Changing focus

Just before the holidays, the Prime Minister set out new mandate letters for members of his Cabinet, including one for Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Champagne.

While many may focus on what is in the letter, I think it is also worth examining what is no longer part of the Minister’s mandated focus. What has changed?

In the current mandate dated December 16, 2021, the subject of telecom services is reduced to a single bullet:

  • Accelerate broadband delivery by implementing a “use it or lose it” approach to require those that have purchased rights to build broadband to meet broadband access milestones or risk losing their spectrum rights.

Let’s take a look at the telecom items from the letter for Minister Bains from just two years earlier (December 13, 2019):

  • Use all available instruments, including the advancement of the 2019 Telecom Policy Directive, to reduce the average cost of cellular phone bills in Canada by 25 per cent. You will work with telecom companies and expand mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) in the market. If within two years this price target is not achieved, you can expand MVNO qualifying rules and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission mandate on affordable pricing.
  • Award spectrum access based on commitments towards consumer choice, affordability and broad access. You will also reserve space for new entrants.
  • With the support of the Minister of Middle Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance and the Minister of Seniors, create a new Canadian Consumer Advocate to ensure a single point of contact for people who need help with federally regulated banking, telecom or transportation-related complaints. Ensure that complaints are reviewed and, if founded, that appropriate remedies and penalties can be imposed.
  • Work with the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development and the Minister of Canadian Heritage to deliver high-speed internet to 100 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses by 2030.
  • Co-lead work with the Minister of Canadian Heritage to modernize the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act, examining how best to support Canadian content in English and French and ensure quality affordable internet, mobile and media access.
  • Work with the Minister of Canadian Heritage to introduce legislation by the end of 2020 that will take appropriate measures to ensure that all content providers, including internet giants, offer meaningful levels of Canadian content in their catalogues, contribute to the creation of Canadian content in both Official Languages, promote this content and make it easily accessible on their platforms. The legislation should also consider additional cultural and linguistic communities.

The new mandate includes additional bullets for cyber security and artificial intelligence that will merit further examination, but there is clearly a changing focus of the mandate letters, at least as relates to telecommunications related issues. To be sure, there are other digital economy points in the mandate, such as:

  • Establish a digital policy task force to integrate efforts across government and position Canada as a leader in the digital economy and in shaping global governance of emerging technologies.
  • Introduce legislation to advance the Digital Charter, strengthen privacy protections for consumers and provide a clear set of rules that ensure fair competition in the online marketplace.

Two years ago, Minister Bains’ letter included this consumer protection section:

With the support of the Minister of Middle Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance and the Minister of Seniors, create a new Canadian Consumer Advocate to ensure a single point of contact for people who need help with federally regulated banking, telecom or transportation-related complaints. Ensure that complaints are reviewed and, if founded, that appropriate remedies and penalties can be imposed.

That appears to have evolved to this:

To enhance consumer protection and ensure a level playing field for all businesses, undertake a broad review of the current legislative and structural elements that may restrict or hinder competition. This includes directly reviewing the mandate of the Commissioner of Competition, and in so doing, ensuring that Canadians are protected from anti-consumer practices in critical sectors, including in the oil and gas, telecommunications and financial services sectors.

There seems to be less micro-management in the new mandate letter, setting out the results being sought (“ensuring that Canadians are protected from anti-consumer practices in critical sectors”), but enabling greater flexibility in how to achieve the objective.

As Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, Minister Champagne is clearly aware of the agency’s tracking of cellular prices in the monthly Consumer Price Index. That data shows that mobile prices have fallen by more than 27% since Minister Bains’ mandate.

There are other important issues to be addressed to “position Canada as a leader in the digital economy and in shaping global governance of emerging technologies.”

Before the holidays, Minister Champagne told Columnist John Ivison, “When I look ahead, my major job is to prepare Canada for the 21st century.”

Given the circumstances, the government’s focus has justifiably widened to look at a bigger picture. The Minister’s mandate letter reflects that broadened perspective.

The mandate letter implicitly allows for a less interventionist approach in the marketplace, but it remains to be seen if the Minister’s office can resist the temptation. As William Watson wrote in response to the Ivison column:

“Visit me when you’re in Ottawa,” a true-blue industry minister would tell all those CEOs who keep calling, “But don’t feel obliged to come. There’s nothing for you here except skating on the canal. In Canada, we let markets decide which businesses succeed and which don’t.”

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