Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak to this motion today. Members are asking why it has come before the House? I think it is important that it is before the House because decisions are being made in terms of the future of broadcasting, the future of telecommunications, and in fact the future of the CBC outside the purview of Parliament.
The good book says that what is done in the dark should be seen in the light. Given our concern over directions taken by the government, this debate is a chance for us to inform Canadians about the issues being raised and the fundamental changes being made by the government regarding broadcasting.
We are talking about the role of a public broadcaster versus a private broadcaster. There is a notion that if private broadcasters were allowed to step up to the plate they could do the job as well. Having been a former musician and having travelled the country for some 20 years, I can tell the House that nobody is more committed to the market approach than musicians because that is how we make our living.
We believe in a free and open market, but sometimes we need government to regulate it to ensure that it is in fact free and open. Whether we are talking about musicians or about getting agricultural products on the shelves at grocery stores, we know that the problem with our markets right now is that they do not have access and choice that consumers demand.
I am going to tell two stories. I was 19 years old and God I was a handsome young fella. Our band was touring the country, playing in Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto. Everywhere we went we had an audience of university students because our record was being played on the radio at the university level.
One night we were doing a show right here in Ottawa at the old Roxy Club on Elgin Street. We were interviewed by the big FM radio station in Ottawa, which was basically the same FM chain as the one in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. During the interview I asked why we were being interviewed since our record was not being played on its station. I was told the station was not allowed to play our band in the same way it was not allowed to play other bands because it had a canned list of what it was allowed to play.
Things have changed somewhat in the last 20 years but not a lot. Right across Canada there are very few radio corporations and they run off lists. If a band is lucky enough to get on that list, then it will do fairly well because of the recording royalties, which of course as New Democrats we support.
The problem is that it is a very closed market and it is very arbitrary as to who gets heard and who does not. So when we talk about fragmentation of radio markets, many young people tune out the radio because they can find what they want to hear on other sources.
I will move from the example of the private radio to public radio. My last band, the Grievous Angels, was considered a localized band until we were interviewed by Peter Gzowski. As a result of that interview we became a national act because people across Canada listened to his show. After that interview we were selling CDs from Prince George, B.C. to Halifax and we were getting engagements.
That is the role a public broadcaster should play. It has the mandate to expose Canadians to new sounds and to new ideas, sometimes controversial ideas. It is in that public broadcast domain that consumers are given the ability to hear new ideas and new sounds. It is a role that private broadcasters simply cannot and will not play.
Does the CBC fulfill this mandate as well as it should? It certainly does not. We know there are major problems with the CBC and the New Democratic Party has been raising these problems for a number of years. It would not be an exaggeration to say there is somewhat of a crisis at the CBC. It has had years of underfunding, so much so that it has lost numerous world markets that used to have CBC television as their choice of viewing in the evening. Those markets have disappeared. They have gone to private broadcasters.
Private broadcasts on television attempt some local and regional coverage, but we lose a sense of identity in rural areas when we do not hear our own voices being spoken. There is nothing worse, and it almost sends me into a rock cut, than when I am driving on the highway outside Cochrane, Ontario and I hear the afternoon drive home show from Toronto. That is not something I want to hear on my radio. I want to hear the voices from my region. I want to hear their identity and their discussions.
There has been a problem. The underfunding of CBC year after year by the former government has put the CBC in a very difficult situation. This is an issue that we were discussing at the heritage committee.
We have raised these issues. We have asked the CBC president for a plan for restoring regional programs. We have asked CBC to address the issue of the lack of drama content in programming. We have asked about the role the CBC plays in terms of promoting film. We see that Radio-Canada in the Quebec market plays an integral role. Yet in the English market, CBC is not playing a similar role. As a heritage committee, we have started to raise these issues.
Another issue we have to raise is the issue in terms of the patronage system at CBC.
What we have now is a situation where the CBC president locks out the employees, reduces Canadian content, and ignores CRTC directives. Furthermore, he is not accountable to anyone for his actions.
The CBC is the only public broadcasting corporation in the world whose managers are political appointees.
We have to end the system of patronage at the CBC. Year after year we have had very good people on the CBC board of directors, but it has also been a political dumping ground. Let us be honest. Since the CBC was founded, 89% of the appointees to the CBC were allied to the ruling political party. We have asked for that system to stop. We have asked for accountability.
