Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon on the motion from the member for Ahuntsic, which reads in part:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should introduce, as soon as possible, an amendment to Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act...in order to remove the reference to public policy that is added by this bill to subsection 125.4(1) of the Income Tax Act, because this new provision opens the door to unacceptable government censorship of film and video production.
I thank the member for Ahuntsic and her party for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue, for putting it on the agenda and using one of their opposition days to have this important debate.
New Democrats support the motion to remove this wide open reference to public policy considerations from the guidelines related to the application of the Canadian film and video production tax credit.
We support the motion because we believe the provision is far too broad and far too easily misused. In fact, it is so large that we could drive a truck through it. We have seen that already this afternoon with the inability of government members in particular to define exactly what that clause means.
Over the last week we have seen concerns emerge across Canada about the implications of changes to the Income Tax Act with regard to the Canadian film and video tax credit. The changes to section 125.4 of the act would allow the government, through the Minister of Canadian Heritage, to deny a film or video an important tax credit.
In the provisions of this legislation it says that the minister would have to be “satisfied” that “the public financial support of the production would not be contrary to public policy”. Earlier when the minister was asked to define what it meant to be contrary to public policy, there was no answer forthcoming.
Another important provision in Bill C-10, with regard to the film and video tax credit, is it also removes development of these guidelines from the usual statutory requirements, leaving the process solely with the Minister of Canadian Heritage. It removes it from the Statutory Instruments Act to allow the minister to short-circuit the usual process, to short-circuit the usual legal import of guidelines and regulations and to develop those regulations on her own. Even though the minister said that there would be some kind of public process around this, the final decision still rests with the minister. That is another serious concern about the legislation.
This was one provision in a large bill of almost 600 pages of income tax changes. The overall intent of the bill was to close tax loopholes and deal with the question of tax havens. I admit I missed this provision when we looked at the legislation. It never occurred to me to look for a censorship measure, or a measure that could be used for censorship in legislation to deal with tax loopholes and tax havens. I think this is why all of us found that this kind of provision was buried deep inside other legislation on quite a different topic.
I now know about this provision. I have now been made aware of it by people in the arts community in particular. Now that this concern has been raised, I will do all that I can to ensure that this problem is fixed fully and appropriately. There will not be any resting until we completely deal with the matter. As of yet, I have not seen that assurance from the government.
It is important that we take responsibility for this. The motion, which calls on the government to take a measure to delete that section from the bill, is an important suggestion, and the government has that ability. As I mentioned earlier, the government has told the committee of the Senate looking at this legislation, that it will be bringing its own amendment to Bill C-10. The Conservatives have identified other problems with the legislation.
It is not only the opposition parties that have problems with the legislation. It is also the government. Therefore, the delay in the legislation now is that the committee in the Senate is waiting for the government to bring forward those amendments.
I think this is the perfect opportunity for this House to tell the government that deleting this reference to a public policy guideline should be part of the amendments that it brings forward to the Senate. I disagree strongly with the decision of the Liberals to back away from supporting this legislation, to refuse to support this motion this afternoon, saying that the government would not do it anyway. The government has the perfect opportunity to do it now. I think the House has the perfect opportunity to encourage the government to bring that forward.
This concern broke after an article appeared in the Globe and Mail last Thursday. At that time, Charles Drouin, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage, is quoted as saying in a statement:
“Bill C-10, currently at third reading in the Senate, contains an amendment to the Income Tax Act which would allow the Minister of Canadian Heritage to deny eligibility to tax credits of productions determined to be contrary to public policy.”
Mr. Drouin also noted:
“... Upon royal assent of C-10, the Department of Canadian Heritage plans to update the eligibility requirements for the...program.”
That is the Canadian film or video production tax credit program.
Also, Robert Soucy, the director of the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, the office that administers the tax credit program, has been reported as saying that the federal government wants to be more selective about the cultural products it funds.
Mr. Soucy has also suggested that a panel would be set up by his office and it would review content and have the final say on who got the tax credit after this review of content of film and video production. He is also reported in the media to have “hinted that the government was considering a 'public policy' criterion” related to film and video production and also sound recording and publishing.
That is the background of the concerns that have emerged over this past week.
I believe that the government should immediately table any draft guidelines that have already been prepared, so that we can see exactly what is planned in relation to this public policy guideline. The government should also announce a public review of the existing guidelines and a public process around the revisions of the current guidelines or the development of new ones.
