Well, I’m here. Actually, I’m late, in the strictest sense, since the meeting began at 4, but early in the important sense, since the star of tonight’s show—Paul Gross—doesn’t make his debut for a half hour or so. At the moment, the committee is listening to testimony from Desjardins Financial, and I’m not sure what their issues with the bill are, if any, but it seems to have something to do with RRSPs.
The senators, bless their always inquisitive little hearts, are peppering them with questions, but that’s not why I’m here, so I’m not paying all that much attention. Does that make me one of those shallow, substance-free committee livebloggers who just shows up for the celebrities? I hope not. If so, I’m going to be awfully disappointed by the lack of glamour during tonight’s Committee of the Whole.
Ooh, I think the yummy-voiced Australian translator is on duty! What with his dulcet tones, and the promise of Paul Gross, this just gets better and better. And the wonderfully helpful person who made me a map of the table last time just did it again, so I am totally ready for action.
I promise not to chatter too much while waiting for Paul Gross, but I just wanted to note that I am now staring at two tickets to the “most talked about Canadian film of the year”. Now all I have to do is figure out how to assuage my guilt at missing the first part of tomorrow night’s Foreign Affairs Committee of the Whole, starring To Be Announced. (Not Helena Guergis, though; as it turns out, she’s in Peru.)
The room is definitely starting to fill up as we get closer to G-Hour. The Chair, David Angus, seems to be winding this portion of the hearing down, although he notes that when the committee was first given the bill, they were assured by the government that there was “nothing controversial” in it, but now even the non-tax credit-related provisions are being revealed to be riddled with problems.
After a few more back and forths with the bankers, the chair notes that the room is filling up with people waiting to hear from a “very famous witness”—see, he’s a committee celebjunkie too!—and suspends the hearing for two minutes so that said very famous witness can get settled.
And there he is! You’ve all seen Paul Gross, right? So I don’t need to describe him? I can describe his tie, if you’d like—it has a curious pattern, I think maybe scarab beetles? Or mummies? Or … Haida designs?
Senator Angus is such an adorable gadfly. “Let me introduce you to the sponsor of the bill: Senator Eyton, the powerful mogul,” he rumbles at a jovial-looking Gross.
More handshakes, smiles and posing for photos, and the meeting is back in session; it turns out that Paul Gross was actually lurking in the room during the last round, so he, too, now knows far more about RRSPs than he ever expected.
There are “visitor senators,” the chair announces—Janis Johnson, Tommy Banks, Len Gustufson—while Trevor Eyton drinks orange juice, and the floor is then turned over to Paul Gross, who introduces himself as a writer, actor, director, producer “and Canadian nationalist.”
Gross confesses that some of what he’s about to say may be redundant, since he knows the senators have heard from multiple witnesses already. That’s okay, we haven’t heard it from you. Anyway, I’ll skim over the stuff we’ve already covered in excruciating detail, at least until they get to the question and answer session.
Without the tax credit, he says, his film—Paschendale—would not have been able to be made; the tax credit is one of the few stable factors in the complex formula that underlies film production in Canada.
A slight twist on the usual argument against censorship-by-inches: the provision, Gross notes, presumes that Canadians are too stupid, too ignorant and benighted to make up their own minds on whether a movie is worth spending money on a ticket, or a television show worth spending time to watch. Without those ticket sales or viewers, a movie or television show would die.
Lots of good stuff about the horrors of suppressing artistic expression, although, he notes, the state always fails, no matter how many Galileos are hung, and how many books by James Joyce are burnt. The ideas will survive, and rise up.
Why, he wonders, didn’t the government introduce these provisions in a stand-alone bill so that it could be debated, and voted on its own values? This is far from a housekeeping matter, or a simple administrative change—it is legislation by stealth, and if that is not contrary to public policy, he says, it should be.
His grandfather, he says, fought in that war—and not in defence of censorship, but freedom, just like the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan today.
Well, that was quite an opening. Let’s see if the rest of the meeting can match it for sheer passion.
First up, Senator Tkachuk, who valiantly tries to debunk the notion that this is about freedom of speech. Can there be no freedom without a tax credit, he wonders? Gross counters by asking if one can have a cultural industry without public support.
Tkachuk challenges Gross with his usual counter arguments: wasn’t this change proposed well in advance; isn’t it possible to have adult-oriented entertainment without a tax subsidy? Gross deftly parries; he acknowledges that he knew there was “something” going on, but not the specifics. What has been really remarkable, he says, is the way the government has dug in its heels when confronted with reasonable opposition to the change. It’s just “silly.”
Letters were sent to the industry, Tkuchuk repeats. Letters! But… just because the artistic community was late to the battle doesn’t make the arguments against the bill invalid. He doesn’t want to get into an argument about freedom of speech, he insists—well, no kidding—but that’s not what that is.
Gross, rather charmingly, apologizes on behalf of the film and television industry for being so slow to react; he also takes a veiled shot at the government by noting that he’s thrilled to hear that the Conservatives support the film industry: he looks forward to seeing that support in action. Some tittering amongst the Liberal senators, but Tkachuk looks—sort of tired, actually.
He can’t imagine how anything in Paschendale could offend, he notes, but what if it crossed the line, based on some “whimsical” notion of “public policy” which has yet to be defined. Fair enough, says Tkachuk, gruffly but with respect. Really.
The senators are briefly distracted by a tangent on John Diefenbaker, of all things—and yes, Paul Gross is right in the middle of it, as he has played Dief in the past.
