Conservatives fumble arts funding

Posted on September 1, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion – Conservatives fumble arts funding
September 01, 2008. Carol Goar

Maybe he’s just a film buff who wants to catch a few flicks and revel in Toronto’s global reputation as a centre of cinematic excellence.

But the facts don’t quite fit Jim Flaherty’s story.

Why would the finance minister trumpet his plan to attend the Toronto International Film Festival if he merely wanted to enjoy the show?

Why would he suddenly put his cultural credentials on display when his government is poised to chop arts funding by $44.8 million?

Why would he swan around a film festival on the eve of an election call?

This has all the markings of a damage control exercise.

The Conservatives apparently thought, when they slashed five programs supporting the arts, that they could shore up their right-wing base, provoke a politically useful backlash among pampered urbanites, and win credit from ordinary folks for getting rid of needless frills as consumers tightened their belts to cope with rising gasoline and food prices.

A party memo, leaked to the press in early August, gleefully identified left-wingers, privileged rock stars and “general radicals” who didn’t need government largesse.

But several of the alleged culprits piped up to say they’d never applied for public funding; they were asked by public federal officials to speak, perform or showcase Canadian talent abroad.

Then some decidedly non-radical recipients of arts grants – the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Tafelmusik – joined the outcry, accusing the government of parochialism, short-sightedness and a failure to recognize culture as one of the linchpins of the knowledge economy.

A bewildering succession of explanations followed. Over the next three weeks, various ministers and party officials said the cuts were merely part of a government-wide spending review; they were an attempt to streamline the delivery of arts funding; they were designed to free up money for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; and most recently that they weren’t really cuts at all – the Tories have provided more support to the cultural sector than their Liberal predecessors did.

As each fresh rationale was trotted out, the perception that the government didn’t know what it was doing – or did and was trying to hide it from Canadians – deepened.

The Tories appear to have made four basic miscalculations:

* They were furtive. They chopped grants without consulting the recipients or informing the public. Some of Ottawa’s 60-odd funding programs for Canadian culture may well be superfluous. But cutting them, then chortling as the victims found out, was bad politics.
* They underestimated the reach and importance of the cultural sector. It provides 7.4 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product and accounts for 1.1 million jobs. It stimulates creativity and attracts new talent. It touches everyone from occasional theatre-goers to obsessive designers of new digital applications. To treat culture as a boondoggle is to display an outdated view of the world.
* They seriously misread the way the move would be interpreted in Quebec. Culture is central to the province’s identity and values. No government that understood the importance of the arts to voters of every political stripe would clip the wings of Quebec’s creators and performers. No party with roots in the province would alienate Quebec’s cultural leaders.
* And they blundered into the spotlight without a communication plan. As their story kept changing and revelations of more cuts kept dribbling out, what could have been a brief controversy ballooned into a persistent pre-election headache.

Flaherty, better known for his hockey prowess than his love of film, is an unlikely goodwill ambassador. Although he is not the philistine many Canadians think, he is hardly an advocate for a vibrant, innovative sector.

He’ll attract attention – some of it hostile – if he shows up at TIFF this week.

The best course of action would be to listen and stifle any temptation to expound on the efficiency or effectiveness of arts grants.

If Flaherty really is a fan of Canadian moviemaking, so much the better. No one would begrudge the guy a few hours of great entertainment.

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