Canada was on the very precipice of progress on the digital economy. Industry Minister Tony Clement was expected to unveil his government’s plan at the May 3 Canada 3.0 conference. The appearance would take place, after all, a full year after he took to the same stage to ask for input on ensuring Canada is a strong player in the worldwide digital economy. Surely a year was enough time to craft a detailed, aggressive and progressive strategy.
Then the election was called for May 2, and Clement’s appearance was cancelled.
As you are reading this the election is over, but at time of writing the vote is about to happen. With the polls showing surging NDP support, it looks likely that the centre-left vote will split and Canada will have another Conservative minority government. Harper may score a slightly stronger mandate but, in terms of hard political numbers, the expectation is that not much will change in Ottawa.
Where was digital?
Kim Campbell famously opined that elections are no time to discuss serious issues, and politicians largely followed her sage advice. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was not alone in pointing out that municipal issues, homelessness, health care and the environment were largely ignored.
Also missing was any serious discussion of Canada’s digital economy. Mentions of “the economy” were plentiful, especially in Harper’s standard stump speeches, but the term invariably had an old-economy connotation: we are meant to think of auto plants and natural resources. The word “digital” barely passed the lips of any politician. An Internet search for “Harper digital economy” for the month prior to the election showed just one result among media organizations, and that thanks only to the NDP’s Jack Layton: on April 21 he called Harper a “Commodore 64 in an iPad world” who “thinks an app is something you order before dinner.”
Layton made the comment as he unveiled his own party’s plan for the digital economy, and only in those dusty and rarely read platform documents do we see actual digital economy plans.
The Liberals took the strongest stance. The party called broadband access an “essential infrastructure, just as the electricity grid and the telephone network were a century ago.” It also set a timeline of three years for all Canadians to have access to basic broadband, stated that “Internet traffic management must remain neutral” and called for the federal government to be more aggressive users of technology. On security and copyright it offered only say-nothing pleasantries, but overall the Liberals were fairly strong, at least on paper.
The Conservative platform presented an overly sunny assessment of Canada’s current digital-economy standing, but that is to be expected from the sitting government. It also pledged to support “collaborative projects between college and small and medium businesses,” which is a good idea.
The NDP also promised broadband for all, funded in part by the national carriers, and pledged to outlaw ’net throttling and usage-based billing.
So where does that leave us? The parties all have good basic ideas, and it has to be said that most are in line with the plan presented to the Conservatives last year by the Backbone Advisory Board
But ideas were never the problem; there are a lot of good ones. The problem has been a lack of action. So let’s hope Layton is wrong and Harper does not believe apps are pre-dinner starters. Let’s also hope the Government of Canada, whatever its specific political composition, is poised for decisive action on the digital economy. We’ve waited a long time, and the rest of the world is moving ahead without us.
Illustration: Enrico Varrasso
Digital Economy blog
Canada’s e-government initiatives are among the best in the world