Several weeks after Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault introduced Bill C-10, I started a 20 part blog post series called the Broadcasting Act Blunder (podcast edition here). The series examined many of concerns with the bill, including issues such as over-broad regulation and discoverability requirements that would only garner public attention many months later. I thought about that series yesterday as I watched Guilbeault try in the House of Commons to defend the indefensible: a gag order on committee review of the bill, the first such order in two decades. While the bill is in dire need of fixing, what occurred yesterday was far worse than a blunder. It was a betrayal. A betrayal of the government’s commitment to “strengthen Parliamentary committees so that they can better scrutinize legislation.” A betrayal of the promise to do things differently from previous governments. A betrayal of Canada’s values as a Parliamentary democracy.
The 23 minute and 30 second question and comment period – the House Speaker ruled there could be no debate and that the period could not extend beyond 23 minutes and 30 seconds – notably featured NDP MP Peter Julian and Green MP Elizabeth May, two of the longer serving MPs in the House as among the first to speak. Julian was first elected in 2004, when Guilbeault was only a few years removed from activist stunts such as climbing the CN Tower. Meanwhile, May became the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club in 1989, the same year Guilbeault started as a university student. It seemed to me that both had a message for an inexperienced cabinet minister elected less than two years ago, namely that some things are bigger than single bill. Bills come and go, but principles – or betrayal of those principles – endures.
Guilbeault clearly did not get it, wondering how the NDP could possibly reject the gag order and effectively support potential delays to his bill. Both the NDP and the Greens may ultimately vote for Bill C-10, but both understand that defending democracy and the freedom of expression of MPs (much less the freedom of expression of all Canadians) is far more important than a delay to any single bill. As May noted, the gag order will do real long term damage. One day it will be a different government on a different issue seeking to use the same procedure to cut short committee study. And the Liberals will have no credible response with no one to blame but themselves.
But we don’t need to look far into the future to see the consequences of the Guilbeault gag order. This past weekend, the Canadian government joined with other countries to criticize the Nigerian government for blocking Twitter and establishing registration requirements for social media. Yet calls for respecting freedom of expression rings hollow when you are shutting down Parliamentary debate on a bill with profound implications for freedom of expression. Indeed, Canada’s lost moral authority on Internet freedoms is an undeniable consequence of Bill C-10 and the Guilbeault gag order.
Further, it is not just the government that has betrayed its core principles. Over the past six weeks, Canadian creator groups have regularly emphasized their support for freedom of expression in response to Bill C-10 concerns. But when the opportunity to place a gag order on further Bill C-10 debate arose, the support for free speech quickly disappeared. Organizations that are willing to trade freedom of expression for the prospect of a bit of Youtube cash are not the believers in free speech that they claim to be.
The damage from the gag order will also extend to the legacy of Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel (BTLR). I disagreed with many recommendations of the Yale report (named after chair Janet Yale), but it was a legitimate, non-partisan report. No longer. Yale and several panel members disappointingly scrapped panel unanimity several weeks ago in order to express public support for Bill C-10 and Yale went further last week by backing the Guilbeault gag order. In doing so, the report is now an irrevocably politically partisan, tainted document that stands little chance of adoption by anyone other than a Liberal government.
The most puzzling aspect of this is that payoff for the betrayal is so limited. Even with the gag order, it seems very unlikely that the bill will clear both the House of Commons and Senate before the summer break. If there is an election call early in the fall, the bill will die. If not, there is time for the bill to continue to work its way through the Parliamentary process without the need for a gag order. Either way, that seems like an awfully small return for betraying your principles.