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No Tory Defence for Artistic Merit

Culture barely registers on the Conservative election platform, except as a shocking excuse for porn.

Mark Leiren-Young 24 Jun

Mark Leiren-Young is a writer/director/performer who spends too much of his free time worrying about the environment, the Canadian political scene, and the Vancouver Canucks (not necessarily in that order). Mark won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his comic memoir, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo. He was a finalist for the WGC Award for screenwriting for his first feature film, The Green Chain. His most recent book, This Crazy Time, was written with/about controversial environmentalist, Tzeporah Berman. He's half of the satirical duo Local Anxiety. Their latest comedy CD, Greenpieces, is available on iTunes and their 21st century version of O Christmas Tree is becoming a holiday favourite thanks to The Tyee.

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The arts have finally made it as an election issue. The Conservatives want to make sure "artistic merit" isn't allowed as a defense against child pornography charges.

Of course, no one is mentioning that "artistic merit" was originally added to this type of legislation after critics pointed out that authorities could slap the cuffs on actors performing dangerous trash like Romeo and Juliet, which depicts underage sex. (You could probably also have made a case for busting anyone in possession of any early Britney Spears album - both legally and aesthetically.)

The current furore over anti-pornography laws isn't about art or law, though. It's about votes. Ontario votes. In a ghoulish attempt to capitalize on the murder of 10-year-old Holly Jones, Tory leader Stephen Harper decided to tacitly endorse the child's killer's claim that porn made him do it.

So now art is on the national agenda - but not in the way artists had hoped it would be.

Artists rarely defend themselves

Until last week, most people involved with creating Canadian culture seemed determined to sit this election out. And there are an estimated 700,000 Canadians involved in making or marketing movies, television, music, books, theatre, dance, visual art and the like -- so that's a lot of voters and lobby groups keeping quiet. Then the polls started showing the prospect of a Harper victory and the cultural community finally came out of the closet.

But why were they hiding there in the first place?

The Liberals have been trying to bash Tories on cultural issues since early in the campaign, but the first real salvos didn't start flying from Canada's culture makers until June 14, when virtually every arts group important enough to have its own acronym demanded at the Banff Television Festival that Stephen Harper and Paul Martin, "come clean" on the issue of foreign ownership.

Sandra Martin of The Globe and Mail reported on the speech and on warnings by Heritage Minister Hélène Scherrer about the dangers of electing Harper. Apparently unable to get a quote from anyone who actually worked for or with the Tories, Martin inexplicably cited Globe political columnist Norman Spector to dismiss concerns as "fear-mongering." Spector has a very impressive resume, but even he must have been baffled to find himself quoted as the Tories' expert defense witness on cultural policy.

"Jim Abbott, the Conservative Heritage critic declined to comment for this article," Martin wrote. "Through a spokesman in his riding in Kootenay-Columbia, he said he was concentrating on the local campaign and was not going to make comments to the national press."

Tories only vague, not vacant

So I called Mr. Abbott's constituency office in Kootenay-Columbia and his assistant, Jim, cheerfully offered to send me Mr. Abbott's "talking points on culture." Of course, The Tyee obviously has a lot more pull with politicians than the Globe.

The "talking points" don't reveal much -- the first one states simply "This issue is not in our platform, so we have no changes planned." It's a neat way of avoiding the subject, but it hardly means the Conservatives don't have anything in mind. The points do reveal that the Conservatives want to audit almost everything, review the mandate of the CRTC, defer to the global marketplace and emphasize competition.

So I Googled Abbott to see what he was saying back when he was the Alliance heritage critic. Last June, Abbott issued the Alliance's dissenting opinion on the parliamentary review of the Canadian Broadcasting Act. "We would significantly reduce CBC operating subsidy by commercialization of CBC television," he stated.

'Competition' is the mantra

More troubling for anyone who fought to keep culture out of NAFTA is the following news. "Canadian Alliance supports relaxing foreign ownership rules on Canadian industry, including telecommunications and broadcast distribution. We suggest conducting an immediate review to determine whether to reduce or completely remove these rules." The proposals also called for relaxing definitions of Canadian content. The Alliance did, however, support CBC radio. The proposals from the report provide a revealing elaboration of Abbott's vague talking points.

