As expected, the Conservative government shuffled its cabinet this afternoon with major changes to several of the Ministries that figure prominently in digital issues. Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda has been replaced by Josée Verner, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier has moved to Foreign Affairs, with Jim Prentice taking over the Industry file. What does this mean for copyright, telecommunications, and other digital issues?
It is tempting to say very little – the Prime Minister is viewed as having a hand in all key policy issues and given the likely controversy surrounding copyright reform, telecommunications issues such as the spectrum auction, and lawful access, PM Harper will have much to say about the final policy no matter who serves as Minister.
That said, individual Ministers clearly place their own stamp on particular issues. Bernier's single-minded focus on telecommunications reform could have scarcely have been predicted in January 2006, while the fact that Oda is better known for funding and fundraising controversies than for any policies helps explain why she is no longer Heritage Minister. It is impossible to predict what these changes will mean on the policy front, though it isn't much of a prediction to suggest that the new Industry Minister will broaden the focus to non-telecom issues and the Heritage Minister will continue to push for copyright reform. Moreover, the Industry file may gain in prominence within the government – Prentice is viewed as being part of the Harper inner circle – providing some hope for balanced copyright, anti-spam legislation, net neutrality, and open access.
I think it is noteworthy that Oda has been universally described as an under-performer as Heritage Minister. She was unquestionably placed in a tough position – cultural policy is not seen as top Conservative priority – yet the reviews have much to do with a Minister that was viewed as compromised by virtue of having accepted funding from a broadcasting and copyright lobby groups. That sends an important message to all politicians. Cultural policy may not be a top government priority, but it is an issue that captures growing interest from the general public. The forthcoming battles over copyright policy are bound to be contentious and all involved Ministers must ensure that the process is open and transparent without favour for any particular group and with an absolute ban on accepting funding from interested stakeholders.