Should there be a mandate review of the CBC? Yes indeed, it is very important. We have to address these fundamental problems. The question we New Democrats have is about whether or not there is trust with the government's plan for a mandate review if we are not involved. In the last lockout, the present heritage minister mused out loud that she did not know if anybody even missed English CBC or whether anybody even noticed. The present Conservative leader in the Senate wanted the CBC to stay off the air because it rankled her political views.
We are being told not to worry, to trust the government, to let the government handle this outside of Parliament and outside of heritage. We are being told that the government will move forward and come back with decisions that could fundamentally change the CBC. My hon. colleague, the parliamentary secretary, made it very clear where he stands in terms of the CBC when he said, as heritage critic for the Reform Party:
Mr. Speaker, speaking of the CBC, the Reform Party has a very clear vision of a publicly funded CBC and a privately funded or a privatized CBC television.
So is it simply enough to expect that the heritage committee will sit on the sidelines while a mandate review goes ahead that could have profound implications for the future of broadcast? Is it reasonable to expect the heritage committee to put aside the requests it has undertaken of CBC management to respond to us in terms of regional programming plans and in terms of drama content? Should the heritage committee put this aside so this other body can make the decisions?
What we need to look at is the issue of how the crisis at the CBC is playing out in terms of larger media. As my hon. colleague from the Conservatives said, CBC does not exist in a vacuum. He is right. What we are seeing now are numerous issues that are coming to bear in terms of the future of broadcast in Canada. Again, there has to be a composite review. Where else can that review be done except at the heritage committee? That is our role.
We now are seeing questions of a mandate review at the CRTC on the renewal of broadcast licences for the private broadcasters. Have the private broadcasters stepped up to the plate in terms of Canadian domestic drama content? No, they have not. In fact, they have done a very poor job of it. I will put that on the record.
The 1999 CRTC decision changed the rules of drama and the private broadcasters said, “Trust us. Change the rules, open it up and make it easier for us and we will provide Canadians with good drama content”. If we look at station after station in prime time, we will see that it is a wasteland for Canadian products right now.
How would the changes at the CRTC with regard to the private broadcasters affect their obligations in the use of public airwaves? Because that is what we are speaking about: they are public airwaves and these are private corporations that have a responsibility to the people of Canada for the use of those airwaves.
Here is one question. How will the CRTC review of the private broadcasters' licences affect the future direction of television? How will this mandate review of the CBC affect our ability to maintain a strong and vigorous public broadcaster?
The other question is in terms of Canada's role at the international level at the GATS negotiations in Geneva. We have taken it upon ourselves to be the lead nation in terms of encouraging other countries to strip themselves of all foreign ownership restrictions on broadcast and telecom. Telecommunications in Canada, because of convergence, means that the same companies that are providing our phone service are also providing our television news network service. It is impossible to suggest that we can separate those two.
So the question is this: where is the mandate for our trade negotiators in Geneva? Where is it coming from with a government where the industry minister, when he was in private business, was with the right-wing Montreal think tank that was advocating stripping all foreign ownership restrictions on telecommunications?
We have just seen the orders from the industry minister that were released to members of Parliament and senators today in terms of telecommunications, the CRTC and government direction. As of today, it states:
The policy direction contained in the proposed order would direct the CRTC to rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible and regulate, where there is still a need to do so, in a manner that interferes with market forces to the minimum extent possible.
That is what the minister gave as his marching orders today. Those, we can imagine, are the same marching orders that he is giving to our trade negotiators in Geneva. The question is, if the government believes that we have to allow market forces more access in telecommunications, where is that need coming from? There is not a single telecommunications company in the country that is even close to its foreign ownership limitations.
In fact, if we look at the role that telecommunications has played in Canada, our companies have done a much better job for the consumer in reaching rural regions, providing adequate service and getting broadband high speed Internet into rural areas of the country. It is much better than what we see with competitors in the United States.
We have a direction coming down from government to allow market forces as much latitude as possible when it comes to telecommunications. I would like to read for members from a policy study done on Canada's position in terms of telecommunications:
As a result of WTO and GATS commitments, Canada [already] has one of the most open and loosely regulated telecom markets amongst OECD countries.
