Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Say No to Bill C-10

All right, you keep talking about this Bill C-10 business. What is it?

Bill C-10 is what's called an omnibus bill; that means that it bundles together a bunch of changes to many laws and treats them as one act of legislation in order to get them all approved in a timely manner.

It's apparently about 500 pages long, and mostly involves absolutely trivial changes to tax codes and related regulations. It was also a housecleaning bill, an effort to try to make changes that have been planned since the Liberals were in office.

It sailed through the House of Commons with approval by all the political parties.

That sounds efficient and non-partisan. What's the problem?

The problem is that, buried deep in the legislation, was this change to the rules governing tax credits for film and television production:

“Canadian film or video production certificate” means a certificate issued in respect of a production by the Minister of Canadian Heritage certifying that the production is a Canadian film or video production in respect of which that Minister is satisfied that

(a) except where the production is a treaty co-production (as defined by regulation), an acceptable share of revenues from the exploitation of the production in non-Canadian markets is, under the terms of any agreement, retained by

(i) a qualified corporation that owns or owned an interest in, or for civil law a right in, the production,
(ii) a prescribed taxable Canadian corporation related to the qualified corporation, or
(iii) any combination of corporations described in subparagraph (i) or (ii); and

(b) public financial support of the production would not be contrary to public policy.


Okay, blah blah blah party of the first part, eyes glazing over... Wait a minute!


Yeah.

"Contrary to public policy"? What does that even mean?

Apparently that would be at the discretion of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, but it would include "gratuitous" sex and violence, and other projects that include "criminal content".

Wow. Do a lot of people make Canadian movies and TV with criminal content?

According to representatives of the Ministry of Canadian Heritage itself? It has never happened.

Well, who decides what "gratuitous" sex and violence is?

A panel appointed by the Minister of Canadian Heritage, made up of representatives from the Ministries of Heritage and Justice.

What criteria would they use?

They either don't know or won't say.

Okay, that's kind of reactionary and heavy-handed, but this is public money, right? Maybe it shouldn't go to controversial projects?

That's where the argument gets even more complicated, I'm afraid. The tax credit system isn't "arts funding." Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fun do that sort of funding -- where money is paid out to creators to provide direct financial support to their projects.

The tax credit really is what it sounds like -- a credit towards money invested in the production of Canadian film and television, to compensate for the cost of salaries.

The tax credit, in other words, allows Canadians to profit by paying Canadians to make Canadian productions.

Because those salaries are a huge percentage of production expenses, the tax credit comprises a significant part of the budgets of Canadian film and TV. Because it's money investors/funders are guaranteed to get back, it has become a vital part of production budgets -- essentially as "in-kind" funding. And it has never been dependent on content in any way -- as long as a production qualifies as Can-con, it qualifies for tax credits.

Putting that previously-certain funding in jeopardy means putting the financial underpinnings of the entire system in jeopardy. It means that artists, producers and funders will be put in the position of having to self-censor -- deciding whether to risk their money on whether or not the Minister of Heritage and a panel of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats decide your project is "offensive."

Because the criteria, apparently, will be retroactive. A movie or TV production could be approved, then have its tax credits yanked after the fact.

The resulting investment chill would make it difficult to develop a project with any controversial, thought-provoking, transgressive or intellectually and artistically challenging content at all. Investors simply won't be able to risk it.

Whose stupid idea was this?

Prominent religious-right types in Canada were giving themselves rather public pats on the back over having convinced the Conservative government to move this law forward. Ironically, that was probably one of the key factors in stirring up public opinion against it.

The Conservatives deny it, saying in their own defence that the Liberals are actually the ones who cooked up that part of C-10. It's true; the idea for the provision originated some years ago, when Sheila Copps was Heritage Minister. There was an understandable -- although, you will notice, quickly forgotten -- uproar over a movie about Karla Homolka being eligible for tax credits. Just like every other movie and TV show that meets the existing guidelines (the guidelines are, basically, "no news, sports, reality shows, games shows or porn get tax credits.")

So the idea of introducing a "public policy" clause to the tax credit system was cooked up. But it was a bad idea.

I find the notion of cashing in on Karla Homolka's infamy absolutely disgusting. But as wiser people than I have pointed out, "Tough cases make bad laws." Panic legislation -- law made in a frenzy of overreaction to a single, egregious event -- tends to go much too far, much too fast, with far too little reasoned debate.

This is a classic example. Giving politicians and bureaucrats arbitrary power to decide what movies and TV shows can and can't be made? I don't care who thought of it; it's a bad, dangerous piece of legislation. I don't care who stops it; it just needs to be stopped.

The Liberals, incidentally, claim that the Conservatives tweaked the wording in a way that would give the Heritage Minister much more arbitrary power to decide what constitutes being "contrary to public policy", including the "after the fact" part.

But is it really censorship?

As I mentioned in my last post, that's a thorny issue. So thorny, that I'm going to stick with the short answer. Yes.

Come on. It's not really censorship, is it?

In the strictest, most semantic sense? No, no it isn't.

But in a real, practical sense the intent is clearly censorious, and the effect would be indistinguishable from censorship. The insidious and cowardly part is that because it isn't technically censorship, the government can deny that it's attacking freedom of expression while still making it impossible for movies and TV shows they disapprove of to get made.

Is this thing a done deal?

Not quite. As I mentioned, because C-10 was a 500-page omnibus bill that was supposed to only contain technical tax law changes that everyone had already agreed to, it sailed through the House of Commons with absolutely no scrutiny, and then went to the Senate -- normally pretty much a technicality.

Then someone actually read the thing. And spotted the new part. And a public uproar ensued. Almost everyone in Canadian film and TV blew their collective gaskets, free speech advocates joined in and the media started paying attention.

So the Senate yanked the Bill from moving on to third reading -- which would have passed it -- and sent it back to the Senate's Banking, Trade and Investment Committee for scrutiny. They have the power to propose changes to Bill C-10, and send the revised version back to the Commons. The Liberal majority leader in the Senate has promised that they will send it back with changes remove the censorious component of the Bill.

Wait. The Canadian Senate did something useful?

We were all surprised.

And what can we do?

You can speak out, so the Senators know that their leadership on this issue is appreciated, and their action supported by a broad spectrum of public opinion.

You can write to the Prime Minister, the Heritage Minister, and the leaders and culture critics in the opposition parties, so they know that we are opposed to Bill C-10 as it stands, and demand they withdraw any component of it that would directly or indirectly censor Canadian film and TV production.

You can join the Facebook group that was formed in opposition to C-10; there were a few hundred members when I joined, a day or so after news of the Bill's provisions swept through the industry. Now there are over 34,000. It's a great source for more background, contact info for sending letters and emails, and news about what others are doing to help stop C-10.

The stakes are nothing less than freedom of speech, the future of Canadian film and TV as both an industry and art form, and stopping the government from sneakily using tax policy to enforce a reactionary conservative social agenda.

Please do what you can. Join me in saying no to Bill C-10!

1 comment:

Patrick said...

The tax credit BS is exactly the sort of thing the Bush government is doing down south. "Proto-fascism" Henry Giroux calls it, wherein public spaces for the exchange and discussion of ideas are privatized, eliminating the ability to make informed decisions, and limiting the ability to think critically. Bill C-10 would (as you know) cause artist to change or limit their expression out of fear; another aspect of fascism (proto- or otherwise.)