It should not come as a surprise, but those hoping that the government’s much-anticipated cabinet overhaul might signal a potential course-correction on its digital policy mess will be sorely disappointed. If anything, yesterday’s changes at Canadian Heritage and Justice suggest an acceleration of plans that will include continuing to head toward the Bill C-18 cliff of blocked news links as well as introducing controversial online harms legislation and perhaps even copyright reform. Pascale St-Onge, the new Heritage Minister, was a lobbyist in the culture sector before her election to the House of Commons and is likely to welcome the big tech battle, while removing David Lametti as Justice Minister and replacing him with Arif Virani means online harms loses an important voice for freedom of expression in favour of someone who has expressed impatience with delays in new regulations.
Given how outspoken Prime Minister Trudeau has been on Bills C-11 and C-18, whether the Canadian Heritage Minister is Melanie Joly, Steven Guilbeault, Pablo Rodriguez, or now St-Onge, the commonality (aside from being a job for which only Quebec MPs need apply) is that Heritage policy is driven by the centre. Canadian Heritage Ministers in particular appear to be judged primarily on whether they deliver on the PMO policy and keep Quebec happy. Do that and promotions await: Joly’s difficult stint at Heritage leading not to a Mendicino-style removal but rather to a rehabilitation opportunity followed by a major promotion to Global Affairs, Guilbeault’s embarrassing performance on Bill C-10 leading to a promotion to Environment and Climate Change, and Rodriguez parlaying months of gaslighting on the digital bills into a promotion to Transport that leaves the Bill C-18 quagmire and likely backlash over online harms to someone else.
Changing Heritage Ministers might have provided the chance for a reset in the tensions between Facebook and Google over the bill’s approach of mandated payments for links. Indeed, as the reality of the harms from Bill C-18 have become more apparent, previous supporters of the bill are now touting compromise positions. Most suggestions have no chance of coming to fruition as this government is not going to stop the CBC from lining up to receive millions in tech money and a fund model (which I’ve also recommended) only works if the legislation treats it as sufficient to avoid final offer arbitration, not as voluntary contributions that do not address the Bill C-18 risks. That leaves the most dangerous yet obvious approach: government allocating hundreds of millions in public money to the media sector to make up for its blunder when the losses from its epic miscalculation pile up. Creating a scenario where the combination of government tax credits and direct grants cover half or more of news costs is neither sustainable nor supportive of an independent press, yet one can sense the memos being drafted for the next budget cycle.
Not only is St-Onge likely to continue down the same path on Bill C-18, but her mandate letter will undoubtedly also call for her to lead on online harms (or online safety) legislation and to work with ISED on copyright reform. The online harms package has long been viewed as the most controversial of the government’s three-part digital regulation plan (yes, even more than Bills C-11 and C-18). The new Justice Minister Virani played the lead role on online harms consultation in 2020 on behalf of Lametti, leading to the 2021 consultation package that was criticized by 90% of Canadians who responded (full disclosure: I had a call with Virani as part of his consultation in August 2020). Sorting out competing departmental views as between Heritage, ISED, Public Safety and Justice on online harms has always been challenging, but Justice is now led by someone both deeply familiar with the issue and likely to support a more aggressive approach. In other words, the messengers may have changed with yesterday’s cabinet changes, but the digital policies remain very much the same.