Feds give CBC a budget boost

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Fasten your seatbelts. Canada is in for a long election run.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 22, 2024.

OTTAWA—A small line item in last week’s budget could be the line in the sand for the next election.

The government announced an increase of $42-million for news and entertainment programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

CBC president Catherine Tait hailed the hike as “welcome news.” For CBC watchers, it was a respite from the cuts and job losses that have plagued the Crown corporation in the past year as viewing habits change.

The question now begs: How many CBC supporters are there, and do they care enough to make it an election issue?

The government certainly hopes so. It is hard to see how a CBC on the verge of extinction would cover an election campaign without bias.

It is unlikely that journalists will exercise neutrality in news coverage when the outcome of the next election could leave them jobless.

Unlike Conservative predecessors, who grumbled about the CBC, but did not go further, Poilievre uses his hate-on for the broadcaster to fuel the base. At any rally, a call to defund the CBC is met with a rousing cheer.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has vowed to oppose the budget. And he has made his disdain for media, in general—and the CBC, in particular—widely known.

Poilievre is vowing to defund the CBC. His position on Radio-Canada is less clear as he has intimated that the French-language public service could be kept while the English branch could be abolished.

That move is currently illegal, so a plan to defund in one language only would require a legislative change that might not pass muster.

It would also provide time for CBC’s supporters to mobilize, and for the public to weigh in on whether the Mother Corp—as it is euphemistically known—is worth keeping.

So the budget line item sends a quiet message that, as far as the Liberals are concerned, the CBC is worth saving.

There may be many other items in the budget that could have an influence on the next election, but much depends on what cuts will be included in the Poilievre promise to vote down the document.

He characterized the spending as akin to a ‘pyromaniac spraying gas on the inflationary fire he has lit.”

Poilievre claimed the budget caused $2,400 of new inflation, but he has not actually said which programs he would axe. He is calling for a “carbon tax election.”

But that “carbon tax” theme could be an intergenerational mistake. Young people are far more committed to sustainable development than their boomer elders.

The vote could pit the new generation against middle-aged Canadians, but it could also incite grandmothers to vote with their grandkids in an effort to save the planet.

After all, it is one thing to “axe the tax.” What will be offered up in its place to actually tackle the climate change crisis that we are witnessing on a daily basis?

Poilievre may be called out on whether he is planning to trash any or all of the national child benefit, dentalcare, pharmacare, or daycare programs that Liberals have introduced.

If they are already too deeply embedded, and he decides not to cut those programs, just where will Poilievre get the $40-billion in savings to make up for the spending he opposes?

Defunding the CBC is just one small element of a debate that will unfold in the leadup to next year’s election.

There are millions of English-speaking Canadians in all parts of the country who support the public broadcaster, and would not like to see it abolished.

The English television audience is not as robust as the French version, which can regularly attract the majority of Quebecers to a year-old special revue. But radio listeners are devoted and influential. Sunday’s “Cross Country Checkup” can regularly poll listeners and motivate them to action on any political issue of the day.

Governments normally defeat themselves. But with the long rollout of Poilievre’s “axe” campaign, questions are starting to dog him.

Last week’s budget marked the start of the election campaign. CBC funding sent a clear signal that the government is not going down without a fight.

Any policy that drives a wedge between the parties is fair game in an election leadup.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland used her budget speech to underscore availability of free birth control, tying it directly to women’s reproductive rights. That alone will touch a nerve with the Conservatives.

Fasten your seatbelts. Canada is in for a long election run.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.