Canada [has already] unilaterally agreed to:
end Teleglobe Canada's monopoly on transcontinental...traffic...;
end Teleglobe's special ownership restrictions, which prohibited investment by foreign telecommunication carriers and limited the investment by Stentor, (the incumbent carriers);
allow 100% foreign ownership and control of international submarine cable landings in Canada...;
allow 100% foreign ownership and control of mobile satellite systems used by a Canadian service provider...;
end Telesat's monopoly on the fixed-satellite system on March 1 2000, allowing the use of foreign satellites to provide service to Canadians....
Right now the only element that is left on the table to negotiate is the fact that we still have a 46.7% limit for foreign ownership of telecom companies. This is the very issue that our negotiators in Geneva are trying to trade away.
Where is the government going in terms of its direction for the future of telecom? Because telecom and broadcast are one and the same, and if we are asking countries in other parts of the world to strip their foreign ownership restrictions, then clearly the government must be committed to the concept of trade reciprocity. The government is accepting that we are going to strip our own foreign ownership restrictions on broadcast.
That has major implications, because Canadian policy has been consistent. The Canadian Parliament has maintained a very consistent position, that is, that maintaining our control of our sovereign airwaves is a fundamental feature of the Canadian experience. These things are now on the table.
We are looking at a government that has raised very dubious questions about its commitment to the future of the CBC and is looking to do a mandate review outside of Parliament and outside of the heritage committee. We are looking at the broadcast companies coming forward on radio and television and major questions being asked on the future obligations in terms of even having to provide Canadian content and how that should be.
We are looking at trade negotiations that are ongoing in Geneva and could allow, for example, AT&T, without any commercial presence in Canada, to buy up Bell Globemedia. As for anybody who suggests that we are going to maintain our domestic content quotas and our language quotas when we are being taken over by a large U.S. multinational that does not even have to maintain a commercial presence in this country, it is absurd. It is simply absurd to say that we will be able to maintain the policies that we have had until now.
The other issue is the convergence of new media. Where are we going with that? There has not been a very clear direction at all in terms of how Canada will be involved in the development of digital culture. Digital culture is the direction.
As an example, after I was elected and was away from home so much, my wife and children decided to get cable television against their father's strong wishes. That television is never on. My children are of the digital age. They do not watch television. They are on the Internet. That is where their sense of culture and identity is. Where is Canada in terms of the digital culture?
In the 38th Parliament there was the LaPierre report on the future of Canada's online vision. Nobody has picked up on that. That report is sitting on a shelf. That report lays out a very fascinating and powerful call to start championing the rights of the online cultural citizen. Canada should be in the forefront of digital development so that the next generation, which does not listen to radio or watch television, is able to experience Canadian identity and Canadian political and cultural issues online. We need to be at the table when that happens.
What I am saying is that major issues are coming together at this time and they are all being handled outside the purview of Parliament. We are being told to trust the government. I am sorry but I do not trust the government. I believe my responsibility as the heritage critic for the NDP is to work in Parliament and review the fundamental changes that could alter the cultural landscape for the 21st century.
Is a review of the CBC mandate needed? Yes, indeed. Is there a review needed of the mandate for telecommunications broadcast, Canadian cultural and drama policy for television? Yes, indeed. That has to happen within a holistic view and I would submit that can only happen at the heritage committee. That is why as a committee we have been trying to start to address some of these issues in this new Parliament. Yet it seems every time these issues are raised, and in fact it happened the other day, we are asked what we could possibly learn by looking at television.
It is pretty clear the government knows there is a lot on the table with television. I think it is being disingenuous with the members of the committee when it tells us to look at other things and asks why we as heritage critics are not concerned about other things. We are concerned about the whole heritage portfolio. There are many issues that have to come before us, but the problem is there is limited time.
My suggestion has been, and I have tried to work with the other parties, that we need to address the fundamental changes that are coming. If we are asleep at the switch when these decisions are being traded away in Geneva or in a backroom with Conservative lobbyists, there will be no going back from that point. We need to look at the direction.
The NDP does not want the status quo. We believe that the CBC needs to change. There needs to be a vision that brings us forward. We cannot simply accept what happened yesterday. It worked somewhat but it does not work any more. The NDP would support a mandate review, but it has to be done with a clear set of terms of reference. It has to be done in conjunction with the work that is being done, or should be done, at the heritage committee so we can bring forward a holistic view of broadcast and cultural issues in our country so that we are ready for the challenges that face us as a nation in the 21st century.