Service or Business? the election selection

We’re helpless in the face of a mystery virus. It seems that everywhere you turn in the media, conspiracies are all around us. The gentler word is “hoax”, that stops short of the kind of thing one sees with ideas of a “Deep State”. But the conservative population don’t have a monopoly on conspiracy theories. I’ve been seeing a ton of flak directed at Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General of the United States, who is allegedly working to help the GOP steal an election. Is it true? Is DeJoy helping Trump win re-election? I don’t know. I simply want to think about the question from my own experience in the postal world, via my daytime job at the University of Toronto, and with an eye to our own upcoming election.

I first heard the word “paperless” back in the 1990s, when it was presumed that postal mail was a dinosaur, doomed to extinction. Canada Post Corporation (aka CPC) were caught in a perfect storm, where their service territories were growing while their revenues were expected to decline.

I will never forget a presentation from CPC in the 1990s when they articulated their corporate strategy, arguably the usual tactics of any big company of the time.

  • identify your customers
  • rank them by revenues (in other words who spends the most or the least?)
  • treat the biggest customers best

In other words if you were a big bank or a major company CPC wanted to be your friend, to make a kind of partnership. We see that now with Amazon, where CPC ships enormous volumes of parcels for CPC. If you’re a person wanting to send the occasional letter? You can still go to a postal outlet, but your dollars are not understood as crucial to the profits of the corporation. Clearly what CPC were doing was making profits their priority, rather than service. It’s no different in the USA, as the postal service struggles to stay afloat. Indeed I think Canada Post, the crown corporation, are further down the road to being corporate & less oriented towards service than the USPS.

Is it the same for culture? Well let’s see.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra have their Star Wars presentations of film with live orchestra, selling every ticket over four nights.

The National Ballet have The Nutcracker.

CBC has Schitt’s Creek & hockey.

You might say that without money-makers culture would be in trouble. OR you might also say that culture has already sold its soul. It’s a matter for discussion & debate. Your take on the question is likely political, an indication not just of what party you support but where you sit as far as artistic questions go.

For instance, there’s an image I saw on Facebook a few weeks ago.

Government agencies are always understood and interpreted via politics. Each party has a platform that’s a bit different, with their own ideas about funding healthcare, the importance of the CBC, of the necessity to support the arts, maybe even postal services (although that likely isn’t in the platform, not in 2020). Sometimes these questions get aired as part of the political discourse, sometimes they’re under the radar.

But in every case it’s really a question of money & service delivery. The question is ultimately a simple one that I’d reduce to a choice.

  1. Is this activity (whatever we’re discussing, railways, television, healthcare, protecting the environment, or even postal regulations) to be understood as a public service, where its objectives are framed according to the good of people & a community? Do I as a little old dude who wants to send a few Christmas cards matter a whit compared to Amazon or CIBC, who send out enormous volumes of correspondence, parcels, letters.
  2. Or am I irrelevant because this is business, where the only consideration, the only purpose, the chief objective: is to make money? Ultimately most activities are a combination, so the question is one of reconciling the two, where to place the emphasis. Canada Post Corporation will happily take my money, every dollar helps after all. But I’ll probably pay more per letter than CIBC because I’m not offering CPC enough incentive. I’m not their friend, just a stranger without any loyalty.

That’s part of the context for the creation of superboxes, serving newly built subdivisions without having to go door to door, thereby helping CPC reduce their service level while still fulfilling their legally mandated responsibilities. The phrase “service level” is highly useful to articulate comparisons in terms of a sliding scale, depending on available revenue. If it’s merely a business seeking to make a profit, the market will be a key driver. As a service we might understand things differently, especially if there are complex connections to other services & industries.

And all of those different services are competing for a limited pot of $, seeking to place themselves somehow at the centre of society’s sense of priorities. Will we spend money on opera if people don’t have enough COVID tests? This kind of question will likely move to the forefront if, as expected, we get a federal election in the next year, and have the opportunity to contemplate and compare what each of the major parties offers us as a platform.

Let’s think about this question as it might be posed for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation & other cultural industries, in the sharp focus of an election campaign.

  • Does it provide a vital service to the community?
  • Will the country pay for this service, can we afford the service even during financial downturns? OR is it something understood as a luxury?
  • Can it sustain itself somehow on sales revenues?
  • What happens to the service mission if sales revenue becomes the primary concern?
  • If we import our culture, buying rather than making content: who are we?
  • Have we properly identified the dollar value implicit in the byproducts of cultural industries (for instance, the way the Stratford or Shaw Festivals drive tourism)

We can see the same conversation in every sector, sometimes connected to politics, sometimes under the radar. Healthcare will always be an election issue, because it’s much clearer that our well-being depends upon our doctors, research, facilities etc. Yes they can also be offered for profit, as in the USA, but it seems clear in this country that the for-profit approach is fraught with concerns as we’ve seen in the high mortality rate in retirement homes. There are still gaping holes in our network, whether that’s drugs or dentistry or care for older citizens. It’s not yet proven conclusively at least in the public conversation as to whether the for-profit approach may help or ultimately leave us weaker, especially in emergencies such as the current pandemic, although that may come up soon, especially as we look at the aftermath of COVID19.

I’m recalling the wonderful Angels Atlas, part of a program I saw just before the lockdowns & cancellations began earlier this year, having heard that it is scheduled for the National Ballet’s return in 2021. I can’t help comparing two performing arts companies, both on the cusp of changing their leadership at this delicate time for the arts. One is inspiring me while the other is scaring me.

Artists of the Ballet in Angels’ Atlas. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
  • The National Ballet of Canada have been led brilliantly by Karen Kain, robust in their finances & Canadian talent pool. Who leads after KK?
  • We’re waiting to see who the Canadian Opera Company select to follow Alexander Neef, who is leaving.

One might ask whether the funding landscape has changed in 2020, whether there will be any quid pro quo from funding agencies watching the COC import so much expensive foreign talent, while often ignoring cheaper Canadians whose careers are hanging by a thread. Just as the artistic landscape may have been altered by the pandemic, so too perhaps with funding.

And speaking of “hanging by a thread” I’ve heard that the COC itself might be in a precarious position financially. I just renewed my COC subscription, as I wonder how they will cope with so many cancelled productions. Imagine the money spent on those shows, when they can’t recover even a dollar via ticket sales.

We live in interesting times, and there’s likely going to be an election soon. Erin O’Toole has said he will stop funding the CBC. Will Canada have any money left to continue the same level of support for the arts (thinking of funding agencies, but also indirectly via the CBC) as we try to recover from the financial downturn associated with the pandemic?

If you consider culture an election issue: get involved. Speak up.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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