Canadian Broadcasting Corp. chief executive Hubert Lacroix sent a letter to the Commons finance committee today, pleading for an amendment to the budget implementation bill to ensure the broadcaster's independence.
But when Liberal MP Scott Brison read parts of the letter to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the minister stiffly dismissed any possibility of changes to the bill.
"The CBC may think it is a special, independent, Crown agency. This is wrong," Flaherty said.
"All Crown agencies have a responsibility through ministers, back to Parliament, to the people of Canada. They can't do whatever they want, particularly with taxpayers money. They can't just go off and pay their executives and pay everybody else whatever they want to pay them."
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"If I wanted to do something not nice to the CBC as a minister of finance, I would have done it a long time ago ... and I haven't. We have maintained a high level of budgeting for the CBC," he said.
The government's budget bill would require the CBC, and other government agencies, to seek a mandate to negotiate and "submit to the minister responsible a draft document setting out the general components of a policy on remuneration and conditions of employment."
The government has presented the measure as part of efforts to control costs at a time of fiscal austerity, bringing Crown corporations under the same broad restraint program that has been imposed on public servants.
But the CBC is different, Lacroix writes. The Broadcasting Act gives the CBC's board of directors "explicit authority" to determine salaries, and specifies that employees of the broadcaster are not public servants.
"(The bill) ... may give rise to conflicts with the Broadcasting Act and the Charter and compromise the Corporation's independence," reads the letter.
"This could potentially embroil the government, our corporation, and its unions in litigation, a result that could be avoided with an amendment that protects that independence."
The CBC head adds that the corporation is already accountable to taxpayers in its reports to Parliament, and that salary increases over the past seven years have averaged 1.9 per cent, compared to three per cent in the private sector.
"It is vital that CBC/Radio-Canada is able to function as the independent public broadcaster envisioned by Parliament," Lacroix concludes in the letter.
Flaherty said the CBC may be independent in the way it conducts its journalism, but not on budgetary matters.
In an email response, spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the intent of the bill was to ensure consistency throughout the government in terms of labour costs.
"The government has the ultimate financial responsibility for the Crown Corporations. We must ensure these costs are sustainable," said Matthew Conway.
The proposed measure has drawn fire from other sources, most notably from the union representing CBC employees, and the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting lobby group, which recently delivered a petition of more than 120,000 signatures calling for a "Free CBC" to Parliament Hill.