Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Harper Conservatives' Cultural Policy

Photo by Mike Morin from rickmercer.com.

I'm afraid that most of the Harper Conservatives simply don't get culture and never will. The evidence is there in Bill C-10, of course, which will be getting its third reading in the House this Friday, June 13th. The part of the bill that has become notorious amounts to a very short half-sentence in an enormously long bill. It basically says that in order for a film to be issued a "Canadian film or video production certificate" (the certification---heretofore concerned with where the film was made and who funded it---which is necessary to entitle a Canadian production to tax credits), the Minister of Canadian Heritage must be satisfied that "(b) public financial support of the production would not be contrary to public policy." (If you care to, you can read the whole bill here.)

The most obvious thing that is wrong with this proposed law is that a film or video production must be completed and in the can before the producers can know whether it will satisfy the Heritage Minister. Of course, to budget for and not receive public funding would be enough to bankrupt most small Canadian film and video companies; and naturally, other investors are going to be extremely leery of investing their money in any project that might have the rug pulled out from under it after the fact by the Heritage Minister of the day. So, not only will this create a substantial chilling of the consideration of any politically controversial topic, but, from an accounting point of view, it is contrary to all common business sense: everybody knows that you can't attract the small investors to a project until the major ones are on side. True conservatives deserve better than this daft idea from the government that bears their name.

But a second and more trenchant objection is that, from the point of view of jurisprudence, this is one of those vague laws in which a government gets greedy about taking all the power that it might ever possibly want to use in one grab. "Public policy"? What's that? Well, it is whatever they say it is. C-10, then, is, in short, a piggy law that any real democrat must despise.

Naturally, the current Heritage Minister, Josée Verner, has been robust in her defence of the law that bestows upon her a despot's powers of acting on caprice. Not long ago, she huffed impatiently:

We are far from censorship here. We are just putting forward an intention from our government and (from) the former Liberal government just to make sure that we will take fiscal measure to make sure that the Canadian taxpayers' money won't fund extreme violence, child pornography or something like that.

Apparently, she didn't actually add "Trust me," but she might as well have done so. "Or something like that" is one of those phrases that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who knows anything whatsoever about the history of what politicians have felt at times about the arts. But let's leave that aside for the moment and stick with "extreme violence" and "child pornography." Talk about inflammatory subjects!

But wait a minute. Has any film ever been made in Canada, that featured either "extreme violence" or "child pornography," and for which the producers applied for tax credit? Well, no. Never. Besides which, "child pornography" is against the law already, so given that example, the new law would basically say that it's against the law to do something which is against the law.

So, what are they worried about, really? Well, the only clue we're left with is "something like that," which, in the eyes of the Honorable Ms Verner or whoever her successors may be!, could mean almost anything that runs contrary to the views of the government of the day: gay marriage, abortion, the Kyoto protocol, Rick Mercer, or whatever.

I know that sounds as though now I am just being ridiculous, but here's the thing: the law DOES give them that power. Ergo, it is not me that is ridiculous, but the law. As I say, it is a piggy law.

But the main point that I want to make here is a new one---or, at least, as far as I can tell, it seems to have escaped all the discussion thus far:


What I mean by this is: why not write a law that says that if any industry does anything which is "contrary to public policy" (or, better still, in violation of the Criminal Code---remember that old thing?), said industry will not receive any government funding or tax credits? Either the principle is a sound one or it isn't. So why not extend the law?

Why not, indeed. Because it is very clear that, while there has not yet been a film or video made in Canada that received funding while doing any of the heinous things Mr Harper and Ms Verner imagine, there have, repeatedly, been other sorts of companies that have taken public funding while violating all manner of laws, policies and public interests again, and again, and again. Who am I thinking of? Well, just consider for a second how the oil, or mining, or forestry companies would react to such a restriction. Demonstrably, if there are mad dogs that need to be muzzled in this country, those are the sectors of the economy in which you will find them, not in the arts.

So, I find myself forced to this conclusion: Stephen Harper's Conservatives have gone after the arts because they are galled by the freedom of imagination that artists embrace and represent. To a sensitive mind, this is obviously a deeply shameful situation, but I suspect that Ms Verner and many of her colleagues would be completely baffled by the suggestion that there was any shame at all in what they intend to do.