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Questions about who qualifies surround journalism supports in federal budget

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OTTAWA — Concerns are being raised about limits to who might qualify for aid under a section of this week’s federal budget geared toward supporting journalism, and whether the money will, in the long run, save a sector of Canada’s media industry that has been in financial freefall for a decade.

Tuesday’s federal budget disclosed new details about the distribution of $595 million that had been earmarked in the fall economic statement for promoting Canadian journalism.

Qualifying criteria would see money directed at journalistic organizations primarily involved in the production of original news, with an emphasis placed on coverage of democratic institutions and processes.

The budget also revealed an “independent panel of experts from the Canadian journalism sector” would be created to help figure out which news will be eligible to receive money or tax credits over a five-year period.

The Opposition Conservatives have dismissed the measures, accusing the Liberals of buying off the media in advance of the October election, at taxpayer expense.

The independent panel is key to ensuring the government itself isn’t perceived to have a hand in deciding who gets money, and who doesn’t, says Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

“We must protect journalistic independence and that’s why an independent experts panel will define eligibility to these new investments,” the minister told The Canadian Press in an email. “We are going to the root of the problem and creating concrete measures to support Canadian newspapers, big and small.”

But that specificity — that the government means to support newspapers in particular — is what draws criticism.

A 2017 report by the Public Policy Forum, called “Shattered Mirror,” indicated that about one-third of journalism jobs in Canada were lost between 2010 and 2017 as advertising revenue for newspapers, TV and radio stations shrank dramatically. Much of the revenues media outlets depend on have been siphoned off by online platforms such as Google and Facebook. The result has been not only layoffs throughout the industry but the outright closure of many local papers.

“Canadian written press has taken (the biggest) hit as they’ve lost half of their jobs since 2010,” Rodriguez notes. The government, in announcing plans to help the industry, has cited the findings of the Public Policy Forum, which has warned that fewer journalists reporting on public affairs will ultimately harm democracy.

The budget proposed refundable tax credits to help media organizations cover up to a quarter of their labour costs, but the credits would only be made available to what are deemed “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” and would exclude entities “carrying on a broadcasting undertaking.”

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters calls that unfair.

“If the government is truly committed to recognizing the vital role media plays in helping citizens make informed decisions, it must find a way to include radio and television news outlets in this tax-credit regime,” the association’s board chair Lenore Gibson, a lawyer for Bell Media Inc., said in a statement.

Magazine publishers also would not qualify for the tax credits if they already receive aid through the Canadian Periodical Fund.

Media union CWA Canada welcomed the budget measures but worried that the rules could allow a traditional media giant such as Postmedia Network Inc. to benefit without necessarily helping journalism.

“We need to know there will be rules to ensure that a company like Postmedia can’t simply take millions of dollars in labour tax credits and pass that on to the debt-holders who control it or to pay huge executive salaries or bonuses,” CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon said. He represents journalists at Postmedia papers in Ottawa, Regina and Montreal, among others, and at the CBC and The Canadian Press.

A qualified organization would have to be set up as a corporation, partnership or trust. If it is a public corporation, it must be listed on a Canadian stock exchange and not be controlled by non-Canadian citizens. If it’s a private corporation, it must be at least 75 per cent Canadian-owned.

Postmedia, which operates dozens of weekly and daily publications, including the National Post, along with several websites and magazines, is a publicly traded company. Its executive chairman Paul Godfrey has been a vocal proponent of government support of the country’s news industry and called the tax-credit scheme “a turning point in the plight of newspapers” when it was announced in the fall.

A spokeswoman for Postmedia said the guidelines unveiled by the Trudeau government so far indicate the company would qualify for the labour tax credits, but added that it’s too soon to say for certain.

News Media Canada, which represents 800 publications throughout Canada, also said Friday it was unclear whether the country’s biggest media firms would qualify for the tax credits. A spokesman, however, said some community newspapers had already indicated they planned to hire more journalists based on details provided in Tuesday’s budget.

April Lindgren, who operates Ryerson University’s local-news research project, questioned whether the measures will result in more journalists being hired to cover local news.

“I don’t think it’s going to spark a whole bunch of new hires of journalists,” Lindgren said.

