Public policy

Can James Moore be both arts champion and axe man?

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Canada's Heritage Minister James Moore speaks in Ottawa, March 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/CHRIS WATTIE / REUTERS)

When James Moore became Minister of Canadian Heritage, he says he fielded three main requests from the arts community: Don’t cut funding, make it easier to get funding by cutting red tape and be a champion for the arts. The minister who took an axe to the CBC this week, cutting its funding by 10 per cent, unapologetically clung to the idea of being a champion of the arts on Thursday, touting a budget that slashed his own department’s operations while shielding the Canada Council for the Arts, national museums and others from funding cuts.

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“No cuts to the Canada Council for the Arts, no cuts to Arts Presentation Canada [now the Canada Arts Presentation Fund] festival funding – all those things that are critical to quality of life in communities across the country,” Moore told The Globe and Mail Thursday afternoon. “All of it has been protected in the budget.”

This was a big moment for Moore. Since becoming Heritage Minister in 2008, he has positioned himself as a defender of the arts – someone who, at the very least, sees their worth in terms of economic stimulus. More than that, he goes out of his way to portray himself as someone who appreciates the arts for their cultural worth – someone who gets a kick out of his portfolio. He’ll be at the Junos this weekend, rooting for fellow British Columbian Dan Mangan. He tweets about Ron Sexsmith and Deadmau5. Give him a chance, and he’ll tell you about his movie nights at the National Arts Centre – where Canadian films are shown to packed houses that may include the Prime Minister and/or his wife. He seems to have come a long way from the guy who in 2009 couldn’t identify the prominent Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan when quizzed by the Radio-Canada program Tout le monde en parle.

“He’s respected by the arts community because he’s one of the only voices in government at any level that seems to be able to articulate the arts case and the argument for public investment in the arts,” says Vancouver arts advocate Sandy Garossino. “But the support from the community is wary because of the company he keeps.”

This week, that company – a Conservative Party whose leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, famously demonized the arts community as gala-attending cultural elitists during the 2008 election campaign – may have caught up with him. In an austerity budget brought down by the Conservative majority, Heritage was cut by $191-million, including cuts to the CBC ($115-million), the National Film Board ($6.7-million) and Telefilm ($10.6-million) – all to be phased in over three years.

Given that, would Moore, who has managed, despite his party affiliation, to portray himself as a brave defender of the arts, be able to maintain that role?

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said shortly after the budget came down.

Moore, 35, grew up and still lives in suburban Metro Vancouver (when he’s not in Ottawa). He was first elected in 2000, when he was 24, making him the youngest elected MP in B.C.’s history. He also became the youngest minister in B.C. history when he was appointed to cabinet in 2008.

The MP for Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam is viewed as a bit of a contradiction, seen by many in the arts community as a friend among Philistines, a federal Conservative who has earned their grudging admiration, despite the tough anti-arts funding position taken by a portion of the party’s base – and some of his party colleagues.

“I think he’s a very strong minister within cabinet. I think he’s a strong advocate for arts and culture, and he’s not shy about it,” said Éric Dubeau, co-chair of the Canadian Arts Coalition and executive director of the Fédération culturelle canadienne-français. “We haven’t heard a lot of negative feedback about the minister. He’s approachable. I’ve heard that a lot from various stakeholders within the community. He listens and we don’t think it’s bogus.”

Thursday’s budget – in particular the maintaining of funding to the Canada Council – seemed to solidify that assessment.

“I think that ... we have a champion within the cabinet,” said Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council and CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada, to which Moore recently paid a visit. “I think this budget is confirming that he championed the sector. ... He probably had to fight and argue a lot to win what he won in the budget and I think that ... I and other leaders in the cultural milieu realize that we are blessed to have someone who decided to fight for us.”

Added Dubeau, who also praised the budget: “He’s fairly outspoken about his conviction that arts and culture are important assets for Canada and not just economic but also social assets, and that’s a discourse that we don’t often hear from this government.”

That perception – of Moore as a lonely defender of the arts within his party – is fairly widespread in the arts community.

