Last month, Prime Minister Jean Chretien reshuffled his cabinet and replaced Industry Minister John Manley with departing Newfoundland Premier and long-time Chretien crony Brian Tobin. Much of the mainstream media’s attention was focused on Tobin, who returns to federal politics after a six-year reign as leader of Canada’s easternmost province.
The attention was well-deserved; after all, it’s not every day that a premier leaves provincial politics to head off to Ottawa (or back to Ottawa, in Tobin’s case – he left Chretien’s first cabinet to take the top job on The Rock in 1994). Tobin is also touted to be a potential successor to the Prime Ministerial throne, if Chretien ever retires, and his every move should be watched closely.
Lost in the glare, however, was poor Mr. Manley. Here was the longest-serving Industry Minister Canada has ever had, and only one of two Chretien cabinet members to hold the same post since Chretien’s Liberals assumed power in 1993 (the other is Finance Minister Paul Martin), standing on the sidelines. His bungled stickhandling last year of the “tax-money-to-Canadian-professional-hockey-teams” issue aside, Manley had done about as solid a job as Chretien, and Canadian citizens, could ask.
This good track record was evident, amongst other places, in the part of his portfolio that was responsible for Canada’s Information Technology sector. The ever-cautious Manley enjoyed, it seemed, a fairly high level of respect amongst this country’s IT community. In dealing with an industry peopled to a large extent by skeptics who want government to do nothing but keep its big snoot out of the world of technology, Manley’s accomplishment is impressive.
Perhaps it was Manley’s methodical, cautious, some even say plodding, approach to his job that enabled him to be trusted as well as an Industry Minister could be by the Canadian IT sector. He never tried to come off as an MIT graduate, and that seemed to be appreciated.
Perhaps the high approval rating was due to the fact that Manley’s job in the IT sector often wasn’t all that difficult. It might be an oversimplification, but Manley quite frequently had nothing more arduous to do than cut ribbons in front of sparkling new technology development centres and ride the coattails of a booming sector. Who can’t look good doing that?
Or perhaps it was due to the fact that the mandate of Manley’s ministry had little to do with the contentious issue of Canadian culture as it relates to technology and, more specifically, the Internet. Manley’s job was to help create an economic climate that was comfortable for Canadian firms involved in the high-tech sector. It didn’t involve putting forth a futile argument that the Internet may have to be regulated in order to preserve Canuck culture – that lame-duck responsibility was left to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny that Manley was, at the very least, a “non-disturbance” to the Canadian IT sector. Whether such a happy set of circumstances will continue under Tobin’s Industry stewardship is unknown. If track records are any indication, perhaps we can expect a slightly more aggressive approach to building the IT sector in Canada. We all remember Tobin’s stand against Spanish fishing trawlers off Canada’s Atlantic coast while he was Chretien’s Fisheries Minister.
Whether such buccaneering is required in the world of computer chips and national networks is debateable. In fact, whether governments have much of a role at all in the tech sector is debateable.
What isn’t, however, is that the last thing Canadians need is an Industry Minister who spouts ill-informed buffoonery about something he knows little about.
Mr. Tobin, please…follow Mr. Manley’s lead, and don’t.