Regardless, under the parameters set out in the budget, most of the aid money would be funnelled to struggling mainstream players, said Chris Waddell, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism who questions the logic behind the move.

“We’re in a situation where, in fact, government is subsidizing the least likely people to succeed in the current format,” said Waddell. “My question is why? To what end?”

Nearly 270 local news outlets have either closed or merged in 194 communities across Canada since 2008, according to Ryerson’s latest tracking data, published last month.

In that same timeframe, 108 new or merged outlets have been launched in 78 communities.

The bulk of the journalism funding proposed in the budget — $360 million over five years — is attached to the labour tax credits. Once the budget is approved, the credits would apply retroactively to the beginning of this year and cover 25 per cent of the costs of journalists working a minimum of 26 hours per week for 40 consecutive weeks.

Qualifying organizations would also be required to employ at least two journalists who spend at least three-quarters of their time “engaged in the production of news content, including by researching, collecting information, verifying facts, photographing, writing, editing, designing and otherwise preparing content.”

And news content would be defined as “matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes.”

Outlets primarily focused on a particular topic such as sports, arts, entertainment or other industry-specific news would not meet that test.

The budget also includes tax credits of 15 per cent on subscriptions to digital news websites, allowing Canadians to claim up to $500 worth of subscriptions per year to qualify for a maximum $75 non-refundable tax credit. But that credit won’t be available until 2020 — after the next federal election.

Such a tax credit is doomed because there is so much free content online, and the public cannot differentiate between quality and commodity news, said Waddell.

“People are not refusing to buy online subscriptions because they’re $15 per month rather than $13 a month,” he said. “They’re refusing to buy because they see the alternative is zero dollars a month.”

As well, the budget proposes allowing registered journalism organizations to qualify as charities through the Canada Revenue Agency, so they can issue charitable tax receipts to people or registered charities who donate money to them.

Among the restrictions being imposed for charitable status qualification, news organizations must have a board of directors operating at arm’s length from each other, must not be “factually controlled by a person” and must not receive money from any one donor that represents more than 20 per cent of total annual revenues.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave an incorrect title for Paul Godfrey, the executive chairman of Postmedia. He is no longer the CEO.

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As the House rises, which bills made it through — and which ones didn’t

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OTTAWA — The House of Commons has risen for the summer, following a flurry of legislating that rushed numerous significant bills into law before the break. But other potential laws remained mired in the legislative process as of late Thursday, awaiting action in the Senate — or a possible special summer session centred on ratification of the new North American free trade deal.

Some of the high-profile bills that reached final votes after the beginning of last week and now just await royal assent:

Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, a much-debated bill that would ban oil tankers from a portion of the British Columbia coast. Its journey through parliament has been marked by a committee report that recommended it not pass, the defeat of that report and the House’s rejection of some Senate amendments. Following the adjournment of the House and much debate, the Senate chose not to pursue further changes and passed it Thursday evening.

Bill C-93, which will allow expedited pardons for Canadians who were convicted of simple possession of cannabis before legalization came into effect. The bill passed in the Senate Wednesday, without amendment.

Bill C-59, a bill to establish a national-security review agency, create an “intelligence commissioner” to oversee the conduct of Canada’s spy agencies, and clarify the mandate and powers of the Communications Security Establishment (the government cybersecurity agency). The bill was amended by the Senate but several of those changes were rejected by the House, and the Senate voted Tuesday not to insist on its recommendations.

Bills C-91, a bill that will create a commissioner for Indigenous languages and take other steps to save and revitalize those languages. The Senate voted Thursday, after the House had adjourned, to decline to insist on its amendments, finalizing the bill. Bill C-92, clarifying the jurisdiction of Indigenous people over family and child services in their communities, also passed through the Senate Thursday.

Bill C-75, which will “hybridize” a series of offences so that they can now be prosecuted as either indictable or less-serious summary charges, and establish peremptory challenges of jurors. The bill was passed through the Senate with amendments, the House chose not to accept several of those, and the Senate Thursday decided not to insist on the remaining changes.

Bill C-84, a long-awaited bill that expands the definition of bestiality to any sexual contact with an animal. Those convicted of bestiality will now be registered as sex offenders and banned from owning animals. It also widens the definition of animal fighting so that it applies to the construction of any arena for that purpose. It passed without amendment Tuesday.

