The Financial Post
Thursday, September 3, 1998

Competition shield leads to mediocrity

Cultural institutions must be freed from the shackles of regulation

"In a globalized marketplace, in an era of rapid technological change, Canadians have acted and will act to advance our interests and ensure Canadians have access to Canadian culture."
-- Heritage Minister Sheila Copps
by Fazil Mihlar

Sheila Copps' comment is a clear reflection of the Liberal government's cultural policy: to shield cultural industries from foreign competition. This is also the honorable minister's way of saying Ottawa will decide what Canadian culture is, and what cultural products Canadians can consume. Operationally, this policy means federal money is to be made available to Canadian film producers, Canadian book publishers, and to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. - all in the name of "protecting" Canadian culture.

Besides Ottawa's arrogant presumption that it knows better than ordinary Canadians what constitutes Canadian culture, its cultural policy is fundamentally flawed.

First, there is an unquestioned assumption that Canadian culture is "the bedrock of national sovereignty and national pride". It is absurd, however, to suggest that Canada would go up in flames if certain artists and authors were not guaranteed an audience. Moreover, given that only 12.9% of television viewers and 11.4% of radio listeners tune in to CBC stations, it is rather puzzling that cultural nationalists cling to the belief it is the CBC that holds our country together. Fortunately, most Canadians are confident that even in the absence of the CBC or Margaret Atwood, Canada would continue to exist as a sovereign entity.

Second, by protecting our cultural industries from competition, Canadian cultural policy has promoted mediocrity and lethargy among many artists. Even one of Canada's artistic legends is dismayed by this phenomenon. Mordecai Richler writes, "nationalists are lobbying for the imposition of Canadian content quotas in our bookshops and theatres ... In a word, largely second-rate writers are demanding from Ottawa what their talent has denied them, an audience."

Fortunately for Canada, not all our cultural icons have bought into "entitlemania". In fact, many artists have achieved considerable international reputation without Ottawa's protection: Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, Jim Carey, Michael J. Fox, and Celine Dion come to mind. The success of these individuals is a tribute to their talent and originality. Indeed, their success is testimony to the fact Canadian artists can compete with the best in the world and come out on top.

Third, cultural policy as practised today constitutes a handout from taxpayers to special interest groups. As a result of interest group politics, the arts lobby gains millions of dollars for its members while Canadians foot the tax bill. In the final analysis, the main beneficiaries of government intervention in the cultural industry are authors, artists, and managers - without any concomitant advancement in the quality of cultural products.

In a free society, Canadians must be able to pursue their own self-interest. They must be free to choose among competing cultural products and services. If we do believe in freedom, we must respect the sovereignty of each other's preferences in all areas that do not infringe on the rights of others. Cultural policy should be no exception. Thus any cultural policy that respects the right of Canadians to make free choices must be a "bottom up" policy - one that respects the wishes of Canadians in every region of the country.

If we are to promote excellence in our cultural industries we must free them from the shackles of government regulation and subject them to international competition. The research evidence from the international trade literature suggests the quality and variety of cultural goods and services would improve if subject to competition. Ottawa, therefore, should begin by eliminating the Canada Council and other public grant agencies. It should also make haste to repeal all Canadian content regulations. Then it should complete the task by privatizing the CBC, Telefilm Canada, and the National Film Board.

Fazil Mihlar is director of regulatory studies at the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank.

Copyright © 1998 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.