Last week, I sat down with the students who run the TEDxRyerson conference to talk about Canada’s new majority government and what it might mean for tech and telecom issues. The chat followed on a post I wrote on election night earlier this month, wherein I outlined some of what might happen under the new paradigm. If you’re curious, video of that chat is here.
In a nutshell, I thought the initial good news was that under a majority government, things would finally get done – for good or for ill. There was reason for optimism too, given that Industry Minister Tony Clement – the guy who was ultimately in charge of such issues – showed an understanding of some of Canada’s problems, as well as a desire to act on them. What never was clear is what he meant to do, particularly in regards to improving telecom competition.
On the contentious copyright issue, Clement also played good cop to Heritage Minister James Moore’s bad cop. While Moore insisted that tough copyright reform is necessary to preserve Canadian companies’ ability to innovate, Clement seemed considerably more willing to take all views into account. In the end, Clement talked the talk but he never got the chance to walk the walk on either front.
With yesterday’s announcement that he is moving on to become Treasury Minister and Quebec MP Christian Paradis taking over as Industry Minister, all bets are off on those two key issues. Those hoping for swift action, particularly in telecom – where Canada’s protectionist foreign ownership restrictions are stifling competition and causing uncertainty for Wind Mobile, not to mention the wireless industry as a whole – are probably going to have to wait a while longer.
As some industry observers point out, Paradis is going to need some time to get up to speed on what’s going on. That means the likelihood of a long-overdue “digital strategy” being introduced any time soon is probably zilch. Same goes for those much-needed reforms to foreign ownership. Rushing either would be a bad move for Paradis, as he’ll doubtlessly want to put his own stamp on them.
As UBS analysts suggest, this is good news for the likes of Bell, Rogers and Telus:
Since we believe the removal of telecom foreign ownership restrictions would create greater competition for the sector, we believe a delay in the process could help the sector by postponing the new entrants’ access to foreign capital, the potential entry of new foreign competition, and spending on new spectrum.
Moreover, getting up to speed on the industry can also be translated into: let the lobbying begin. With an industry that already has some of the highest per-capita lobbying in the country, who knows what that will result in.* With the big bucks the incumbents spend on lobbying, one thing is for sure: their views will get unfair weight in any consideration of the issues. Then again, that’s always been the problem.
On copyright, MP Dean Del Mastro says the legislation the Conservatives introduced last year will be coming back in largely the same form, which is surely a blow to anyone who hoped that Clement would have served as a moderating force in forming the bill. One of the key complaints with that bill is a clause that would make it illegal for anyone to break a digital lock placed on content or devices. Copyright watchers have been hoping that this tough measure gets an important exception – that breaking said locks for purposes other than willfully infringing copyright, like copying a CD to an iPod – would be okay. It’s hard to tell whether this key addendum ends up in the bill, but it’s worrisome that it won’t now that the good cop is off the beat.
As much as Paradis has to get the know the industry, the industry – journalists included – also need to get to know him. He isn’t starting out on the greatest foot – he’s already been involved with a scandal regarding interference with access to information requests, all of which was related to rewarding contracts to companies that fell under his previous jurisdiction.
That doesn’t sound good, especially in the context of all that lobbying mentioned above.
Over all, it’s tough to remain optimistic that things will improve or move forward any time soon in light of the cabinet shuffle. Here’s hoping the new Industry Minister gets up to speed quickly and is able to retain a balanced view on the various tricky issues he has inherited. In other words, let’s hope he remembers the consumer – as Clement seemed to – in light of the heavy lobbying he’s about to face. Paradis could very well end up the good cop, but he could also end up the bad one.
(*Back in early 2010, I was working on a special project for CBC that studied lobbyist records. Four of the top five lobbying companies in the country were oil and gas related – the fifth was Bell Canada, with other telecom companies – including Wind – also posting strong showings. I never ended up finishing that project because it proved to be too depressing.)