The 2019 Liberal election platform made Parliamentary reform a central commitment, promising to “give people a greater voice in Parliament, by improving the way Parliament works.” Yet Bill C-10, the Broadcasting Act reform bill, does the opposite, cutting mandated reviews of policy directions to the CRTC in at least half. The implications of the change are significant since it would mean that House of Commons and Senate committees would not longer review policy directions and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault would be poised to enact his secret policy direction without a full review. I have already written about the surprising secrecy associated with the bill including the failure to disclose how the government arrived at its estimated benefits, the secret content of the policy direction to the CRTC, and the removal of cabinet appeals.
Yet there is another notable provision in Bill C-10 that is designed to weaken Parliamentary oversight over government broadcast policy. In his excellent Cartt.ca series on Bill C-10, Len St. Aubin notes that “Bill C-10 would greatly reduce Parliament’s scrutiny of policy directions.” What is he referring to? In all likelihood, it is a change to Section 8 of the Broadcasting Act that specifies the procedure for the issuance of policy directions to the CRTC. The law currently states:
8 (1) Where the Governor in Council proposes to make an order under section 7, the Minister shall cause the proposed order to be
(a) published by notice in the Canada Gazette, which notice shall invite interested persons to make representations to the Minister with respect to the proposed order; and
(b) laid before each House of Parliament.
(2) Where a proposed order is laid before a House of Parliament pursuant to subsection (1), it shall stand referred to such committee thereof as the House considers appropriate to deal with the subject-matter of the order.
(3) The Governor in Council may, after the expiration of forty sitting days of Parliament after a proposed order is laid before both Houses of Parliament in accordance with subsection (1), implement the proposal by making an order under section 7, either in the form proposed or revised in such manner as the Governor in Council deems advisable.
In plain language, the law currently requires the Minister to publish policy directions in the Canada Gazette and present it to the House of Commons and Senate, where it will be referred to the appropriate committee for further study. After 40 sitting days (which can be either days that the House of Commons or Senate sits), the policy direction can be implemented (or amended) by Cabinet.
Bill C-10 replaces Section 8(2) and 8 (3) which establish the committee study and the 40 sitting day requirement. Instead, it speeds up the process and eliminates the committee study reference altogether. It states:
(2) The Minister shall
(a) specify in the notice the period – of at least 30 days from the day on which the notice was published under paragraph (1)(a) – during which interested persons may make representations; and
(b) publish, in any manner that the Minister considers appropriate, a report summarizing the representations that are made during that period.
(3) The Governor in Council may, after the period referred to in paragraph (2)(a) has ended and the proposed order has been laid before each House of Parliament, implement the proposal by making an order under section 7, either in the form proposed or revised in the manner that the Governor in Council considers appropriate.
The net effect of the new provision is to eliminate committee review and cut the time for review dramatically from 40 sitting days (which is typically at least two months and more likely closer to three months) to only 30 days. The role of Parliamentary review is dramatically curtailed and the Minister who says “he is not a patient person” becomes positioned to spring his secret policy direction that represents the missing half of Bill C-10 with a fraction of the review traditionally accorded to policy directions.
How is this in any way consistent with a government that campaigned on ensuring there is a greater voice for the people in Parliament? As Conservative MP Michael Kram told the House of Commons, “I think we could do Canadians a lot of good by withdrawing this bill and rewriting it from scratch to ensure that everyone is included in it and to ensure we have the best legislation we can for Canadians.”