Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and ISED Minister François-Philippe Champagne publicly released what amounts to a mandate letter to new CRTC Chair Vicky Eatrides this morning. The letter contains many laudable goals and aspirations: a more timely, transparent, and inclusive commission, an emphasis on competition in telecom, and an affirmation of the importance of freedom of expression in broadcast. Yet what matters when it comes to the current government and communications issues is not what it says, but what it does. The letter may represent a tacit acknowledgement of the disaster that was the Ian Scott era – the ministers themselves note the waning public trust in the CRTC – but the problems go beyond its chair.
For example, the letter emphasizes the independence of the CRTC, stating the government is “committed to an independent public authority that operates at arm’s length”. But just last week – one day before the letter was sent to Eatrides – Rodriguez told an industry conference that he could “direct the CRTC on many things and in many ways.” In fact, the Bill C-11 debate has featured regular claims from the government about the benefits of the bill that pre-suppose outcomes without any evidence or hearings. Far from preserving its independence, Rodriguez has loudly proclaimed his ability to get the Commission to do what he wants before any hearings have been conducted.
The disconnect between the ministers words and their actions doesn’t stop there. The letter talks about the need to engage indigenous communities, but when indigenous creators tried to do so with Rodriguez’s office, they were left feeling gaslit and disrespected. It emphasizes the importance of freedom of expression and promoting cultural expression, yet the signals from Rodriguez last week was the efforts to protect those principles found in Senate amendments will be rejected. As for Bill C-18, the letter points to benefiting a diversity of news businesses, but the bill itself excludes many of those business while including hundreds of broadcasters that don’t even have news production as part of their mandate.
On the telecom front, the letter cites the importance of competition and wholesale access, yet the government has done little to ensure that either of those goals are strongly upheld. A growing number of independent ISPs have been swallowed up by incumbents amid a regulatory environment that has left them vulnerable and struggling to compete. Meanwhile, it will be the government’s decision on the Rogers-Shaw merger that will be crucial to Canadian competition.
The government’s recent appointments to the CRTC have been very encouraging – Eatrides, Adam Scott, and Bram Abramson all bring expertise and new perspectives that signal the potential for a change in approach. They offer reason for optimism that is hard to muster from the government that has made it a habit of saying one thing, but doing something else when it comes to broadcast, telecom, and Internet policy.