Special Report

Regulating tech, building a green economy: What the new cabinet’s mandate letters say about the government’s innovation agenda

Members of the federal cabinet at Rideau Hall following their swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa in November 2019.
Members of the federal cabinet at Rideau Hall following their swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa in November 2019. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave his new cabinet its to-do list in the form of ministerial mandate letters. Perhaps their most significant revelation was the extent to which this government’s innovation and technology agenda will be implemented by committee.

The letters lay out the Liberal priorities for the next Parliament, including a plan to help new carriers enter the telecom market if the existing players don’t lower their prices in two years. Responsibility for files from Big Tech to cleantech has been divided among several ministers, with Steven Guilbeault—a new Quebec MP who was among the party’s star candidates in the fall election, albeit for his environmental credentials—taking on an especially significant role on technology issues as heritage minister.

Here’s your guide to who’s in charge of what in the new ministry.

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Talking Point

The letters lay out the Liberal government’s priorities for the next Parliament, many drawn from the party’s election campaign promises. They include plans to introduce more competition into the telecom market in two years if the existing players don’t lower their prices, a new fund to support technology and innovation for Western Canadian businesses and the launch of a national competition to attract privately backed funds for deep retrofits of large buildings. Responsibilities are spread among several ministers, including Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who takes on an especially significant role on technology issues.

Big Tech and data

Watch these people: Steven Guilbeault (Heritage), Navdeep Bains (Innovation), Bill Morneau (Finance), Bill Blair (Public Safety), David Lametti (Justice)

The big promise: Canadian internet users are getting new online rights, including the ability to transfer their data between platforms and force companies to erase what users no longer want to share. Guilbeault and Bains will also work together on unspecified new regulations aimed at ensuring large tech firms take better care of people’s personal information, and are to “encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace.” The government will appoint the country’s first data commissioner to enforce those rules. In November, a source told The Logic that implementing the high-level digital charter Bains announced in May would be among the innovation minister’s key priorities.

The starting point: The first new rule for social media platforms will be to “remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant penalties.” The measure was part of the Liberals’ election platform. Separately, Blair and Lametti will try to fight “online hate and harassment,” with a focus on violent extremism and terrorist organizations. In May, Trudeau signed the Christchurch Call to Action, an international response to the attack on two New Zealand mosques in March, committing Canada to enforcing laws against extremist and terrorist content and considering further regulation.

The money angle: Morneau is tasked with ensuring that “multinational tech giants pay appropriate corporate tax” on Canadian revenues. But his letter doesn’t cite the Liberals’ proposed digital services tax (three per cent on domestic sales of online ads and user data for companies with global revenues of $1 billion or more, of which at least $40 million comes from Canada). Instead, Morneau is asked to liaise with the OECD to ensure foreign tech firms pay sales tax. The organization is working to overhaul the way multinationals pay corporate taxes; the Liberals had said the OECD’s framework would replace their plan when ready.

Environment and cleantech

Watch these people: Jonathan Wilkinson (Environment), Seamus O’Regan (Natural Resources), Catherine McKenna (Infrastructure), Bains (Innovation), Morneau (Finance) and Marc Garneau (Transport), Anita Anand (Public Services), Carla Qualtrough (Employment), Chrystia Freeland (Deputy Prime Minister)

The big promise: Trudeau was re-elected on a pledge to green Canada’s economy. The job of setting Canada “on a path to achieve a prosperous net-zero emissions future by 2050” is assigned to 10 ministries, to varying degrees. Led by Wilkinson, a former cleantech executive, and O’Regan, these ministries will be working on changes that include advancing zero-emission vehicles, directing funds from the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to green projects, electrifying industries and helping retrofit Canadian homes and buildings. And one of Freeland’s many jobs is working with both ministers to ensure the energy sector “is a full partner in this transition to a cleaner economy and that we continue our work to get our natural resources to world markets.”

The starting point: Wilkinson, with help from O’Regan and Bains, is tasked with setting the bar on this file by establishing “legally-binding, five-year emissions-reduction milestones” across industries. The mandate letters emphasize retrofits, including pledges to invest in skills training for workers that can provide them (a task under Qualtrough’s purview), as well as a new national competition to attract private capital for retrofits of large buildings. Garneau is tasked with making Canada’s major ports “among the most efficient and cleanest in the world” by converting ships to using climate-friendly fuels like liquified natural gas and installing up to 5,000 electric vehicle-charging stations along the Trans-Canada Highway. McKenna is tasked with creating an infrastructure fund to support communities transitioning away from fossil fuels. She must also ensure “new federal investments in public transit are used to support zero-emission buses and rail systems starting in 2023.” This broad scope starts with the government itself: Public Services Minister Anand is tasked with developing a strategy to power federal buildings with 100 per cent clean electricity by 2022, turn the government into “a first purchaser” of renewable power and convert government fleets to zero-emission vehicles.

