Jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for the attack ad industry

Partisan acrimony is all the stimulus our economy needs

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Ralph Goodale was abuzz with words. The Conservatives, he said, were both “swiping” and “perverting.” And that was just the half of it.

“Mr. Speaker, with the latest unemployment figures showing 112,000 lost jobs and Canada’s latest monthly economic growth at zero, what does the government plan to put in its next omnibus budget bill?” Goodale asked himself. “First, there is an EI scheme that the Parliamentary Budget Officer says will actually kill 9,200 jobs and second, another scheme authorizing the swiping of television news programs for use in political attack ads. Why is the government perverting a budget bill to legitimize illegal behaviour?”

Whatever the Liberal deputy leader’s excitement, the minister of state for finance did not want to ruin the surprise.

“Mr. Speaker, I would encourage the member for Wascana to wait patiently,” Kevin Sorensen demurred. “As we travel across this country we will be consulting with Canadians as to what goes in next year’s budget bill. But with all the good measures that we bring forward to help lower taxes, to create jobs, to increase skills development, we can be certain that the opposition will continue, as in the past, to vote against all those measures.”

That the opposition will continue to oppose the government seems a safe bet—possibly even a foundational responsibility. But if the government ever wanted to decrease the odds of objection, it might simply put each of its budget proposals before the House in its own separate bill. That would at least give the opposition a chance to find two or three measures it liked and reject the rest. Alas, as an idealistic young MP once lamented, an omnibus bill offers no such ability to pick out the bits you like.

In that regard, Sorensen might not need to wait until next spring to be disappointed by the opposition’s opposition. Since 2006, it has been tradition to greet the fall with a second budget implementation act and with Ottawa returning to its natural state of frigidness, we are about due for another stack of paper.

And already there are two potential points of disagreement.

The first concerns the “small-business job credit”—part of what Mr. Goodale referred to as the government’s “EI scheme.” Though not officially tabbed to go in the next budget bill, that would seem a reasonable spot for it.

Touted by the government this fall as $550 million in tax relief for small businesses, a new assessment from the Parliamentary Budget Officer pegs the total resulting boost in employment for the credit to be “200 new full‐time equivalent jobs in 2015 and 600 new jobs in 2016″—gains that are otherwise rather overwhelmed by the government’s choice of EI premium rates.

To rebut this, the government might’ve given Sorensen something like its own analysis. Instead it sent him up with an estimate from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business—25,000 person-years of employment, a figure that has sometimes been poorly translated into 25,000 jobs—and some happy quotes from industry groups.

“Mr. Speaker,” the minister of state enthused, “perhaps the opposition should listen to the groups that actually create the jobs.”

Perhaps. But perhaps even then it’s useful to have someone check the math. And perhaps by the time the government puts their new credit in writing, they’ll be ready to show their own math.

If the government is feeling particularly frisky, it might even purchase air time on the major networks to broadcast a full discussion of the numbers. Failing that, I promise to post in full whatever the government has to offer in the way of analysis. Lest I do otherwise and be accused, say, of censorship.

It is, in fact, an interest in free and open dialogue that has brought us to the second point of dispute.

As reported last night by CTV, there is (or at least has been) some desire within the Harper government to, via the next budget bill, amend the country’s copyright laws to better ensure that political parties can use footage broadcast by television networks—this being Goodale’s concern about “swiping” and “perverting.”

“Mr. Speaker, artists looking for copyright changes have been told to wait until 2017, but the Conservative Party gets served right now, this fall, by a copyright change bootlegged into a omnibus bill,” Goodale charged with his supplemental. “Journalists will have their news content taken, they would say stolen, without permission or remuneration and then they will be forced to broadcast their own stuff in partisan attack ads. It is expropriation without compensation. It degrades integrity and freedom of the press. Why does the government behave like such a tin-pot banana republic?”

This much might at least be broadcast as a lesson in denunciation.

The document that inspired CTV’s report was labelled as a “presentation by the minister of Canadian Heritage,” but said minister could obviously not be expected to say something here.

“Mr. Speaker, first, we are not going to comment on rumours and speculation,” Shelly Glover demurred.

That said, the minister would proceed to comment.

“That said, our position has been very clear,” she continued. “There is a public interest in ensuring that politicians are accountable for their actions and accountable for what they say in public settings. Major television networks should not have the ability to censor what can and cannot be broadcast to Canadians.”

That apparently is why the state must dictate to broadcasters what is broadcastable.

We might have a fun conversation here about the definition of censorship and what constitutes that offence, but that would possibly be to chase a clumsy red herring (easily caught, but to little boost to one’s self-esteem).

That politicians should be accountable is a fairly unimpeachable idea. But then, it seems to me, your average television ad producer doesn’t necessarily need television footage of a politician saying or doing anything to do that. Words can be shown on screen and results can be explained. And, of course, it’s not a political party’s own politicians for whom a party might find itself in need of footage. If the Conservative party needs a shot of Stephen Harper saying something, he would likely be happy to oblige (at least so long as he was asked politely).

So presumably the primary advantage to changing the law here would be to clear the way for a political party to use news footage of another party’s politician. And presumably such uses would not generally be of the flattering variety. (Or perhaps there is a Conservative party official somewhere who pines to put together a tribute to Tom Mulcair’s finest scrums.)

That said, there still might be an argument for giving all coverage of politics over to the public domain. Even if we might want to consider whether we were setting up a situation in which every time a politician ever appeared in public he or she would have to be thinking about whether their words and actions were destined to end up in an attack ad. Then again, maybe they already think this.

“Do not take it from me,” Glover later offered, commenting again without commenting. “I would like to read what Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa had to say about this copyright issue: ‘Copyright law should not be used to stifle legitimate speech … attempts to use copyright to claim absolute rights over the use of a portion of a video clip is surely counter to basic principles of fair dealing (in Canada) or fair use.’

“He agrees with us.”

Sort of. Glover seems here to have elided over Geist’s reference to “noxious attack ads” and stopped reading before the professor posited “that there are far better policy approaches available than an awkward self-interested exception.” (Geist has also followed up with a second post.)

Perhaps if we give parties free run, we could require that they provide a link to the original source material.

That the job credit might be included in a budget bill would make some sense (even if it was not in the actual budget), but that the copyright change might be included would seem once again to stretch the limits of how one defines the words “budget” and “implementation,” particularly when those words are put next to each other. (A quick search finds no use of the word “copyright” in the budget plan.)

But perhaps that is to grossly limit our imagination of what contributes to Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity™. Broadcasters were threatening to refuse to air ads that used their material without permission, but now the attack-ad industry would never have to worry about even a theoretical limit on their available content—any small attack-ad business owner who didn’t previously want to risk a lawsuit has now been gifted with a potentially limitless supply of free footage. Just imagine what the young attack-ad minds of tomorrow will be able to do.

Political parties might also now feel it necessary to hire an extra intern (maybe even two) to scan the furthest reaches of cable news to find the most embarrassing stuff. And if the government really wants to spread the prosperity, it might, as the Globe editorial board laments, extend the exemption beyond political parties to unions and interest groups and even private citizens. Everyone can be in the business of making Justin Trudeau look silly for profit.

Here is what governments, beyond simply cutting taxes, can do best for the economy: spot an up-and-coming growth industry and give it that boost in needs to become a real force.