June 24, 2016 3 years 4 months ago

ANALYSIS: With Shoan out, will Blais be renewed as chair?

Office culture needs repair

WITH BOTH THE 2016 NBA and NHL drafts happening this week, sports fans know that among all the “mock drafts” and other analyses about the brand new about-to-be-pros, there are a smattering of additional stories which speculate what the draft will look like next year, in 2017, despite the fact anything can happen in a year and the pure conjecture involved to write a piece like that relies on a great many moving parts falling into place – and not a small amount of gossip and guesswork.

So it is in that spirit I’m going to look ahead to a year from now, June 2017, when the current mandate of CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais is set to expire and say that with Ontario Commissioner Raj Shoan now having been shown the door, circumstances are now in place where chairman Blais could very well remain on as CRTC chairman past the end of his current term, so long as he moves quickly to repair a broken office culture hurt by fractured working relationships.

According sources with direct knowledge but who asked for anonymity because they are not allowed to speak publicly since doing so would damage their careers, chairman Blais has asked the federal government, specifically Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, for an additional two years to be added to his mandate as CRTC chair. A decision on that, of course, has not been made.

On the face of it, such a request might seem politically absurd, given the fact Blais was appointed by a Conservative government and normally, governments of a new, different colour tend to sweep out prior appointments, but bear with me.

Also know that what I am repeating here is already being bandied about in some Ottawa circles.

According to our sources, of which there are several, Blais and Joly worked very well together and became friends during the planning and throughout May’s CRTC/NFB-led Discoverability Summit. The Minister apparently learned quite a bit, especially on the day where she and Blais and the other Discoverability Summit organizers hosted a few busloads of Toronto high school students to ask them about their media consumption habits. I was there. The kids were engaged and so was the Minister (pictured).

Her Ministry’s review of everything Cancon is being partially fueled by that Discoverability Summit and what she heard from the kids and the industry, so far.

So, Joly and Blais have forged a good working relationship since she was appointed Minister of Heritage.

Continuing on, the Liberal government’s new Clerk of the Privy Council and Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister, Michael Wernick, has worked closely with Blais in the past, and may well support Blais behind the scenes as both are long-serving career public servants. Wernick was assistant deputy minister at Canadian Heritage from 1996-’98, then associate DM from ’98-2003 before moving on to cabinet roles and then was Deputy Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development from 2006-’14. Blais spent 1999-2002 as executive director of broadcasting at the CRTC (which Heritage oversees) and then moved to Heritage in 2002 as an assistant DM, where he stayed until 2011.

(With his long background at Heritage, and under a Liberal flag, many in Ottawa and in the cable, radio, television and telecom industry speculate that a very important driver behind Minister Joly’s massive review of Cancon is the knowledgeable Wernick.)

Furthermore, since the departure of former vice-chair, broadcasting Tom Pentefountas, the Commission has not just been missing a vice chair, but also a third Francophone on the panel of commissioners, meaning the Regulator can not hold a hearing into matters affecting Quebec. The rules say you need at least three Francophone commissioners to run, for example, the Quebec radio hearing which was postponed when Pentefountas left.

"Joly and Blais have forged a good working relationship since she was appointed Minister of Heritage."

Assuming the vice-chair is replaced with a Francophone, the federal government is again in a tough spot because the chair and CEO of the CRTC generally alternates between a Francophone and an Anglophone and it’s English Canada’s turn when Blais leaves. Then if he does leave next June, it means any Quebec public proceedings stay on hold unless the panel of commissioners is expanded, or if the federal government abandons the alternating French-English tradition.

The federal government has not yet even posted the vice-chair, broadcasting position or begun a formal search and the CRTC really needs a good one in place well in advance of the extremely important broadcasting license renewal proceedings coming in November.

So, the federal government removed the chief annoyance for chairman Blais in letting Shoan go. However, that still leaves a Commission left reeling as, according to our sources inside and outside of the Regulator, it has suffered through a very challenging period with an unpleasant work environment where much time was wasted on the Shoan vs. Blais battle. The chair and CEO now must work to repair relationships and get everyone pulling in the same direction since the Commission has very important work to do.

There are tens of thousands of Canadians livelihoods hanging in the balance, as well as billions of dollars of investment, not to mention the millions of Canadians who are all affected by its decisions.

There is recent precedence for someone such as Blais staying on, if we return to the sports world. When Masai Ujiri was hired as general manager of the Toronto Raptors in May 2013, he inherited a team in rough shape and a coach in Dwayne Casey whom he didn’t know very well and didn’t hire.

Often, newly hired pro sports GMs fire everyone and bring in their own coaching staff. However, Ujiri took a wait-and-see approach with Casey and gave him a chance to prove himself and improve the team. The GM also traded away certain players who couldn’t or wouldn’t play under Casey’s direction – then, under Casey and Ujiri the whole team began pulling in a unified direction and the Raptors got better every year since and enjoyed unprecedented success this past season.

Can Blais improve the teamwork at the CRTC and can he and Joly work like Casey and Ujiri? Well, we’ll need some more time to figure that out.