OTTAWA — Bad blood continues to boil between Canada’s largest private-sector union and the federal Conservatives.
Unifor Canada spokesperson Howard Law accused Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Thursday of launching a “Trump-style attack on media.” He evoked the U.S. president’s name after being asked about Scheer’s criticism of the union’s involvement in the federal government’s $595-million support package for news organizations.
Law told HuffPost Canada that Unifor has no say in how the public money will be spent. Funding-related decisions will be left to a separate panel the union has not been invited to join, he said.
Yet Unifor was among the eight associations tapped by the federal government this week to assemble that “independent panel of experts” to draft recommendations for what qualifications a Canadian journalism organization needs to meet to be considered eligible for subsidies.
The panel is expected to help determine the “eligibility criteria for tax measures” to help the Canadian news industry announced in this year’s budget, according to a department release.
The Quebec Community Newspaper Association, National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, and Canadian Association of Journalists have also been invited to each submit a name to the panel.
Canadian Heritage said the eight associations were picked “because they represent the majority of Canadian news media publishers and journalists.” The panel’s report is expected to be delivered in July.
Unifor is Canada’s largest media union and represents 13,000 industry members across the country. It has a history of partisan campaigning, notably during the 2015 election when the union launched a blitz of anti-Conservative radio ads targeting swing ridings.
That animosity was fuelled again in the fall after union leaders trolled the party by branding themselves online as Scheer’s “worst nightmare” — a satirical twist on a Maclean’s magazine cover that featured the Tory leader and four provincial conservative leaders fighting the Liberal government’s carbon pricing plan.
Some political journalists represented by the union have taken issue with its partisan activities.
Referencing the union’s attack, Scheer said Unifor’s involvement in the media bailout plan flirts with “election interference.”
Liberals have lauded journalists and an independent news media as integral to Canada’s democratic system. But a digital shift, declining revenues, and shrinking newsrooms over the past decade have whittled local news coverage and challenged the industry’s mettle.
The government responded to concerns about the viability of Canadian journalism with three new tax credits announced in the fall economic statement. They’re designed to incentivize people to pay and support “trusted, professional” news outlets, and to offset the labour costs involved in original reporting.
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But the election-year timing of the so-called media bailout and Unifor’s involvement has tested the Liberals’ message that the process is non-partisan.
The federal minister responsible for implementing the measures deflected questions about Unifor’s involvement in an interview with CBC Radio’s Carol Off Thursday.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez was pressed about whether the union’s role in the project has created the appearance of political bias. He repeatedly referenced Conservative attacks claiming Liberals want to “buy” journalists ahead of October’s election, something he called an “insult to professional journalists.”
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Rodriguez spoke about the independent panel of experts in general terms. “We need people from all walks of life,” he said, including those who represent workers, employers, Canada’s regions and official languages.
“Because we need professional journalism in our society. You’re there to ask the tough questions,” he told the “As It Happens” host.
“And that’s exactly what we need,” Rodriguez said, without answering the question.