The money angle: The letters contain few new targets, measures of effectiveness or dollar values. Bains is tasked with expanding the zero-emission vehicle incentive by providing a 10 per cent rebate on a used zero-emission vehicles, up to a maximum value of $2,000. O’Regan will work with Families Minister Ahmed Hussen to create a Net Zero Homes Grant of up to $5,000 for newly built homes that are certified net zero-emissions. The effectiveness of these policies will be a concern to private investors and onlookers: in October, The Logic reported the Liberals’ $600-million cleantech investment fund was struggling to find companies in which to invest. Absent from these mandate letters are mentions of Canada’s commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, a staple of its climate plan.

Wireless bills and streaming platforms

Watch these people: Bains (Innovation), Guilbeault (Heritage), McKenna (Infrastructure), Maryam Monsef (Rural Economic Development)

The big promise: Bains is tasked with reducing average mobile phone bills by 25 per cent across the country, one of the Liberals’ biggest pocketbook promises during the election campaign. The opposition NDP also consider cutting wireless costs a priority, a useful point of overlap as the Liberals try to govern with a minority. The innovation minister is meant to “work with telecom companies” to drop prices, but also bring more mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) into the market. Such companies don’t own infrastructure or spectrum, operating on existing networks by buying access at wholesale prices. But Canada’s telecom giants aren’t in a cooperative mood—they’re reportedly stepping up lobbying against the government’s wireless plans. The mandate letter lays out a deadline: Bains is authorized to further ease the way for MVNOs if prices don’t hit the 25 per cent reduction mark within two years.

The money angle: A government-appointed panel reviewing Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications laws will deliver its final report to Guilbeault and Bains in January 2020. The two ministers have until the end of that year to introduce legislation that will force “all content providers, including internet giants” to pay for the creation of Canadian content in both English and French, market it and make it easy to find on their platforms. The measure is aimed at streaming services like Netflix, which doesn’t pay into the local TV- and movie-funding system funded by domestic broadcasters, but said in September it had spent more than $500 million on Canadian productions over the last two years.

The long-term target: The 2019 federal budget promised a “fully connected Canada,” and set up a $1.7-billion 13-year fund for it. While the mandate letters don’t explicitly cite this program, the prime minister tasked a big section of his cabinet with delivering “high-speed internet to 100 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses by 2030.” Notably, McKenna’s letter instructs her to involve the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), a Crown corporation set up in 2017 with a $35-billion budget to partner with the private sector on major projects. In October, The Logic reported that the agency had been looking at a number of telecom investments, including 5G for urban areas and upgrading 3G and 4G in rural areas.

The best of the rest

At Finance, Morneau is tasked with implementing the cap on employee stock options he announced in the 2019 federal budget, a measure that worries tech executives, though the government has promised to exempt startups and fast-growing firms. Indeed, Morneau’s mandate letter instructs him to focus on “high-income individuals employed at large, long-established mature firms.”

Western Economic Diversification Canada, one of the six regional development agencies under the watch of Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly, will set up a “technology and commercial support fund” for farmers, researchers, agribusinesses and energy companies. It’s the latest in a series of moves focused on the Prairies, amid frustrations—particularly in Alberta—that the region isn’t getting its fair share of federal money.

Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray is tasked with setting up a centre of expertise that “brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects.” Left unsaid: the government wants to avoid a repeat of the error-ridden Phoenix public service payroll system fiasco, which has cost it billions more than budgeted and will take years to fix. Murray is leading the effort to find a replacement, and will also work with Bains on the “ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government,” an issue on which Ottawa has positioned itself as a global leader.

Labour Minister Filomena Tassi is charged with developing “greater labour protections for people who work through digital platforms, whose status is not clearly covered by provincial or federal laws.” A 2018 government consultation paper found that Canada’s Labour Code did not encompass the growing gig economy. According to Statistics Canada, 13.3 per cent of employees worked in a temporary job in 2018, up from 11.8 per cent in 1998. The Bank of Canada estimates the gig economy represented 3.5 per cent of the total workforce in the last half of 2018. Tassi’s mandate also includes giving federally regulated workers the “right to disconnect.”

Notable absences

Anand’s agenda includes ensuring the government’s buying habits “support our economic policy goals, including innovation,” and rolling out an under-construction online tool that will replace the current paper-based procurement system. But her mandate letter has no reference to increasing business for smaller Canadian firms, which have long complained that they’ve been shut out in favour of large incumbents.

In December 2017, the government launched Innovative Solutions Canada, a startup procurement program with a $100-million annual budget. But that’s a small fraction of the $6 billion-plus that Ottawa spends on technology alone every year. “Other countries do a better job of helping their startups and scale-ups into government spend,” outgoing federal chief information officer Alex Benay told The Logic in August.

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While Bains’s mandate letter includes a long list of to-dos, it had relatively little to say about his new responsibilities for the science portfolio, which had its own minister in the last government. He’s supposed to work with Mona Nemer, chief science adviser, to ensure that government-funded research is publicly available, and that Ottawa takes scientific analysis into account in decision making.

But the prime minister’s missive doesn’t address the Strategic Science Fund, which will replace one-off funding agreements for third-party science and research organizations like the Centre for Drug Research and Development or the Institute for Quantum Computing. The 2019 federal budget, which announced the program would start in 2022–23, promised that the science minister would provide more details “over the coming months,” a task that will now fall to Bains.