Election ’08: Liberals, Greens talk about IT issues

Canada’s IT associations say the ongoing federal election campaign lacks a strong positioning statement for Canada as an innovation nation and a plan for how the country can accelerate its role as an information economy, but the Liberals and Green parties say they value the contributions of the technology sector.

“And that’s quite important to have that vision,” said John Reid, president and CEO of Ottawa-based CATA Alliance. “Because in order to work through structural changes people want to have a sense of what the roadmap is and how the economy will look different now from five years out.”

By way of information technology, said Reid, the economy will benefit when businesses are able to re-engineer themselves to become more efficient. “None of the parties have done a good job in articulating the role that innovation can play in re-creating Canada as the leading player,” he said.

Reid said an IT issue, albeit not new but rising to the fore, is R&D tax credits and its role in attracting and retaining high-value enterprises in Canada. It seems, said Reid, that there is “a bit of disconnection between the political world and the bureaucratic world.”

Although Canada has one of the best tax credit programs in the world, Reid said he’s observing ample concern around the need for that program to be “administered and managed as an incentive program.”

According to Liberal Party spokesperson Joseph Mayer, IT is “absolutely essential” to a successful economy and that the party looks to support the IT industry with investments in R&D and will recommit to “spreading broadband Internet access to rural parts of the economy.”

Mayer noted that it was the Liberals who helped connect schools and libraries to the Web back in the 1990s.

One concern, said Mayer, is hearing other parties talk about eliminating corporate tax cuts. Businesses with stretched resources will very often cut intended investments in updating IT systems. “That’s why we think it’s very important that the corporate sector has a fair tax regime.”

Adriane Carr, deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada described IT’s role in the economy as the “go-to source of information for everyone” and “staunchly” believes that access to the Internet needs to be both protected and available. “Any kinds of barriers or costs to access creates a more privatized flow of information,” she said.

To that end, the Green Party wants to pass legislation that would, said Carr, “grant the Web the status of a common carrier… so that means it should prohibit internet service providers from discriminating and it would free them from liability of content.”

The Green Party is also a supporter of open source technologies, which Carr said is more community-driven and promotes a collaborative and innovative approach to software development. “There’s a vulnerability in these proprietary software that is just not the same as in open source software,” she said, referring to potential system crashes and viruses as leading to system shutdowns.

“Let’s face it,” said Carr, “this is a world of information and technology transfer that happens at such a rapid pace and the use of computers and of the Internet to solve problems is essential.”

Besides R&D tax credits, access to venture capital is another concern for businesses, said Reid, who compared the U.S. as having 15 to 20 times the available funding in Canada. “That’s a continual priority for growing high-tech companies as to how they’re going to get that [funding],” he said.

In the long run, businesses that can attract, grow and educate the best talent will be winners, said Reid. And while the government has made good steps in the area of immigration, he said “it has to be very much a top headline in terms of who will create the next generation of services and businesses for the economy.”

Another IT issue that also isn’t new, yet continues to be relevant, is the role of government in procurement and supply chain, said Reid. Whereas other governments have reference accounts for their domestic industries, “that’s something we can’t point to as being a leader.”

The issue of procurement ties into Canada’s record on commercialization, said Reid, in that the country may be great at taking budding companies to the next level “but it seems we develop a lot of intellectual capital which is not fully exploited in a business sense.”

According to Greg Lane, chair of Canadian Council of IT Professionals for Mississauga, Ont.-based CIPS (Canadian Information Processing Society), there also needs to be more effort by the government to promote the profile of professionals and jobs in the IT field, and to celebrate successes in the area of technology.

Canadians are typically shy, and it’s even more so in IT workers, said Lane. “IT workers tend to not be the kind of people that are expressive and celebrate success.”

Lane said when he sees young children role playing, they never role play the IT professional. “It’s just not something that kids get excited about and they should [be].”

Another issue plaguing the IT industry, said Lane, is declining enrolment in mathematics and sciences in academic institutions. One reason for that, he added, is the fact that people don’t understand where the 530,000 IT jobs in Canada are. “They’re not necessarily in what people traditionally call the ICT industry,” he said. “Even fashion now is largely done on a [computer] screen.”

The Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party of Canada did not respond by press time.

In terms of conveying a good understanding of Canada’s IT industry, in Reid’s view, none of the political parties have accomplished that. “Across the board, I don’t think any of the leaders have picked up the position as compellingly as they should,” he said, adding he’d like to see much more excitement around the creation of new technologies and its relevance for employment and income.

Just last week, CIPS asked each political party to outline their IT strategies, with the intent of posting the responses on the CIPS Web site. As of yet, no responses were received.

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