Since its introduction in the House of Commons last month, the Online News Act (Bill C-18) has been debated or discussed just once. The bill was tabled without comment by Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez on April 5th. Thus far, Friday, May 13th was the only one day devoted debate on the bill at second reading, a day when so many MPs were not present that there was a question on whether there was sufficient quorum to proceed. Rodriguez did not deliver a speech or answer questions that day, leaving it to his Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bittle, who I pointed out inaccurately characterized the requirement for payments by Internet platforms as “use” of content and implausibly argued that the bill involved “minimal government intervention.” There has been a total of less than two hours of speeches and debate with just 10 MPs speaking to the bill or asking questions (Bittle and Mark Gerretsen being the only Liberal MPs).
Despite virtually no House debate and no comments from the responsible Minister, the government moved yesterday to end debate and send the bill to committee. The decision to invoke time allocation on a bill that has scarcely had any discussion and no presence from the Minister is a remarkably anti-democratic approach. This bill has enormous implications for an independent press and for the Internet. It raises the prospect of paying for links and search indexing, limits access to copyright exceptions, and creates an unprecedented level of government intervention into the media sector. It also grants yet more power to the CRTC and the prospect of payment demands from the CBC and communications giants such as Bell.
I think there should be serious concerns about the government’s plans with far better approaches available to address the challenges faced by the media sector. Yet even for those who disagree, surely there is a need for a fulsome discussion, debate and review of the bill. Some of that may occur in committee, but House of Commons debate at second reading is essential as it provides all MPs with the opportunity to learn more about the bill, provide their views, and ask questions of other MPs, including the Minister. The decision to largely dispense with that debate – with the Minister so far a no-show on his own bill – simply can’t happen. The government should use the week off to reconsider its motion and restore much needed House debate before the prospect of sending Bill C-18 to committee.