This procedure will be the same as that already in place under the Telecommunications Act.
In exercising its responsibility under the Broadcasting Act, the CRTC is given decision making powers that are important for and have a great impact on Canadians' association with the promotion of Canadian culture, the setting of rates, the introduction of competition and the resolution of stakeholder disputes.
Under paragraph 3( d )(i) of the Broadcasting Act, the commission is instructed to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada. Therefore, for the process of decision making to be congruent with our Canadian principles of fairness and equity, it is vital that the process be conducted on the basis of openness, impartiality and transparency.
The amendment therefore affords us the opportunity to translate these principles into functional ones so that the results of wise governance may be delivered effectively in these important regulatory hearings.
I would like to remind colleagues that the spirit and intent of the bill rests with the concept that every democratic society should foster active citizen participation in public issues. Modern democratic life requires an active role from the population and needs participation from members of the community. It should no longer be the case that those who are governed act only to elect. They are then governed without any opportunity to interact with the governing institutions.
By increasing the participation of public advocacy groups in CRTC proceedings though Bill S-7 we would render a service to our own institutions, allowing them to make use of valuable information. We would also be making way for more reasoned decisions and a better understanding of the concerns and aspirations of our society, as well as allowing all parties to work in a co-operative fashion toward possible solutions.
In closing I would like to stress that Bill S-7 would allow each and every one of us to empower our constituents to be fairly and equally represented in all matters related to broadcasting and cable TV, both locally and nationally.