A quick search of Hansard also turned up the record of a Canadian Heritage Committee meeting on March 14, 2002, where Abbott quizzed CBC CEO Robert Rabinovitch about the need for CBC Television. "We have the specialty channels that are absolutely starved for Canadian content. As a matter of fact, they are starved for any content. That being the case, why do we need the CBC? We have all of these channels, all of these outlets that are universally available to all Canadians, albeit for a small fee. Why do we need the CBC in order to put out these programs if in fact we are matching what you have said, where the only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content? If we have a high enough content, why does it absolutely have to be shown on the CBC at public expense?"

Filmmaking 'corporate welfare' targeted

Then I found a link to Harper's briefing notes to "ReformaTory" candidates dated April 2, 2004. They discuss plans to neuter the CRTC, relax foreign ownership regulations and deregulate the airwaves.

Meanwhile, just last week, North Vancouver Tory MP Ted White, referred to tax breaks for the film and TV industry as "corporate welfare" and pledged to eliminate them.

Gosh, I can't imagine where anyone would get the idea these guys are hostile to culture. When the Vancouver arts community hosted an all-candidates meeting on cultural issues at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Tuesday, all the candidates but the Conservatives' Gary Mitchell showed up.

The arts and cultural communities might have a raft of grievances against Paul Martin's Liberals, but with the Tories as the alternative you'd think they'd be natural, high-profile allies. You don't hear a lot of Grits threatening to kill the CBC or revisit Canadian content laws.

So why weren't cultural workers screaming from the rooftops?

One reason is that arts and culture types don't like to take political stands. Some members of cultural organizations initially waffled over whether to oppose Brian Mulroney on free trade. Even though most people knew it could lead to cultural Armageddon, there were still factions that didn't want to get involved in the dirty world of politics. Fortunately, enough people did, which is why "culture" was ultimately taken off the negotiating table.

Also, until the polls shifted towards Harper, there was no pressing reason to get involved. It was no secret that ReformaTory views on culture ran the gamut from oblivious to openly hostile, but nobody seriously thought they were going to win. The Liberals were supposed to get spanked and sent to bed without a majority and an NDP rump would push them to increase cultural funding -- or at least stop them from cutting it.

Martin killed his cultural angel

But if Paul Martin really wants to know where all the artists went, he should realize that he drove them back into hiding. The man who found time to parachute "star candidates" into ridings all across the country said he couldn't interfere in the nomination process when it came to his only rival for the leadership, Sheila Copps. He actually said this with a straight face. And then he wonders why people think he's a liar?

Copps glad-handed at CanCon awards shows, the way old time pols cut ribbons. She may not have given cultural organizations everything they wanted, but Copps was extremely visible and vocal and gave the people who create Canadian culture the sense she was fighting for them. When Martin punished Copps for having the audacity to delay his coronation, he alienated the constituency she'd built -- and that constituency reached far beyond her Hamilton riding.

Martin also released a policy platform that pays no more attention to arts and culture than the Tory's manifesto. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting complained that "This is the first Liberal 'Red Book' to be silent on cultural issues [since] we began covering broadcasting and culture in 1985." It's hard to believe that would have happened if Copps had still been part of the Liberal team.

The editorial in the current issue of Playback (the trade paper for Canada's TV and film industry) notes that when Copps' successor attacked the Tories at Banff, the Liberals wasted a golden opportunity to sell almost 2000 film and TV professionals on their agenda. "Beyond a half-hour of Conservative-bashing," editor Peter Vamos wrote, "Scherrer delivered only platitudes." Vamos described it as one of many wasted opportunities in an "election that appears to be leading to a fall for the Liberals -- and possibly the film and TV biz, to boot."

Taking artists for granted

Clem Martini, president of the Playwright's Guild of Canada, told me he suspects the Liberals take the support of cultural communities for granted. "Add to this that the Conservatives/Alliance/Reform attitude toward the arts has historically been so appalling that the Liberals felt that there was never any threat of losing votes in that direction."

They may not lose the cultural communities' votes. But they lost most of the voices of some very high-profile potential allies.

Now cultural pros have begun nervously chattering that the Tories could be a bigger threat to Canadian cultural than free trade. Harper may not be an evil reptilian kitten eater from outer space, but if you depend on CBC TV, Telefilm, Canadian content laws or the Canada Council for your livelihood  (or you simply care about Canadian culture) he might be something even worse --  a true blue Alberta Reformer.

The Conservative's have exactly one mention of "art" in their official platform. It's where they talk about removing the defense of "artistic merit" from child pornography laws. That seems like a pretty clear indication of where Canadian culture sits on their list of priorities.

Toronto playwright and television writer Mark Leiren-Young is chronically dependent on federal cultural policy. He has written about the Calgary Flames and Svend Robinson for previous editions of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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