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A stunning fall from grace for Mélanie Joly

Icarus, at least, was aiming for the top. The worst of the many bad things said about Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly in Quebec this week was that her definition of success was so low.

Her fall from grace in her home province has been swift and merciless, sped by her maladroit attempts to sell a deal with Netflix that would give the company a free pass from tax and regulation in exchange for an ill-defined Cancon investment of $500-million over five years. The Minister has been roasted and ridiculed to her face on live radio and TV, and dismissed by commentators of all stripes as naive and – worst of all – unable even to understand what the fuss is about.

"One would say that you don't hear us," Radio-Canada's Gérald Fillion told her during a bruising Sunday-night encounter on the top-rated TV talk show, Tout le monde en parle. That grilling by a hostile panel of four well-known media figures was retold and resifted in print for days afterward.

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"I think she didn't see this coming," said Union des Artistes president Sophie Prégent, while adding her voice to a solid, all-party wall of opposition to the Netflix deal.

And yet signs of trouble were easy to spot. A series of open letters from high-profile figures in Quebec culminated in a missive from Quebec Culture Minister Luc Fortin, who vowed that if Ottawa failed to make Netflix apply the GST to its subscriptions, the province would chase the company for the provincial levy.

Several things dragged the Minister down, some quite unnecessarily. It was a mistake for her to pose as a champion of consumers while waving away a tax that would have cost Netflix subscribers less than a dollar a month. She seemed not to realize that tax fairness is also a potent issue – especially when the lack of it directly penalizes Canadian companies competing with Netflix for audiences. Or, more likely, she was instructed not to let anything divert her from the mission of keeping Netflix tax-free.

And why? Cast your mind back to the 2015 federal election, when Stephen Harper made a campaign video in which he promised not to tax Netflix – because the Conservatives had decided that Netflix would serve as a handy symbol for all the common pleasures Mr. Harper claimed the opposition parties were dying to tax.

The Liberals won the election handily, but also seemed to internalize the symbolic link between Netflix and tax-happy government. In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected a parliamentary committee's recommendation that GST be collected on broadband services. Mr. Harper planted the land mine that would maim Ms. Joly politically, but it was Mr. Trudeau who insisted she step on it.

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Ms. Joly's second line of defence was also feeble. She argued that a $500-million voluntary contribution was a good substitute for tax revenue, especially since it would go to production in Canada and Quebec. But she couldn't show that the money wasn't part of the "hundreds of millions" Netflix already claimed to be spending in Canada, nor could she say how much of it would be spent on francophone production. This was the point at which her critics began to call her naive, for cutting a deal without extracting even a minimal commitment to francophone content. This is kryptonite for a culture minister in Quebec.

Again, Ms. Joly should have seen that the vagueness of her deal could only hurt her, after many months of saying she was crafting a grand reset of cultural policy for the digital age. The centrepiece of this policy turned out to be a hastily arranged accord with many crucial blanks that neither the Minister nor Netflix could fill. The company didn't send a spokesperson to her announcement, has deflected interview requests till later and didn't issue a press release about the deal.

Ms. Joly did not even seem to have been adequately briefed on the context for her negotiations. She was visibly surprised when TLMEP host Guy A. Lepage read out a research group's finding that if Netflix were bound by the same rules as Canadian cable companies, it would have to contribute far more to Cancon than $100-million a year. Her own department could have given her that analysis, which had also been cited in The Globe and Mail a day earlier.

This could all have had a happier outcome. Ms. Joly could have shifted government action to a higher level, by saying that her planned revisions to the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts would bring ISPs under a Cancon-supporting regulatory regime.

If she still preferred to deal directly with a big foreign player, she should have made the details clear, transparent and enforceable. Radio host Paul Arcand was not far off the mark when he accused her, in a scorching radio interview, of magical thinking.

No magic will restore Ms. Joly's footing in Quebec. She needs to stop making rookie mistakes and start thinking about policy in terms of clear rules that make sense from every angle, not just one. She needs to start attending to those within and outside the cultural scene who don't agree with her. For all her show of public consultations since becoming Minister, one would say she doesn't hear them.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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