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Oda Funding Controversy May Derail Broadcast and Copyright Policy

Appeared in the Toronto Star on November 13, 2006 as Shameful Lobbying No Way to Make Public Policy

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which represents Canada's major television and radio broadcasting companies, celebrated its 80th anniversary last week in Vancouver.  CAB President Glenn O'Farrell opened the organization's annual conference by arguing for dramatic changes to the Canadian broadcasting law framework.  

O'Farrell expressed fear of a growing asymmetry between regulated and unregulated competitors, citing emerging competition from websites such as MySpace and YouTube as examples of unregulated competitors that are attracting growing audiences and advertising dollars. While acknowledging that this year there has been "an unprecedented level of regulatory review, from telecommunications, to radio, to the future of television in Canada," O'Farrell concluded that "we need to pick up the pace."

Adapting the Canadian broadcasting system to the Internet environment may indeed be necessary.  However, while the CAB was meeting in Vancouver, across the country in Ottawa a flurry of questions in the House of Commons about the fundraising practices of Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda threaten to derail the reform efforts.

The controversy unfolded on Tuesday – the day after O’Farrell’s speech – when NDP Canadian Heritage critic Charlie Angus noted that Oda was planning a major fundraiser in Toronto sponsored by the head of regulatory affairs for CanWest, one of the country's largest media companies.  The fundraiser, which directly targeted the broadcast community, was to have featured Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, Oda's cabinet partner on broadcast and copyright policy matters.

With a broadcast regulatory review in the offing, Angus pulled no punches in stating that "the broadcast review happens in two weeks. The cash grab happens next week. Why is the minister using her office to trade political access for political contributions? "

Oda responded by arguing that the fundraiser was fully compliant with Canadian law.  Hours later, she abruptly canceled the fundraiser, with a spokesperson indicating that Oda wanted "to avoid any negative perception." Under legislation introduced this past spring by the Conservatives, such a fundraiser would be banned starting next year.

Despite the cancellation, questions about Oda's fundraising practices persisted throughout the week.  On Friday, Angus noted that Corus Entertainment was host to another Oda fundraiser in 2005.  Angus linked the fundraiser, which raised $15,000, to the current search for the next chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (current chair Charles Dalfen has announced that he is not seeking a second term), sarcastically asking whether "passing the hat around a boardroom table constitute a fair assessment process for choosing the next head of the CRTC?"

In fact, further investigation into Oda's past campaign financing demonstrates that the close ties between Oda and industry lobbyists may run deeper than even Angus realized.   

According to Elections Canada data, Oda held a similar fundraiser in May 2004 – before she was even elected to the House of Commons – that attracted enormous corporate support from the broadcast industry including Alliance Atlantis, Astral, CanWest, and CHUM, as well as from more than a dozen senior executives from major broadcast and cable companies.

Once elected, the support continued.  With Oda installed as the Conservative Canadian Heritage critic, her riding association last year reported contributions from a veritable who's who of broadcast and copyright lobby groups and companies.  These include broadcasters (Corus, Vision TV), cable companies (Rogers, Shaw, and Cogeco), record companies (Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI), and copyright lobby groups (Canadian Recording Industry Association, Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association, Entertainment Software Association).

Moreover, as the odds-on favourite to become the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Oda accepted thousands of dollars from broadcasting and copyright interests during the most recent election campaign, with her two largest contributions coming from individuals linked to two industry giants – Rogers and Standard Radio.

While there have been no allegations that the fundraising was not fully compliant with the law, it does raise the potential for repeated questions about the fairness and impartiality of the policy process.  Oda enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the broadcasting industry before entering politics, yet her close ties to lobby groups will unquestionably cause some discomfort for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has emphasized greater government accountability and reduced influence of well-heeled lobby groups.

Moreover, should the government proceed with a major broadcast review or introduce new copyright legislation, Oda's fundraising practices will likely come to the fore as critics wonder aloud whether those groups obtained political access and exercised greater influence over the policy process.

This cloud over Canadian Heritage policy could not come at a worse time.  With the need for a new CRTC chair, the prospect of a new policy initiative to address the future of Canadian broadcasting and content rules, and the focus on copyright reform, the department promises to be in the spotlight in the months ahead.  These initiatives may now be forced to share that spotlight with a regular stream of questions about Oda's fundraising activities that could leave Canadians asking whether there is a hefty price tag associated with key government policies.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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