I am glad to hear the minister this afternoon say that she would do that kind of process. I am not clear about how extensive that will be or what exactly the commitment was made, but she did mention something to that effect.
Why is this causing such concern? Why is a provision that may have existed for some time, that may already exist in the guidelines, that is now being talked about as being introduced as part of the income tax law itself, raising such concerns at this point?
I think that is because of comments made by members of the Conservative Party in relation to film and video production in Canada and what they think is appropriate or not appropriate. I have to say that, as a member of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, this has been done at the standing committee.
Back on January 31 the standing committee was meeting the new president of Telefilm Canada, Michel Roy. At that time a number of Conservative members took the opportunity to criticize some of the decisions of Telefilm Canada and some of the specific decisions of funding that were made.
One Conservative member of Parliament, and these quotes can be found in the evidence from that committee meeting on January 31, said he believed that “films should be for mainstream Canadian society”. I think this is clearly a limitation on the kinds of decisions that Telefilm Canada was making.
Another member at the time talked about a film that he had seen and he said, “it focused more on recreational sexual activity than loving relationships”. He concluded that that made it “not redeeming”.
Again, another Conservative member had a definitive opinion about what might be appropriate or inappropriate for Telefilm Canada to be funding and raised it directly with the president.
No matter what we think of recreational sexual activity, I do not think it is up to a Conservative member to tell the head of an agency what in fact is objectionable or redeeming in that situation. In fact, the same member, the member for Abbotsford, this afternoon talked about the government needing to take action to ensure that objectionable and offensive content does not go forward in film and video. Again, he never defined what he meant by the words “objectionable” and “offensive”. I think these are the kinds of comments that raise that concern.
Also, at the meeting on February 28, another Conservative member argued that the minister should have the ability, and I am quoting, “to restrict the flow of Canadian taxpayers' dollars to odious and unacceptable and repugnant movies”. Who is defining “odious and unacceptable and repugnant”? Why should anyone in the government have the ability to tell a filmmaker that the story the filmmaker wants to tell is odious and unacceptable and repugnant? I have some strong difficulties with this. Concern emerges in the arts community when it hears Conservative members trying to impose their own particular sensibilities, their own values in this regard.
At the committee meeting on January 31, another Conservative member went on at length about films that he found objectionable, seemingly related to the controversial nature of words in their titles. I do not know that that is a basis for wanting to deny funding to a filmmaker or a creative person in Canada, that somehow we find the wording in a title to be provocative.
Railing against a provocative title, or talking about mainstream films, or something being not redeeming or odious and unacceptable and repugnant are all concerns for a provision in law that is as broad as this public policy provision. That is where the concern stems from, and it is Conservative members who are fuelling that concern. That is why so many people in the arts community believe that the public policy clause in Bill C-10 opens the door to government censorship.
I do not believe that any politician, not me as the member for Burnaby--Douglas, not the former minister, Sheila Copps, who proposed this guideline originally and even acted on it, and not the current Minister of Canadian Heritage, should have the ability to impose our personal tastes, our personal sensibilities, our likes and dislikes, on the creative process, on cultural activities, on films, videos, books, magazines or recordings.
If we should not have that ability, I also do not believe that any bureaucrat or public servant should be delegated that kind of authority. I would have just as much difficulty if the tax certification office and people associated with it were delegated the authority to screen film and video production and its content in Canada and make decisions based on their perception of the acceptability or unacceptability of that content.
We need guidelines to enable the operation of a government program. I do not deny that, and I do not think anybody here would deny that. Those guidelines should be transparent and objective and they should encourage the telling of Canadian stories, but they should not and must not impose subjective limits on the freedom of expression in Canada.
It is not that there are not already some key limitations in place. The Criminal Code outlaws certain activities, child pornography, for example. Those kinds of provisions are already covered by the provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada.
A loophole as large as the guideline about so-called public policy goals must be closed. It should not be enshrined in legislation, which is what is happening in the case of Bill C-10. My subjective perspective should not be the determining factor on whether or not a film or video gets made in Canada, just as the Minister of Canadian Heritage's personal sense of what is offensive or odious, or Sheila Copps' personal feelings about a particularly tragic story in Canadian history, or even Reverend Charles McVety's perspective should not be the determining factor on which Canadian film gets made.
