According to several media reports, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will unveil his new cabinet sometime in the next week. The big question revolves around the vacancy at Foreign Affairs, with either Industry Minister Jim Prentice or Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon seen as the likely replacement (if Prentice goes to Foreign Affairs, some speculate that Cannon will take over at Industry). While the identity of the Industry Minister – whether new or old – matters a great deal to those following issues such as copyright, telecom, and privacy, the government should consider something much more proactive.
The not-so-secret reality of the Industry Minister portfolio is that it is simply far too large to give all the issues under its mandate the necessary attention. Manufacturing, automotive, telecom, foreign investment, competition, consumer affairs, intellectual property, scientific research and dozens of other issues all fall under the same umbrella. While this was the intention back in the early 1990s when Industry Canada was formed as a "super Ministry" that merged Consumer and Corporate Affairs with Communications, this experiment has failed. With so many issues demanding attention, it should come as little surprise that many issues either fall under the radar screen or take months to be addressed.
The solution? Take a page from many of our trading partners by creating Ministers (or at least junior ministers) with responsibility for specific issues. For example, Australia has both a Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and a Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. With cabinet level prioritization, Australia has introduced national broadband strategies and other innovation policies.
The cabinet-level focus on innovation and technology can be found in jurisdictions around the world – Spain has a Minister of Science and Innovation, Denmark and Ireland both have a Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, and the UK has a Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Of course, we don't need to look outside Canada for governmental prioritization of innovation. Ontario has a Minister of Research and Innovation and Alberta has a Minister of Advanced Education and Technology. These cabinet appointment send a strong signal about the importance the government attaches to innovation and technology, while giving the issues a greater opportunity for airtime around the cabinet table.