Business associations say Ottawa’s new Innovation, Science and Industry Minister, François-Philippe Champagne, is inheriting a challenging file, but welcome new leadership after an ambitious Liberal agenda was mired in delays.
Mr. Champagne is among the few ministers in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet with significant corporate experience, and the business community sees his appointment as a chance to work closely with a new, responsive and energetic advocate. He replaces Navdeep Bains in the second significant shuffle of the Liberals’ economic portfolios during the worst economic crisis in generations. Bill Morneau left last summer and was replaced with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Mr. Bains said in an interview on Tuesday he decided to leave the post to spend more time with his wife and daughters, and that he would remain an MP until the next election. Last year, Mr. Trudeau asked ministers in top portfolios to stay in their roles through the pandemic and recovery.
Perrin Beatty, chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said the cabinet shuffle was a surprise to the business community, but it gets someone who “really is like the Energizer Bunny” in the key economic portfolio. “He has boundless energy and enthusiasm, and he’s somebody who I think will do a great job reaching out to businesses and giving them the sense of partnership.”
Mr. Champagne, a lawyer by training, has been an executive at multinational engineering firms ABB Group and Amec Foster Wheeler plc. He was foreign affairs minister before the shuffle, and has overseen important economic portfolios, including international trade and infrastructure.
“He is very accessible and he understands the dynamics of business,” said Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada. “But, of course, he serves in a cabinet, and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, and has to reflect the bosses’ view as well, from time to time.”
Mr. Bains is an accountant who was Canada’s youngest MP when first elected in 2004. He was seen as a loyal deputy to Mr. Trudeau who rarely veered from talking points and tended to deflect criticism rather than acknowledge it. Many initiatives he undertook as minister were marred with delays or half-measures, including a promise to reduce consumer cellphone bills by 25 per cent that hasn’t been met yet.
Alongside Procurement Minister Anita Anand, Mr. Bains helped oversee Canada’s national vaccine plan and the COVID-19 vaccine task force, and played an important role in getting the private sector involved in the production of personal protective equipment for front-line workers. More recently, however, the Trudeau government has come under fire for the sluggish rate of vaccinations per capita.
Mr. Bains, who until Tuesday was Mr. Trudeau’s only industry and innovation minister, had promised to update Canada’s two-decade old private-sector privacy law for years, but did not introduce legislation until last November, citing pandemic delays.
“There was a lot of frustration with the pace of reform,” said Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. “... I think there will be a lot of disappointment that the minister did finally come through with a bill that needs careful study but a lot of people are pretty happy with ... and yet the lead proponent behind the legislation isn’t there now.”
The Council of Canadian Innovators, which represents more than 100 fast-growing startups, has long warned the Trudeau government sometimes focuses too much on attracting large multinationals and not enough on domestic prosperity. The group applauded Mr. Bains’s work to grow the domestic tech sector, including in the areas of funding, intellectual property strategy and fast-tracked immigration. But its executive director, Benjamin Bergen, said in an e-mail: “We hope this cabinet shuffle will bring fresh energy and new ideas to the innovation file.”
Mr. Bains defended his legacy and the timing of his priorities in an interview, saying “we had a very activist agenda.” He cited efforts to create industry superclusters, to boost investment in startups by seeding venture capital to private funds, and to improve access for skilled immigrants to work in Canada. He said his proposed privacy legislation, Bill C-11, “positions Canada to succeed,” and has support from privacy experts and fellow Parliamentarians.
Mr. Champagne takes over at a difficult moment. Unemployment is high and COVID-19 has decimated industries such as aviation, tourism and hospitality. The challenge is to emerge from the pandemic without too much long-term damage to the labour force or key industries, while preparing for a longer-term shift toward a greener, more digital economy.
“He inherits a situation that requires effort, it requires collaboration, it requires a genuine belief that business and government working together can produce good outcomes,” Mr. Hyder said.
Mr. Champagne also takes on the role as his department prepares to steer the June auction of 3,500-megahertz spectrum – radio waves deemed crucial for 5G wireless technology.
Policy makers have long grappled with how to make telecom services more affordable for Canadians without discouraging the investment needed to build networks in remote areas. The Liberals campaigned on a promise to reduce cellphone bills by one quarter within two years, and have threatened regulatory action if the carriers don’t comply. So far, the price of some mid-tier plans has gone down by about 10 per cent, according to two quarters’ worth of government data.
However, some telecom industry executives have said their relationship with Ottawa has improved during the pandemic, as Canadian networks have withstood massive traffic surges stemming from stay-at-home orders.
In August, the federal cabinet declined to overturn a ruling by the telecom regulator that reduced the rates large phone and cable companies can charge smaller internet providers for access to their networks. However, cabinet sided with the telecom providers by stating that the rates, announced by the CRTC in August, 2019, but stayed amid multiple legal and regulatory challenges, could stifle investment in networks.
“As the pandemic has shown, it is critical that we encourage investment in network technology, the backbone of the Canadian economy,” Rogers Communications Inc. said in a statement. A spokesperson for BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada said the company looks forward to working with Mr. Champagne “at this critical time in Canada’s COVID response and ongoing economic recovery.” Telus Corp. declined to comment.
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