Opposition and labour leaders are in an uproar after it was revealed the Harper government plans to take more direct control of Canada’s Crown corporations, in particular the CBC, Canada Post and Via Rail.
Following news on Tuesday that the Tories are planning to inject themselves directly into wage negotiations between the CBC and its employees, the Globe and Mail revealed Wednesday that the government has similar plans to control expenditures at all other Crown corporations, but plans to focus mostly on Canada’s national broadcaster, railway company and postal service.
While the government says the move is meant to help control costs at government-funded agencies, opponents say it has less to do with managing costs and more to do with taking direct political control of Crown corporations.
Critics say the move strongly undermines the arm’s-length relationship between the federal government and Crown corporations. In particular, some opponents of the plan raised concerns that journalistic independence in Canada could suffer if the CBC’s wage negotiations come under direct cabinet control.
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"This is an outrageous and unnecessary violation of the principle of public broadcasting,” said Carmel Smyth, national president of the Canadian Media Guild, in a statement.
“It undermines nearly 80 years of public broadcasting in Canada and around the world by meddling with the essential arms-length relationship between the CBC and the government of the day," she added.
"The change is disturbing as it has all the markings of an attempt to turn the CBC (from a public broadcaster) into a state broadcaster."
“This is maybe just a small step, but it’s moving in the direction of radio Moscow,” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting spokesperson Ian Morrison told the Hill Times.
The Tories are moving “away from the kind of independence that we need in a democratic society from the public broadcaster, especially at a time of huge concentration of ownership” in private-sector media, he said.
The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that the Tories’ budget bill also expands direct cabinet oversight over wage negotiations to Canada Post and Via Rail, among other Crown corporations.
The budget bill would give the Tories the power to have a Treasury Board official sit in on collective bargaining between Crown corporation management and unions, as well as a say in pay packages for non-union employees.
Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau described the changes as “very troubling,” the Globe reported.
“The fact that this government is so heavy-handed in its approach to unions, to collective bargaining means that I think this is a recipe for political interference in what should be arm’s length agencies and it is a concern to me,” he said.
Parliamentary Secretary Pierre Poilievre defended the Harper government’s move, saying he isn’t “here to take marching orders from union bosses.”
Poilievre said the move was meant to help the government rein in spending at Crown corporations that receive taxpayer funds.
“Frankly, taxpayers expect us to keep costs under control so that we can keep taxes down,” he told media.
But Marc-Philippe Laurin, the Canadian Media Guild’s president at the CBC, was having none of that.
“Make no mistake, this is not about the money,” he said in a statement. “The Conservative government is effectively modifying the Broadcasting Act to inject itself into decisions such as staffing that have a major impact on everything that’s done at the CBC.”
Treasury Board President Tony Clement told the Globe earlier this week the move was about “aligning public-service compensation and benefits to private-sector norms and expectations.”
Poilievre said the plan was part of the government’s push to balance the budget.
“Any liabilities from a Crown corporation are passed on to taxpayers. We are the representatives of Canada’s taxpayers and we have a responsibility to ensure that those Crown corporations live within their means and that the costs are kept affordable to Canadian taxpayers,” Poilievre said.