At the time the House adjourned for the summer Thursday, several bills still required further consideration in the upper chamber, which continued sitting. Among them were several controversial and consequential bills:

Bill C-69, also fiercely criticized by the Conservatives, is the second of the government’s two major environmental bills, and would create a new environmental-impact assessment process for major projects in Canada. The House rejected a majority of the Senate’s amendments. It was due for a vote late Thursday.

Bills C-98, which gives a review commission powers to review the Canada Border Services Agency,  was accelerated through the House Wednesday, when it was read a third time and passed in one swift motion.

Bill C-83, which aims to eliminate the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. The House rejected several key amendments proposed by the Senate, which some have said are needed to make the bill constitutional.

Bill C-262, a law that would ensure federal laws are brought in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But the government’s representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, announced Wednesday he did not see a path forward for the bill in the Senate and that the Trudeau government would campaign on fulfilling the intent of the bill.

Bill C-97, a sprawling budget-implementation bill which includes changes to Canada’s refugee system, support for news journalism, and introduces the Canada Training Credit.

And then there’s the one bill that could affect all the others:

Bill C-100, the government’s bill to ratify the new NAFTA agreement among Canada, the United States and Mexico. It has only been introduced and read for the first time in the House of Commons, but might move quickly through Parliament before the election should the United States complete its own ratification of the deal in Congress. If Parliament returns for that bill, the Commons and the Senate could also take up others at the same time.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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B.C. tanker-ban bill squeaks through final vote in Senate

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OTTAWA — Legislation barring oil tankers from loading at ports on the northern coast of British Columbia slipped over its final hurdle in the Senate Thursday, despite last-minute attempts by Conservative senators to convince their colleagues to kill it.

Bill C-48 is one of two government bills Conservatives in both the House of Commons and the Senate say are kneecapping Alberta’s oil industry by limiting the movement of its oil. It passed the Senate by a vote of 49 to 46.

The tanker ban and Bill C-69, an overhaul of federal environmental assessments of major construction projects, have together become a flashpoint between the Liberals and Conservatives over how Canada can protect the environment without driving investment away from the fossil-fuel sector.

C-69 imposes more requirements for consulting affected Indigenous communities, widens public participation in the review process and requires climate change to be considered when major national resource-exploitation and transportation projects are being evaluated. It applies to a wide range of projects including interprovincial pipelines, highways, mines and power links.

C-69 was set for its final dance in the upper chamber late Thursday evening. The Senate made more than 200 amendments to that bill earlier this month but the government accepted only 99 of them, mostly to do with reducing ministerial discretion to intervene in the review process.

The unelected Senate has generally bowed to the will of the elected House of Commons when there is a dispute between the two parliamentary chambers about legislation.

The bills, both expected to be fodder for Liberals and Conservatives on the campaign trail to this fall’s election, were on a long list of legislation the Senate pounded through as it prepared to rise for the summer.

The House of Commons called it quits earlier Thursday. The House closed after MPs delivered condolence speeches following the death of Conservative MP Mark Warawa, forgoing the rest of the day’s planned activities out of respect for the veteran MP who died of cancer.

Bill C-48 imposes a moratorium on oil tankers north of Vancouver Island, but after the government accepted an amendment from the Senate, it will now undergo a mandatory review in five years.

The Senate committee that reviewed the bill recommended in May the entire Senate vote down the bill in its entirety, but that didn’t happen, leading Conservatives to accuse the Independent senators who make up a majority in the chamber of being Liberals in disguise.

Conservative Sen. Michael MacDonald was one of a few from his caucus to make final pleas with his colleagues to not proceed with the bill.

He said it “will be devastating for the Alberta and Saskatchewan economies.”

However several Independent senators rose to speak in favour of the bill, including Yukon Independent Sen. Pat Duncan.

“I believe we should be doing it,” said Duncan.

Ontario Sen. Donna Dasko, who was on the committee that studied the bill in the Senate, said she thinks “it is quite a good bill.”

“This bill does not actually ban tankers from the Hecate Strait; it simply landlocks Alberta and Saskatchewan oil, and destroys the possibility of economic development in northern Indigenous communities,” said Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson, a former premier of the Northwest Territories, after the Senate passed it.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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