IT ponders new PM

In as much as Canadian urbanites might look forward to a “new deal” for cities with Paul Martin as prime minister, it seems the high-tech sector also expects a new deal for IT.

Plenty has been written about Martin’s promise of a better relationship between the feds and municipal governments. But as the former finance minister steps up to the big chair, spokespeople in Canada’s high-tech industry say Martin also has a responsibility to ensure IT endeavours continue to play an important role in the country’s economy.

John Reid, president of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance), said he wants to see certain “headlines” come about in the press as a result of Martin’s tenure – articles about national security, improved trade relations with the U.S. and high-tech commercialization.

“We start with thousands of companies but somehow we end up with very few that are significantly commercially successful. Let’s double, triple, quadruple the number that makes it through that tunnel.”

Reid said he’s confident that Martin is the man to drive this mandate. The new PM has close ties to CATAAlliance, having accepted the group’s award for public sector leadership as finance minister, and given his speeches at CATAAlliance events.

“It’s not only Martin, it’s also his team,” Reid said. “Anytime you develop public policy, you have to have a team that understands and embraces the technology equation. I think that has been strengthened.”

Lynda Leonard, vice-president of communications and research at the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), said her group was somewhat skeptical earlier this year of the government’s commitment to IT. Even though ITAC worked with the feds to develop an “innovation agenda” that spoke to Canada’s adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies, February’s national budget was decidedly not tech-focussed; and the government has been sending out some mixed messages.

“One of the realities of transitional politics (is that) it wasn’t clear where that agenda was going to fit with the new government,” Leonard said. “We were hearing rumblings that this is too closely associated with the old government, and it’s not going to happen.”

Added Leonard: “That was in conflict with what we knew of Paul Martin as finance minister. Among the members of cabinet, he was in the forefront of those who understood the dynamics and realities of a global, knowledge-based economy.”

But Martin’s speech in September before the Montreal Board of Trade buoyed ITAC’s spirits, Leonard said. He talked about creating “a 21st century economy” based on progressive social and fiscal policies, as well as open arms for new technologies.

“This means supporting basic research; it means a much greater effort to commercialize applied research, and adopting cutting-edge technologies so that Canadian businesses don’t ever settle for things that work just well enough,” reads a transcript of Martin’s speech.

“It was like a breath of fresh air,” Leonard said. “That fog of uncertainty lifted completely. He was basically communicating not just that there was going to be continuity on this issue, but he has some clear thinking of his own, and fully intended to recommit, although with much more serious focus on some of the specific areas where government can intervene to make a difference.”

According to Leonard, one of those areas is the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit program, which is supposed to help companies free up funds for research and development, but needs an overhaul.

“It works really well when companies are in profit,” Leonard said. “Certainly one of the things our industry has experienced over the last couple of quarters (is that) profit has been a lot more elusive. You can’t use a credit against revenues. Does that mean you down tools and research and development? I don’t think that’s the kind of environment Canada wants to create.”

Others look forward to change as well. A.J. Byers, chief operating officer of Ottawa ISP Magma Communications Ltd., said the feds should usher in legislation to crack down on spam and Internet threats.

“It’s just a phenomenal amount of money that people are putting in to ensure the security of infrastructure on the Internet,” he said. “We need something to deter it.”

Although generally impressed with Martin’s tech-mindedness, Lawson Hunter, executive vice-president of BCE Inc., said the government could improve things. He pointed to the national program to bring high-speed Internet access to all parts of the country.

“It’s a bottom-up program. The local municipalities or regions have to get their act together to come to the table. That isn’t always easy to accomplish. It may be faster if you could find a way to [foster an] ‘if you build it they will come’ idea. It’s going to take a long time to accomplish the goal from this bottom-up perspective. I think it might have to be pushed more from the top down.”

Hunter also looks forward to changes in the way the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates the telecom sector. He said the debate is on as to how many commissioners are required – Canada has up to 13, whereas the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the CRTC’s U.S. counterpart, has five, he said.

As well, “the Telecom Act, even though it was passed relatively recently, had its genesis in the Railway Act. Whether it really is the most modern approach is something the industry on all sides is going to want to look at.”

Ted Chislett, president of service provider Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc., wants the government to stay the course on one issue.

“Don’t try taxing the Internet,” he said. “Don’t put all sorts of rules in place. Let people develop new services which are going to be wins for all Canadians.”

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