Tommy Banks eventually takes the floor, and wonders whether Gross is suggesting that this provision be applied to American productions as well. This particular legislation, Gross says, shouldn’t be applied to any film, Canadian or otherwise, but if it’s going to be applied to Canadian films, then it should be done so across the board.
Why does this bill concern him, Banks wonders. He won’t have any trouble staying within the provisional guidelines, so it won’t hurt him when he’s trying to raise money. Once again, Gross points out that it’s “very hard” to raise money, even if you’re relatively well-known, but when it comes down to it, you can never tell what might offend. He tells a little story about his experiences with the Ontario ratings board, where he ran into difficulties over three incidents of “penetration”—”but not the kind of penetration you think, senator,” he adds. “Why did you direct that at me?” jokes Tkachuk. Turns out that the examples had nothing to do with penetration of a—yeah, that variety. The most inexplicable was a scene involving a woman injecting herself with morphine; the ratings board told him that to be given an AA rating, the shot would have to cut away from her leg, to her face, lest it “teach children how to inject drugs.”
The senators—Liberal, Conservative and otherwise—shake their heads in disbelief.
Michael Meighen chides the witness good-naturedly for missing the opening at Stratford last week before launching into a new line of questioning: why is it that the provincial tax credit regime isn’t similarly controversial? In Quebec, films can’t be covered if they go against government policy, he marvels. How is it that hasn’t raised a whisper of complaint?
Gross describes the patchwork of credit systems across the country. Alberta, he notes, which was where he filmed Paschendale, has no tax credit at all, but that was okay, because “Ralph gave me a lot of money.” This momentarily kerflummoxes the senators, who can’t figure out whether he means Goodale or Klein. (The latter, apparently.)
More gentle fingerwagging at the arts community, and the opposition members that failed to notice the provision until the bill hit the Senate. Yes, yes, they’re all very bad and careless.
“What about a movie called Sober Second Thought,” suggests Angus, to much chortling; the title, one senator points out, might be problematic—sobriety being so closely tied to drunkenness.
A shoutout to Charles McVety, by way of a cleverly pointed question from Yoine Goldstein, who notes that “some witnesses” have suggested there is no unanimity within the film industry, and asks if Gross knows anyone who supports the bill in its current form. No, he says, and asks which witness made that claim. “It was a minister,” says Goldstein, after a slight pause.
Trevor Eyton once again wonders whether there is some standard that could be substituted for the current “public policy” that would be less vague, and more precise—which would involve amending the bill, which the Finance minister insists would be a confidence matter, and bring down his government, so I’m not sure why he’s suggesting it, but whatever. Gross hesitates; in theory, it’s possible, but why is the provision needed at all?
It all seems to come down to one film—Young People Fucking. “I’m sure they thought they’d come up with a clever title, and they’ve practically brought the industry to its knees,” Gross observes somewhat sardonically. “Another penetrating comment!” says an unidentified (by me, because I wasn’t watching that end of the table) senator. More laughter. “It’s kind of dirty in here,” Gross notes. Oh, darlin’, this is the Senate. It’s like the Algonquin Roundtable compared to a Commons committee.
Wilfrid Moore wants to read the provision once again, so that he can point out that the way the law is written means that it can’t be reviewed by the House or the Senate—it can be changed, deleted or anything else without going before any body of Parliament.
“That’s amazing,” says Gross. “I didn’t know that.” Now he looks even more alarmed. He points to a debate currently taking place in the Middle East over an attempt to set up laws to control the media that, he notes, has some remarkable similarities to this one. What if there is a terrible cabinet appointment, he wonders. “Doesn’t happen,” quips Senator Massicotte. “I don’t know why I would have thought that,” Gross shoots back.
I think what I really like about this committee is the sense of camaraderie, between witnesses and senators, and senators of all parties. It’s so—refreshing. I vaguely remember a time when House committees had that same feeling, but it’s been a while, and I could have just been hallucinating, or saw it on TV.
The whole exercise, Eyton points out, is to improve the legislation—which sends Francis Fox into a tirade; the real solution, he suggests, is to withdraw a flawed bill. That, for the record, is what Gross would prefer.
One final question from Massicotte: does Gross know of any other country with this kind of content-based rebate in place? China, Gross suggests. Myanmar? “I’m joking,” he hastily adds. “I don’t know of one.”
The lone female at the table, Senator Janis Johnson, says she’s very upset by the fact that her colleague—Trevor Eyton—who she loves very much is trying to argue that the new system can be postponed for a year while consultations take place, rather than simply pulling the provision. She believes this is something that the Senate can do, and that it should do, since the other half of Parliament failed to do its job—to show Canadians that they (senators, I guess) can do something for the arts. She’s such a Pollyanna—and I mean that in the best possible way.
This is peculiar—this provision, Gross says—and it doesn’t fit. Once again, he admits that the industry fell down by not noticing it before now, but that shouldn’t be the only issue. One of the reasons why this should be debated in a wider public forum is because it goes to a larger question of how we use our taxes, and what Canada spends money on. He isn’t in a hospital, but he doesn’t mind paying for health care; he doesn’t drive in the Yukon, but he’s fine with his tax money going to roads up there.
With that, the chair releases him, and tells the senators to be back, bright and early, tomorrow. The committee members cluster around Paul Gross, who is a perfect gentleman; I’d stick around, but I have a date with the entire House of Commons.
David Tkachuk, meanwhile, is delivering an impromptu paean to Hollywood, which makes movies people want to see. Why can’t Janis Johnson see that, he wonders. She counters by asking if he wants to shut down the National Gallery, and I’d really love to stick around and listen to this all night, but … yeah. Til next time!