A country as diverse as Canada must ensure that as many of our stories as possible are told and controversy must not divert us from this goal. Just because a story is controversial does not mean that it should not be told, or that it does not deserve help from the government to assist in its telling. Just because a film or video in its title is provocative does not mean that it does not deserve our support. We have to take measures to ensure that the freedom of expression is protected in Canada. We have to make sure that the creative process in Canada is supported.
Some Conservatives will say that this does not amount to censorship even if the government did deny a film and video tax credit, because the filmmaker can get private funding anyway and make the film privately. That kind of attitude severely devalues the importance of the Canadian film and video tax credit system. Anyone who has worked in film and video production in Canada will explain how important this provision is and how it allows Canada to have a film and video production industry. They will also tell us how important it is to ensure that those stories are told.
I believe that this kind of provision and this kind of discussion and the kind of suggestions that come from Conservative members also have a chilling effect on that kind of production in Canada.
There is another aspect that worries me as well. When we have this kind of debate and these kinds of suggestions are made by the government or by individual Conservative members, I think it also sets up the possibility of self-censorship on the part of the creative community in Canada.
Creators need support and should not be encouraged to self-censor to get an idea past a minister, a bureaucrat or a panel that is reviewing content, who might not share their perspective, their life experiences, their ideology or their religious beliefs. This is completely inappropriate.
To set up this kind of system could lead to the self-censorship of people working in artistic endeavours in Canada.
I have to reiterate that guidelines for the administration of the tax credit program must be objective, transparent, clear and straightforward. They have to support the telling of Canadian stories.
One of the Conservative members who spoke this afternoon spent most of his speech in fact saying, “This was not our measure. This was the Liberals' measure”. Therefore, the conclusion was that it must be okay, that we could not have concerns about something like this because it originated with the Liberals.
I find that a really difficult premise to accept because there is a lot that the Liberals do that I have questions about. It seems again that we have this Liberal-Conservative coalition kind of activity happening where what one does seems acceptable to the other. This is another example, this time coming from the Conservatives who are saying, “The Liberals did it, it must be okay”. I really do have trouble with that kind of perspective.
Sheila Copps did make mistakes in her day as a political leader in Canada. She did much that was good as well, but not everything she did was right and needs to be continued by subsequent governments or members of Parliament today. I think the Liberals were wrong to go down this road and I think the Conservatives are wrong to continue taking us down that road.
The Senate is still considering this. The Senate should propose an amendment to get rid of the clause. I think we should put pressure on the government to make sure that kind of amendment comes up at the Senate committee.
As I said, the Senate committee is waiting on the government to bring in its own amendments to its own legislation because the government has identified problems. Here is one more that the government should add to its list.
We must be rigorous in our defence of the freedom of expression. We cannot minimize the importance of government support or tax credits to the industry. The reality is that the film industry in Canada depends on this support and without it, the possibilities of telling a Canadian story sharply decline.
It is ironic that a reporter in the press today pointed out that a U.S. production filmed in Canada might be eligible for tax credits that are denied to a fully Canadian production due to the public policy clause. That is because the same considerations do not seem to apply or to be considered for the film and video services tax credit used by many foreign productions that are filmed in Canada.
It is ironic that we may have this different provision that does not affect foreign film producers the same way that the Canadian film and video tax credit is administered with regard to this public policy criteria.
In this corner of the House, New Democrats are prepared to take a stand on this legislation. We are prepared to say that we are here to protect the freedom of expression in Canada, that we support the creative process, that we want to encourage the telling of Canadian stories. We want to make sure that guidelines are established that are clear, transparent, objective and straightforward for this important cultural program.
We also believe that we have to spend taxpayers' dollars responsibly, but that for us does not mean that we should not say no to censorship. We also have to say no to censorship or setting up the possibility where censorship can be exercised.
I firmly believe that this is possible. These kinds of guidelines without a provision that is so broad and so open, that raises the possibility of abuse and censorship is not necessary. Another kind of proposal can be drawn up and in this corner of the House we are prepared to take on that responsibility if the government and the official opposition are not prepared to do it.
When it comes down to it, the government, ministers and MPs, must be ready to take the heat when controversy erupts about a cultural production in Canada, when controversy erupts about the freedom of expression in Canada, which it is bound to do because protecting the freedom of expression in Canada and protecting the creative process is worth that effort.
We have to be prepared, as elected officials, to take the heat, to protect freedom of expression in Canada, and in this corner of the House, we are ready to do just that.