Of the countless issues debated in the current federal election campaign, taxing Web giants, financing leading cultural institutions, revising the Law on Broadcasting and restricting exemptions in copyright laws are the dominant ones in cultural affairs. The arts community as a whole and several of its leading personalities have been working together with media outlets across the country to impress their concerns and demands on all political parties vying for seats on Oct. 21.
To address the concerns of the sector, Culture Montréal, the city’s arts umbrella organization, renewed its traditional pre-election public debate. Held last month at the Monument National, this event was staged in collaboration with the department of communication of the Université de Montréal, the Pôle médias of the HEC (Hautes études commerciales) and UQAM’s Écoles des médias. The goal of the meeting was to gather the political parties around a table and let them lay out their own priorities in cultural affairs for the next government.
The Elephant in the Room
Representing the parties that evening were the following candidates:
– Pablo Rodriguez, Liberal Party of Canada and minister of Canadian Heritage
– Gérard Deltell, Conservative Party of Canada
– Chu Anh Pham, New Democratic Party of Canada;
– Pierre Nantel, Green Party of Canada
– Monique Pauzé, Bloc québécois.
The one burning issue discussed at this forum, moderated by Radio-Canada broadcaster Catherine Perrin, was the imposition of a tax on the big four (GAFA) and other Web giants. In her opening remarks, Perrin quipped: “It’s like an elephant in the room.” There were no dissenters that evening on the issue of levying a tax on corporations operating in the digital domain.
No more Preferential Treatment
In his statement, the minister reminded everyone that any decisions in this area should not be taken until such time that the process to revise the Law on Broadcasting is completed. “A task force of experts is currently studying these matters,” Rodriguez stated. “They are due to report back next January.” While recognizing the fact that several concurrent systems lead to inequities, as is now the case, he wholeheartedly agreed with the necessity of implementing a single system for everyone. “They, the Web giants, have to act responsibly, so they cannot expect to receive preferential treatment indefinitely. This has to stop. Legislation is now needed to make everyone do his fair share in the promotion of our culture.” To make his point, the Rodriguez noted that culture is now exempted in the recently renegotiated trade agreement with the United States and Mexico. What’s more, the Liberal government was looking into the recent tax measures imposed in France on the GAFA.
Still Early in the Campaign
Gérard Delteil, from the Conservatives, drew attention to the fact that this situation is not uniquely Canadian, but global. “The World Trade Organization is on the case,” he said, cautioning people to wait for its assessment on the matter before taking action. His party, he went on, was monitoring the effects of policies implemented in other countries. Given the fact that this forum occurred early in the campaign, Mr. Deltell assured everyone that his party would spell out its platform in the weeks running up to election day.
Chu Ahn Pham, the NPD rep at that table, not only came out in support of taxing Web corporations but was ready to legislate without waiting for the completion of the process to revise the law in question. The Liberal government’s argument of not wanting to overburden Canadians financially did not hold water for her, and its decision to not tax revenues and profits of these corporations was nothing less than aberrant. To make her case, she figured that a GST rate of only 5% would bring in $200 million to the State coffers. Her party, she claimed, totally agrees with the 3% tax on revenues introduced by the French government.
More Daring Leadership
“We pay GST on all kinds of goods and services, but none on a Netflix subscription,” laments Pierre Nantel of the Green Party. “There is no excuse for that, nor for a tax-exempt Facebook or Google ad.” He then criticized the government for its lack of leadership in taxing Netflix subscriptions. He views France’s action as a role model for the defense of culture, and it seemed only normal to him that the same be done in Quebec, even more so given its distinct means of producing and consuming its cultural goods. He based his argument on data from opinion polls that indicate the most listened to programs in Quebec are home-made. In his estimation, Ottawa’s lack of resolve in this regard has rendered Quebec culture and its media more vulnerable than ever.
Monique Pauzé, of the BQ, cried foul at the tax exemptions granted to Netflix and other Web giants but not to the local publishing industry. To lend added support to media outlets and compensate those affected by the Web giants, she demanded taxation on all Web ads and the establishment of a fund to collect revenues for re-investment into market-specific television productions and Web series. She stressed the absence of Québécois content on the net, which lead her to propose the creation of a broadcast and telecommunications commission for Quebec, a body that could effectively ensure control over the dissemination of its own culture.
Ergo, the Media Crisis
“Nowadays, the words media and crisis go hand in hand,” said moderator Perrin, a statement that gave her the opportunity to pose the following question to the panelists: “Is your party committed to maintain and adjust to the needs of print media outlets and support them accordingly in accordance to the promise made to them by the preceding government?” The moderator couched her question with the following statistic: 50% of jobs in that sector have been lost over the past decade.
In Mr. Deltell’s view, the existing program has created as much discontent among those excluded from it as from those qualifying for it, the reason being the insufficient amounts allotted to them. The issue, in his mind, is a very complex one, with no quick fix. “It has to be considered in a more global way,” he argued. “If you are to help the media, you have to do it across the board by covering both written and electronic platforms on a national and regional basis.” That said, he thought that the industry had to do its part and show some initiative in this regard. “If you offer content free of charge on the Web and have financial problems, then stop complaining about your hardships and give yourself a look in the mirror.” To make his point, he cites the business model of Le Devoir. In a four-year period, the newspaper collected over $2 million of donations from its readers. Because of its subscribers, three quarters of its revenues are now secured. Like other newspapers, it too grants free net access to its content, but on a limited basis.
One topic that did not go unnoticed in the debate was the troubling situation in the film industry, one that stems from the chronic lack of funding granted to Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board. For their part, stakeholders in the book publishing sector did not miss the opportunity to make their views heard concerning the numerous exemptions granted to digital platforms in the current copyright laws and a need to curtail these in the revision process. There now is a strong consensus in media circles to admit journalists and other content providers into the process, so that they too can receive compensation for work that finds its way onto the Web.
On the flip side of the coin, little time was devoted to the performing arts and their related travel programs, a fact some attendees managed to point out in a forum so overwhelmingly dominated by the digital domain. Rodriguez still took a moment to highlight some of the Liberal government’s accomplishments, namely, the doubling of the Canada Council budget, the hiring of 14 cultural attaches and the creation of a $125-million arts outreach program overseas, of which Cavalia and the founding of the Moment Factory were two of its success stories.
Translation: Marc Chénard