“We’re fortunate that the ministry is headed by somebody who is probably taking a stronger stand within government in defence of the programs than would be expected,” says Rob Gloor, executive director of the Vancouver-based Alliance for Arts and Culture. “So within the spectrum of the Conservative Party, I think that James Moore is considered generally more friend than foe.”

Moore, a former private radio broadcaster, hasn’t made many friends at CBC this week. The 10 per cent cut – which works out to $27.8-million in 2012-2013 but escalates to $115-million by 2014-2015 – is a move CBC watchers warn will have a severe impact.

This from the Minister who told the CBC the day after last year’s election that support for the public broadcaster would be maintained or increased.

So, what happened between May 3, 2011, and Thursday’s federal budget?

“The commitment is that the CBC has to have enough money to fulfill its mandate. That’s our commitment. And in this budget, they do,” said Moore.

Ian Morrison, of the pro-CBC group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, was livid on Thursday, calling the cuts to the CBC “vindictive” and “punitive.” And he warned that they could mean the death of Radio 2, the closing of foreign bureaus and other cuts.

(Actual decisions will be outlined to CBC employees in upcoming Town Hall meetings.)

But Morrison also suggests that Moore isn’t necessarily making the decisions when it comes to big-ticket items like the CBC. “When we get to things the size of the national public broadcaster, I think he takes orders,” says Morrison.

“I’d have to say he certainly hasn’t been a disaster, and he may be the best that you can possibly get from this government.”

Politics, as they say, can make strange bedfellows. Consider a funding announcement at the VSO School of Music the week before the budget came down. Moore sat onstage next to Fatima Amarshi, who beamed as Moore announced more than $10-million for more than 100 organizations, including hers. Amarshi is executive director of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, which operates the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Before that, she was executive director of Pride Toronto – an organization that, after her departure in 2008, ran into its share of troubles, including the loss in 2010 of federal funding under the Marquee Tourism program in a move that was largely seen as political. Amarshi says she’d like to see more progressive social policies from the Conservative government, but she believes in Moore himself.

“He’s been a really vocal and consistent advocate and he believes arts and culture are really vital,” she said this week. “So I think there’s a sense that he does understand the need to support the arts, and that there is a real passionate commitment there, but obviously there is a lot of trepidation in the community with the government overall and the emphasis on budget slashing.”

Moore has oft repeated his mantra that supporting the arts makes good economic sense, in a statement perceived by some as criticism of the B.C. Liberal government’s cuts to arts funding.

“Any government that says that they have a plan for economic recovery, growth and future growth, that doesn’t include a strong plan to support the arts, is a government that doesn’t have a plan for economic growth and recovery,” Moore said during that funding announcement last week.

“Supporting the arts isn’t a left wing issue or a right wing issue. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s good for Canada. And we’re going to continue supporting the arts.”

Still, many in the arts community are unhappy with the Heritage dollars going to what Lindsay Brown with Arts Advocacy BC calls the “ridiculously expensive War of 1812 ... extravaganza” ($28-million over three years has been allotted to commemorate the event’s 200th anniversary). She’s hard on Moore over this, as well as the recent loss of federal funding to the BC Touring Council, which has received Heritage funding for 20 years. But she called it “fantastic news” that the Canada Council wasn’t cut in the budget. “I would say that James Moore is cautiously respected in the arts sector due to the fact that he has actually made a case for public investment in the arts in Canada. That is pretty rare among politicians.”

Moore seems to have transcended politics in this portfolio – a surprise, given the polarizing political climate and the disdain that many in the arts community have for the Conservative government.

“There are those of us in the arts who don’t share Harper’s ideology and we don’t share his party’s modus operandi. But we still have a wary respect for James Moore,” said David Pay, artistic director with the Vancouver series Music on Main, who has clashed with the Minister on Twitter, but tweeted praise and a thank you on Thursday. “He’s obviously super-smart and he seems to at least understand our issues.”

While Moore basked in these arts-community accolades late this week, he has also taken heat from some in his party’s base because of his outspoken support for the arts. “There are obviously some critics out there who don’t think that investing in culture is a Conservative ethic,” said Moore. “And that’s not how I view it.”

Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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