The former host of CBC afternoon radio show All Points West, who in December retired from her job in order to fight more openly for the national broadcaster's future, is now seeking the nomination to run for the federal Green Party in Victoria.
More accustomed to asking than answering questions, Jo-Ann Roberts sat down in a local coffee shop with The Tyee for her first interview as a politician. She talked freely about why now, why Green, the threat to the CBC, and her sadness over leaving journalism.
"It was a very big decision to run for a political party because, as you know, you say goodbye to your journalism," she said, her eyes moist as she talked about how intertwined her career and her identity had become. "That was the biggest part... I've been, for 35 years, a journalist. This puts an end to that."
Still, the 58-year-old mother of four said the timing was right for her to leave the CBC, and that the political arena gives her a very public forum to say the things she feels need to be said, for at least the next nine months of campaigning -- and possibly longer.
Originally from Prince Edward Island, Roberts came to Victoria 10 years ago after stints in Moncton and Winnipeg. The Victoria riding, which the Greens nearly won in a 2012 by-election, neighbours Saanich-Gulf Islands, where party leader Elizabeth May became the first federally elected Green in 2011.
The nomination meeting is scheduled for the afternoon of Jan. 31. Roberts has the endorsement of May, who recruited her to run and who said in a statement: "My pledge to her is that, if she gets the nomination and becomes Victoria's next MP, we will together shine a spotlight on the imperative of public broadcasting for all Canadians."
Here's what else Roberts had to say in her interview with The Tyee.
Why do you want the job?
To be honest, this is not something that ever crossed my mind before I was in a position to do it. But as I anticipated leaving to fight for the CBC, I realized, for the next nine months anyways, one of the ways to do that is [through politics]. You know, running is not winning. You have to be prepared for that. When I weighed my options I thought, if I was ever going to do this in the political arena, now's the time.
How central to your politics are the issues around the CBC?
It is the piece that had me leave the CBC. It is the piece that got me thinking politically. Once I got to that point, it could no longer be the only piece. [I'm] not a one-issue candidate, and if all I was going to do was fight for the CBC, I could have found other ways to do it... As a journalist I covered so many of these individual stories that I'm starting to call them the 'Harper government driving us by fear' [stories]. I've covered them individually, not as a whole... I care about this using fear to not look at the environment, because it might ruin the economy, or using fear to change crime legislation instead of looking at the crime rates, using fear to get rid of facts like scientific research. Using fear became an issue for me.
You've said both the Liberals and the Greens sought you as a candidate. How did you decide?
It was a hard decision. I looked at their platforms. I don't know Justin Trudeau personally. I grew up in the time of his father, whom I did admire. But I admire Elizabeth May, personally. I admire that she's trying to change the conversation. So when I looked at the party platforms, Vision Green was closer to my own values and what I think the country should look like going forward... Overarching all the issues in this election, I would think, is how we are going to approach the future of our climate and our environment.
I think Elizabeth proved you can run on your principles, not just because you want to be in power. Maybe it's still because I'm not quite far enough out of the journalism camp yet, but that's important to me.
The NDP says it would put $115 million back into the CBC. The party's Victoria MP, Murray Rankin, has an environmental background. Why run against him?
That was hard. I met with Murray on Monday. We had lunch so I could tell him personally because I like Murray and I respect Murray, and if Murray was running for the Green Party I'd vote for Murray and I wouldn't run against him. Murray's running as a New Democrat, and I wish he was running as a Green.
We're giving the people of Victoria a really good choice, because we don't disagree on the CBC. Wouldn't it be great if we had someone in Parliament who could vote with the Liberals or vote with the NDP when they agreed with what they were standing for? The New Democrats have not shown themselves that willing to do that, and I'm sure that's hard on Murray, but that's his choice. He gets the advantage of a bigger party. I get the advantage of being free to speak about what I care about. It's a trade-off.
I knew that would be an issue. It's a fair one to ask. Even people who are both pro-environment can differ on issues, and this will give people a choice.
Why was it time for you to leave the CBC?
It became very obvious to me that I could not have a voice about the CBC while I worked there as a host. Even outside events now are becoming an issue. When I was teaching the course [as a guest lecturer at the University of Victoria] -- this is really when it came to a head -- the CBC refused to recognize there was any value in what I was doing and they had a very heavy hand in what I could say, even though I wasn't working for them when I was there.
The position included giving a public talk. Did CBC have to review it ahead of time or something?
They had an observer there in case I said something that they had a problem with. As I said, I've had a live microphone for 20 years and I've never embarrassed them, and I don't think I would have embarrassed them. It tells you something more about the nature of where the CBC is at right now. It is feeling under attack and it is worried about an attack from inside. I don't blame that. But they feel anything we do as employees can be picked up, primarily by Sun News that's out to get us. There's a fear. When I said I was leaving and put on the CBC Facebook page that I was worried about the future of the CBC, I was called in to the manager's office and asked to take it down. He got it from above, he wasn't acting alone.
Within the CBC I felt, we need someone who's free. I'm able to [be free] now, and I will continue to do this nine months from now, whether I'm elected or not.
What does the public need to know about what's going on at the CBC?
The budget cuts have reached a point where we can no longer sustain what we're doing, and I'm worried that the quality of what we mean to the country will start to disappear. We won't be serving all Canadians. We won't be covering the issues that matter to Canadians if we're trying to meet ratings, trying to raise money. This fundamentally changes what the CBC is, and we're not having the discussion. We're just meeting budget targets. I'm not saying what the CBC should become... I'd like us to sit down as a country and ask what we want from a public broadcaster, because I firmly believe it's essential to a social democracy.
Right now, eight of the 10 board of directors are contributors to the Conservative party. That never happened in the past because there was kind of this understanding that we should have independent people on the board, but it's not in legislation. In Germany, it's in legislation.
We've had 1,000 people leave this year. At least my job went to a young person. That was something I was encouraged by.
How much are CBC decisions made with an eye to ratings? The station was criticized recently for running a video of someone having a temper tantrum at a ferry terminal as news, for example.
I've got to be careful... Television is about ratings, and television is where we're struggling right now. The webpage looks like Entertainment Tonight. That doesn't diminish it -- we're still doing some good journalism. We have some of the best people out there. My worry is more about direction, about the bigger picture. You know, when you cut the Local Television Improvement Fund, which the Harper government just did, that affects what we can do in television. It also affects local production. The recent round of cuts at the CBC in radio... we dropped two very significant freelancers, we cut the rest of them back to half time. That means other journalists get affected.
Are there advantages and disadvantages that a journalist brings to politics?
We have a skill set that I think really translates to being a politician. We're good at getting to the bottom of issues. We're critical thinkers. When people say things to us, our first response is to weigh the pros and cons. In a very confrontational political world that is not as useful, but what I'm hoping to do as a Green party politician is to avoid that. We're also used to [hearing] people's personal concerns, and if there's an injustice getting to the bottom of it, and I think that's what a good constituency MP does. I think we bring our ability to communicate.
Journalists sometimes see how the political sausages are made and think it doesn't look too hard.
It's a lot harder than it looks as I've found out in the last couple days… I've had 35 years in this career, and I've raised four kids. I think I relate to a lot of people, a lot of moms out there, a lot of working moms. I've lived a good life, but not a privileged life. I think that's a good thing to have in the House of Commons.