Madam Speaker, today we are discussing a proposal by the government that is transparently ridiculous. I think my six-year-old daughter could well understand why it is ridiculous and government members should as well. It is a $600 million government bailout fund for some journalists and media organizations. The distribution of that fund is to be controlled by a committee that includes Jerry Dias and the leadership of Unifor. Unifor's leadership has made it clear that it will use workers' funds for electoral purposes. It will campaign to defeat the Conservatives in the next election and for the re-election of the Liberal government. It calls itself “The resistance” to the Conservatives.
Overtly partisan people are responsible for meting out dollars to journalists; that is for determining who is a journalist and who is not for the purpose of this funding and for determining who gets the money and who does not.
Our contention on this side of the House is that in defence of an independent press, we should not have overtly partisan individuals or entities responsible for meting out funds on the basis, supposedly, of supporting non-partisan journalism. This should be very clear. Having people who are actively involved in campaigning for one particular outcome in the election and also determining who is a journalist for the purposes of receiving funding is outrageous. It is beyond outrageous. I think members across the way would understand this very easily if the shoe were on the other foot.
That is why thus far in this debate members of the government are trying to avoid the real conversation about the real issue by all means necessary. They are making all sorts of other points that do not really address their decision to have partisan mechanisms handing out funding and deciding which journalists get funding.
Government members have talked about the important role that journalists play in our democracy. Of course we strongly agree with that. However, the most important tool that journalists have in their toolbox is a recognition of their credibility. Why do people choose to get their information from credible media organizations as opposed to blogs? Why do people go to nationalpost.com as opposed to liberal.ca to get their media? It is because of credibility. People understand. They hope that when they go to a media organization they trust, they can expect the information to be credible, accurate and non-partisan.
When the government intervenes by determining who gets funding and who does not, it is undermining the perception of credibility in the press by the public. Thus, it makes the job of independent professional journalists that much more difficult. The government is eroding public confidence in the fourth estate and it is doing so for its own interests.
If the government really cares about defending the vital work our independent press does, it should actually listen to what members of the press are saying about the proposal.
Don Martin from CTV says, “The optics of journalism associations and unions deciding who picks the recipients of government aid for journalism are getting very queasy.”
Andrew Coyne says, “It is quite clear now, if it was not already: this is the most serious threat to the independence of the press in this country in decades.”
Jen Gerson from CBC says, “If any of these associations or unions could be trusted to manage this “independent” panel, they would be denouncing it already.”
David Akin says, “I am a Unifor member and had no choice about that when I joined @globalnews. Unifor never consulted its membership prior to this endorsement. Had I been asked, I would have argued it should make no partisan endorsements.” He says, “ Jerry: I invite you to visit with Unifor members who are also members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I’ll set the meeting up. You will learn first-hand how much damage you are doing to the businesses that employ us, to our credibility and how terribly uninformed you are.”
Chris Selley, from the National Post, says, “Liberals' media bailout puts foxes in charge of the chickens.”
Chantal Hébert says, “Among the ranks of the political columnists, many fear it is a poison pill that will eventually do the news industry more harm than good.”
That is quite a list of intelligent, thoughtful journalists who comment on a range of different issues and who are known and have recognized names in Canadian democracy.
If the government says that its goal is to defend independent journalists like Don Martin, Jen Gerson, Andrew Coyne, David Akin and Chantal Hébert, then maybe it should listen to those independent journalists, because they understand that when the government pursues policies that undermine their perceived credibility in the eyes of the public, it makes it more difficult—not easier, but more difficult—for independent journalists.
Members of the government talk about an independent press. They talk about how having Unifor on a panel that doles out government funds and determines which journalists get the money and which do not, how having overtly partisan mechanisms controlling which journalists get funding and which who do not, is somehow in defence of an independent press. That is very Orwellian. War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. It is Orwellian to say that government partisans doling out funding arbitrarily to media organizations of their choice is a way to maintain the independence of the press.
Canadians should be concerned about it because journalists are concerned about it. Not only is it a waste of taxpayers' money and not only is the government trying to intervene to stack the deck in its favour for the next election, but it undermines the independence of the press and it creates greater challenges for the press as they try to do their job. It makes it harder for them to fight back against those who are challenging their credibility.
In response to this, Jerry Dias from Unifor said that he is entitled to his free speech. I agree that all Canadians are entitled to free speech, but he is not entitled to use Canadians' tax dollars to promote those particular views.
Further, we expect certain positions in our democracy to be independent. We expect budgets not to be involved in overtly partisan politics. We expect the Clerk of the Privy Council not to be involved in overtly partisan politics—oops—and we expect some of these people to be outside of speaking about elections and parties. We certainly expect that the people responsible for doling out funding to journalists or deciding which organizations get the money would indeed be independent and would be separate from politics.
This is about preserving the independence of our institutions. We on this side of the House stand for preserving the independence of those institutions. It is not good enough to say it; we have to actually leave those institutions alone and not interfere with them. We should not interfere in the independence of our journalists, our public servants, or the functions of our judicial system, which is another problem. There are so many cases of the Liberals not respecting the independence of our institutions and interfering with them, and they are doing it again with respect to independent media.
The government's argument is that Unifor should be represented because it represents journalists. Here are some important numbers: Unifor is a very large union, representing over 300,000 people. There are about 12,000 journalists in that number; less than 5% of the membership are journalists, so this is not an organization that speaks uniquely and exclusively for journalists. In fact, journalists represent a very small part of the overall membership of the organization, so claiming that Jerry Dias can speak particularly for journalists in the context of public policy and advocacy widely misses the mark, especially since we hear so many journalists speaking out against this situation.
This is part of a broader pattern. We see repeatedly by the Liberal government efforts to stack the deck in its favour to undermine the independence of our institutions. We saw this first with the electoral system, when the government wanted to change the electoral system to its advantage and wanted to do it without a referendum. When the consultations came back and were different from what the government wanted, it ordered another round of consultations, again trying to stack the deck. The government tried to change the electoral system to its advantage and it failed. We called the government out on it.
The government also tried to change the Standing Orders of this place. Without the agreement of all parties, it tried to bring in automatic closure, again undermining the role of the opposition in the House of Commons. The government has tried to do this multiple times, but we successfully stood against it.
We called on the government to clamp down on foreign interference in elections; it refused to act on that.
The government has unilaterally acted to control the structure of the leadership debate. It has pushed through other changes to the Canada Elections Act that allow third party groups to massively outspend political parties in the pre-election period. The government did that to stack the deck.
Now again we see, in its efforts to undermine the independence of the media by having overtly partisan people controlling the handouts that are going to media, that the government is again trying to stack the deck in its favour.
The government does not respect the independence of the media. It does not respect the independence of Parliament. It does not respect the independence of the opposition, and that more than anything else is the reason that the Liberal government must be defeated.