ITAC chief outlines his federal election agenda

With the federal election less than two weeks away, the IT industry has heard very little about the issues and concerns that matter to them.

To find out why, we spoke with Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) head Bernard Courtois. We asked him which party is representing the interests of IT workers best, why technology has taken such a backseat in mainstream election coverage, and (if ever) when we can expect this trend to change.

What are your thoughts on how this election campaign has played out and how well the parties are representing the interests of IT workers and technology in general?

Courtois: ICT has unique role. Not only are we a poster child for the knowledge economy, but because our technology is what drives productivity in the rest of the economy, we have a unique perspective about how the rest of the economy needs to act for Canada to be successful.

In a developed country, we’re in a world where our future is going to be dependant on technology and ICT. That really applies to everything in the economy. If you’re a country like India, China or the Philippines you can get so much prosperity and growth just from bringing your economy up to the next level. It can be basic non-technological manufacturing, it can be moving people from farms into cities – it can be a lot of basic things. You can’t do that in a developed economy.

When you’re in a country like ours with an educated population, advanced economy, etcetera, it’s all about technology and really realizing you’re in a knowledge economy.

How do we achieve this?

Courtois: The most important thing is we need an overall strategy. Each one of the things you need to do in a knowledge economy might make a lot of good sense on it’s own – you’ve got to keep working on educating your population, your taxes have to be competitive, you have to have your science and technology well advanced, and have your policies adjusted to the Internet economy. There’s a whole list of things, but if you work on these one by one, each of them becomes a major issue. The question then becomes, are these going to float above other priorities?

If you have a coherent strategy, everything else falls into place. If you want to be a leader in a knowledge economy here’s the 10 things we need to do and if something else comes up that’s part of that, you need to address it. That’s what we’d like to see the various parties do.

We have the platform for the Liberals, the NDP are making announcements every day, the Conservatives are going to announce there platform. And I noticed that Industry Minister Jim Prentice outlined the need for a new industrial policy for Canada.

You’d like that to be front and centre in the campaign. Unfortunately it seems like in an election campaign, most people think this isn’t the thing to emphasize. The danger becomes the parties make announcements about the things that are going to affect people in the short term, but don’t address the big issues and longer term problems.

Why is this occurring? Why don’t we hear these parties talking about technology?

Courtois: The dynamics of a political campaign don’t lend itself to that. You can just compare in the U.S., the same kind of thing is taking place. If you look at Barack Obama’s Web site you’re going to find a lot of things about technology, but if you watch the debates, the press coverage and the shots they take at each other, technology doesn’t come up. It’s the same issue here. It’s not the kind of thing that makes for short term headlines in a political campaign.

We’ve already had the whole traffic shaping controversy with Bell earlier this year, and of course, the copyright reform bill was related with technology. When do you see the campaigns and the eventual government dealing with these issues?

Courtois: Those are two very good illustrations. Take the traffic shaping issue, that’s evolved considerably. It started off as a net neutrality issue and then people discovered that nobody really knew what net neutrality means, so it didn’t lead to much productive discourse. Now it’s about traffic management and you realize that the CRTC has a case in front of it. The SEC in the U.S. issued a very comprehensive decision where they didn’t use the word net neutrality and talked about reasonable traffic management. That issue is evolving quite well and is being handled by regulatory bodies.

Conversely, copyright is a government issue. If you put forth a copyright bill, you know it’s going to be controversial, so it becomes a major effort for government on a standalone basis. The same goes for legislation on spam or phishing. It will become big initiatives that a government will try and put all their efforts behind.

But, as I said earlier, if you had a coherent policy that says these all fit as necessary elements of succeeding in an Internet economy, then it becomes much more natural to put your efforts behind it and people will realize what context it fits into and the bigger picture it fits into.

Which party is leading in this debate and which is lagging behind?

Courtois: I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, it hasn’t come out in the campaigns and I’ve come to learn that you’ve got to stop getting disappointed during election campaigns. They don’t lend themselves to focusing on these issues, so there’s not much you can do about that.

At some point the various parties will put out there election platforms. That tends to be much more comprehensive. It tends to have a coherent view of the world that goes well beyond the things that will be debated day-to-day.

And the other thing is, suppose the Conservatives take power again and they’re leading in the polls. At that point, it will be natural for the ICT industry to pick up on what Minister Prentice said and pressure him to implement the industrial policy he has been talking about.

What about some of the potential opposition parties?

Courtois: On the NDP side, I’ve spoken with Charlie Angus on the net neutrality debate. I think he realizes it’s not as simple as a lot of people would make it out to be as first blush. He’s prepared to wait and let the real issue, which is traffic management get addressed.

Stephane Dion and the Liberals have always recognized that technology is key, particularly to the environment. I really think everybody realizes nowadays that to tackle the environmental problems you have to use technology.

Anything else you want to add about the campaigns thus far and how it’s played out?

Courtois: What I find very interesting about this campaign is the gradual realization of how important the Web is to a political campaign and we’re still in the experimental stages.

It’s very interesting how everybody is exploring what we can do with the Web to either stimulate participation or collect viewpoints. This is one of the elements we’ll be watching to see what learning can be gained from this.

In the U.S., Barack Obama has been very good at using the Web. In politics, we’ve seen politicians going on MySpace and Facebook and counting up how many friends they have and so on. There’s something very interesting going on here in terms of adapting to the Web in politics.

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