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New federal cabinet could spell broadcast changes

by Laurel Hyatt

OTTAWA - Broadcasters and distributors are casting their eyes towards Ottawa to see how the new government of Paul Martin could affect their industries.

The topic was top of mind at the Ottawa conference last week of the International Institute of Communications Canadian chapter, where representatives from industry and government discussed the role that various departments can play.

After a session debating the future structure of agencies that deal with broadcasting/distribution and telecommunications, conference attendee Andrée Wylie told that to her knowledge, no one from Martin's team had formally talked to the CRTC about any plans for the agency.

"We are an independent regulatory agency and the government has its powers and we have ours," said Wylie, the Commission's broadcasting vice-chair. "It's difficult for us to comment on what (the new government) means (for the CRTC)."

Wylie said she expects that Martin (who will take the reins as PM on Friday) will have more Parliamentary bodies debate a variety of public policy issues, including broadcasting. "This coming government has made it a big issue that there is a 'democratic deficit,'" she said. "What I suspect is a definite shift of government that's less concentrated."

Consultant Ian Angus, who monitors the CRTC on telecommunications items, said in an interview that he thinks the Commission will still largely stay out of setting policy, except on some issues, such as foreign ownership of companies it regulates.

Amid rumours that Martin could create a "superministry" that combines the departments of Heritage (which includes the CRTC) and Industry, broadcasters are hoping for the status quo, where their industry is considered largely cultural and generally kept separate from telecommunications.

At the IIC session, panellists from the telecommunications side wanted to see broadcasting/distribution lumped together with telecommunications, as it was under the former Department of Communications until it was split into Heritage and Industry in 1993.

Content and carriage should be covered by one regulator and one act, not separate Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts, which for example have different rules for the access to inside television and phone wires, argued Angus.

His views were supported by BCE Inc. executive vice-president Lawson Hunter, who felt that putting broadcasting/distribution and telecommunications in one ministry would show that the sector is a "major driver" of the economy. He conceded, however, that having everything in one department may not leave room for enough public debate on communications policy issues.

Other panellists strongly supported two ministries, arguing that it's important to separate the creation of ideas with the technology to distribute them. "Content is a different animal," said Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting CEO Phyllis Yaffe. "The separation of Heritage and Industry has been a useful tool for the government to understand its role in this very complicated world we live in."

Communications lawyer Peter Grant of McCarthy Tétrault argued that keeping separate ministries helps "animate" public discussion and promote different points of view on communications policy. He said many telecommunications observers fear that in a combined ministry, cultural objectives would take precedence.

In a straw poll of the session's audience members, roughly one-third wanted to keep two ministries, one-third wanted a combined department, and the rest didn't give a show of hands.

One audience member, Shaw Communications senior vice-president, corporate and regulatory affairs, Ken Stein, told panellists that the industry shouldn't "get mesmerized by structural changes" such as altering portfolios, but should ensure that the ministers responsible for communications are the ones who drive important issues.

It's a pretty safe bet that when Martin announces his new cabinet on Friday, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps will be replaced, as will Industry Minister Allan Rock, both one-time competitors to Martin for the Liberal leader position.

Whatever happens in Ottawa, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters is ready to lobby on two key issues, president and CEO Glenn O'Farrell said: to restore some $100 million in funding to the Canadian Television Fund, and to get the Martin government to bring back the bill to crack down on illegal TV satellites, which died on the order paper when the House of Commons was prorogued in mid-November to make way for the new prime minister.

O'Farrell also wants to hold discussions with players in television production, including government officials, to come up with a long-term plan to make the funding situation accountable and sustainable.

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