IT not on election radar

For a sector that represents hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions to the economy, information technology is surprisingly absent from the campaign platforms of Canada’s major political parties as the country enters into one of the most closely contested federal elections in recent memory.

“In any given election…the topics of the day are going to shift and may have nothing to do with the longer-term visions that the parties have,” said Bernard Courtois, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). “[But] we’d like more recognition in the health care sector, for example, that ICT is a fundamental part of the solution instead of having one-upmanship on how many billions they are going to throw at it.”

In fact, the health care system has a long list of specific areas where IT can be of benefit. These include everything from better management of electronic patient records and staff scheduling to picture archiving systems (x-rays, MRIs and the like) and operating room charting.

“We could have been more specific in the platform on that particular point,” admits James Rajotte, the Conservative Party’s industry, science and technology critic, and potentially the next minister responsible for the government’s IT stance.

Rajotte supports the creation of a separate science and technology ministry since the current one, Ministry of Industry, tends to lose IT in its folds. “That is something that we do need to look at in the future,” he said. The Conservatives also support the 2003 Health Accord (a federal plan, supported by the provinces, to improve access to health care), especially in the area of patient data management, he said.

Rajotte, an avowed tech-geek — “I have my trusty laptop and my Wi-Fi system here in my condo”— agrees that IT tends to get placed on the back burner, especially during election campaigns. “In general there needs to be more importance placed in science and technology,” he said. “Our party, I think more than any other, recognizes…that technology is changing some of the fundamentals of the industries in Canada.”

Neither the Liberal Party nor the NDP responded to ComputerWorld Canada in time for this story.

But Wayne Gudbranson, president of The Branham Group Inc. — an Ottawa company that monitors Canada’s IT sector and creates the Branham300, a list highlighting Canada’s top IT companies — doesn’t think any of the parties have a firm grasp on the issues that affect IT.

“We should be able to improve efficiencies by utilizing technology,” he said. “And I don’t think any of the political parties are savvy enough to understand that.”

For example, he noted that the portion of hospital budgets for IT is less than two per cent (compared to around 10 for banks). “We need to spend more money in this area to improve health (service) delivery,” he said. “None of the political parties, certainly in the context of this election, understand that issue.”

“Right now I am pretty disappointed with the list of candidates; I don’t think that they understand IT,” he said.

Gudbranson’s opinions are by no means unique. When asked to name a federal politician who really understood the importance of IT, David Paterson couldn’t come up with one. “John Manley isn’t running,” said the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance’s national director of public affairs — in reference to the former Minister of Industry, widely considered to be the government’s lone resident IT expert.

Another hot topic was taxes.

“We believe that we’ve come a long way in the last few years to have our corporate tax system more competitive with the U.S. and Europe,” ITAC’s Courtois said. But he added that the current tax credit system is unfavourable to start-up companies since many of the scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) credits are based on income. “If you are in the start-up phase you aren’t making profits yet.”

Courtois said he likes what some European countries are doing. There the tax credits can be deducted against a variety of other taxes, such as payroll.

Rajotte said the Conservatives are not against the idea in principle. “That would certainly be something that we’d look at,” he said. But “we’d actually want to sit down with a few members of the industry” first, he said. The Conservatives would also specifically “look into revamping” the SR&ED tax credit system, he said.

Gudbranson would like to see tax credits taken a step further to include deductions for sales and marketing, which he said successful companies spend twice as much on as R&D.

“I’m not adverse to R&D tax credits, I think that’s great,” he said. “But the challenge is unless you build comparable sales and marketing and management expertise, you’ll never benefit from that R&D investment because you’ll never commercialize.”

The Liberal Party platform does mention the commercialization of technology through improved “transfer efforts of Canadian universities to ensure that research ideas are more effectively transformed into commercial opportunities.” The party also supports increased access to venture capital funds.