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Do any of Canada’s federal political parties understand technology?

Liberal Party
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Technology will definitely play a central role in the Liberal Party’s campaign to win back the national office in the form of Trudeau’s almost Obama-like command of social media. But is there any depth to the party’s innovation platform?

During the recent debates to decide the leader of the Liberal Party, one candidate spelled out a vision for Canada’s technological future. “You already know that I want to make innovation and technology the engine of our economic growth,” said George Takach.

“Expanding affordable broadband services into rural Canada, boosting our high-tech infrastructure, and implementing a digital Bill of Rights to give Canadians more freedom are key parts of that effort,” he added.

Finally, a Liberal leader who understands the importance of technological innovation, pushing Canada to scale the plateaus once conquered by tech titans like Avro, Nortel, and Research in Motion. When he finally takes control, the future will suddenly come into sharp focus and…

Wait. George who? George Takach. You know….one of the soon-to-be-runners-up standing on the stage around Justin Trudeau during the Liberal leadership campaign. You don’t remember? It’s all right, no one remembers.

Anyway, his French was terrible.

Do any of Canada’s political parties know what to do with the technology sector in general? Sadly, it seems, innovation has become that stubborn house plant; it grows despite a negligence that borders on an outright will to see it dead.

While we have no solid information on Justin Trudeau’s stance regarding technology, the election is still two years away. Plenty of time, his supporters might say. One thing is certain. Technology will definitely play a central role in that campaign in the form of Trudeau’s almost Obama-like command of social media.

But is there any depth to the party’s innovation platform? Indeed, do any of Canada’s political parties know what to do with the technology sector in general? Sadly, it seems, innovation has become that stubborn house plant; it grows despite a negligence that borders on an outright will to see it dead.

But wait. The current Liberal science and technology critic, David McGuinty, might get Trudeau’s ear, right?

“Science and technology is where the race is,” he says. It applies to energy, transport, and infrastructure and we have to ensure we have the smartest most innovative population on the face of the planet. For me it is integral and foundational to Canada’s existing and future success.”

Those are encouraging words, but they are presented in a boilerplate sort of way, and leave little for policy wonks to sink their teeth into. Do we stop bailing out foreign-owned car companies and focus on creating value-added jobs in Ontario’s manufacturing corridor? Anyone?

With Stephen Harper and his newly shuffled cabinet firmly ensconced until at least 2015, we’re a ways away from a Canadian election, and with apologies to McGuinty, it’s unlikely technology per se will be a hot-button issue when it does come time to go back to the polls. But with the tech scene booming in most of our major city-centres, innovation seems to be playing a bigger and bigger role in many of our lives, even as it takes a back seat on the national stage. Turning municipal successes into national practices could be one way to supplant the resource engine that has driven our success for a decade, and is showing signs of a slowdown.

So where do Canada’s political parties stand on technology and innovation right now?

In straight terms of actually existing policy, what we have with the current Conservative government is, to say the least, a mixed message. On the one hand, we’ve outfoxed the Americans in attracting the best and brightest from around the world with the Start-Up Visa program, slashing red tape for tech entrepreneurs to be fast-tracked into Canada.

The NDP’s critic for science and technology, Kennedy Stewart, has rightly pointed out that Canada’s gross domestic research and development spending has tumbled in recent years, in contrast to almost every other developed nation on Earth.

U.S. President Obama has been pushing for a similar initiative, with Silicon Valley expressing frustration that it isn’t getting done faster, as part of his larger immigration reform package. So Canada has a valuable head-start on the U.S. in this regard.

On the other hand, Harper’s Conservatives express a combination of contempt and menace towards actual government scientists, who have been muzzled to the point that the public no longer even has access to their frustrations.

The list of complaints about Canada’s current standing in technology is long. According to the OECD we pay really high prices for really bad cell service. Enterprise research and development here has fallen to 0.91% of GDP, which is “well below the OECD median”. We’re not supporting our R&D conducting universities.

Then there’s the not unrelated matters of the oil sands and our pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, which earned us a scolding from China. Yeah, China.

The Green Party of Canada meanwhile, under leader Elizabeth May, tends to talk up cleantech more than anything, emphasizing a shift away from pipelines and towards alternative fuels.

The NDP’s critic for science and technology, Kennedy Stewart, pointed out recently on the floor of the House of Commons that “this year the Conservative government has cut almost $700 million in funding for science. This 6% cut has blown a massive hole in the budgets of key federal agencies and is having a real impact on the front lines of scientific research. Labs are powering down. Research groups are being disbanded. Students are dropping out of graduate programs. With each closure, each cut, each cancelled scholarship, and despite the best efforts of our country’s greatest minds, science in Canada loses ground.” He has also rightly pointed out that Canada’s gross domestic research and development spending has tumbled in recent years, in contrast to almost every other developed nation on Earth.

Perhaps we are naive to look for leadership in technology on the national stage. Maybe our best hope for tech innovation lies at the more granular municipal level. Montreal mayoral candidate Denis Coderre, speaking recently at Webcom, a conference meant to highlight the development of “smart cities”, asserted that “It [smart cities] is not the solution to all our problems, but a way of bringing citizens closer, of giving them more power in making the city greener, richer and more efficient.” He went on to paint a picture of bus stops that give real-time transit information and of city hall video-conferences. Montreal will be a good test case for seeing what technology can do for the lives of its citizens, seeing as corruption has probably retarded its development at least a decade, perhaps two.

If smart use of technology can clean up a city like Montreal, imagine what it might do to improve the lives of people in already functional cities and towns.

Like, say, Ottawa.

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