Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Unfolding Disaster of the Liberals’ Innovation Policy

This Government, man.  It is something else.

Today, the Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Shaking Hands With Tech Executives, is in Halifax to – are you ready for this? – kick off a nationwide tour to announce the shortlist of the Superclusters competition.  Yes, the man has decided that it’s a good use of public money to spend the Parliamentary recess week jetting from one-part of the country to another announcing not the winners of this jumped-up contest but the shortlist.  The shortlist.  Seriously.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the man himself:

There’s reason to get upset about this because in theory this supercluster stuff is being judged by a non-partisan, expert panel and this Minister has decided to make it a partisan thing by doing this road show.  Now, I get it, to some extent this is the price of doing business in modern Canada: minsters will make announcement tours at the drop of a hat.  But there is at least a figment of a democratic argument there: when government spends money, it’s right to make public announcement so that citizens can know how money is being spent.  And yeah, it’s borderline when what you’re announcing is a decision of a non-partisan expert committee (and even more so when it’s a peer-review process like tri-council grants), but at least there’s a justification.  For a shortlist?  Not even close.  It’s a completely partisan effort, and it’s obnoxious.

(And let’s be honest – the only reason I’m getting this upset is because I was willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt that the judging process was going to be half-way professional to begin with.  But as I suggested in December of last year, there’s a reasonably good chance that the fix was in from the beginning, and that in the name of regional pork-barrelling equilibrium, this competition is going to give us something ocean-y in the Atlantic, something aerospace-y in Quebec, ICT-y in Ontario, energy-y in the Prairies and (probably) life sciences-y in BC.  In which case the whole thing is a charade and whatever atrocities against good government Bains is committing this week are chickenfeed in comparison).

There remains no sense that Liberal innovation policy involves anything than finding some hip tech-y industry, and dumping money on a spatially-concentrated version of it, thereby giving a two-fer with regional development policy.  Tech industry lobbyists are no doubt to blame, but so too are university Presidents, who continue to pretend that shiny new bits of science infrastructure will lead directly to some high-wage sci-tech utopia, even in the absence of any other policy changes whatsoever.

And absence of change in other areas is exactly what we’re getting.  In the Bombardier trade dispute, the Minister has as good as identified the nation’s interests with those of the company itself, thereby committing us to a continued policy of pouring money into a failing “national champion”, which is not considered an “innovation” policy anywhere in the OECD outside of possibly the French communist party (and that’s not even getting into the screw-the-Winnipeg-aerospace-industry-to-help-the-Quebec-aerospace industry policy which Ottawa has been aggressively pursuing since 1986 – another #innovation!).  And one key pillar of innovation policy – that is, ensuring competition and lowering barriers to entry, said minister released a press release last week on new policy for “lowering cell phone costs for the middle class” (yes, really) which somehow managed to avoid the word “competition” altogether.  And let’s not even get started on their appalling defence of innovation-killing supply management rules.

The only half-way decent ideas the government has toyed on innovation is actually in the area of skills, where the Advisory Committee on Economic Growth has been pushing the right issues on immigration, talent and skills.  But even the one half-way decent initiative here – the so-called “Future Skills Lab” – has been mired all spring and summer in a turf war between ESDC and Finance.  The former wants to run it itself, and the latter wants it to sit outside of government.  There are more than a few echoes of a 20 year-old debate about the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation here, and as was the case back in ’98, Finance is right about this for all the reasons Andrew Parkin outlines in his paper How to Build a Skills Lab.

This government has time to redeem itself in Science by doing the right thing on the Naylor Report in Budget 2018.  But on the innovation file, it’s not obvious anything can be salvaged. Despite innovation being rather obviously a multi-faceted issue, it seems like the only pillar they want to lean on is this weird mix of research subsidies embedded in the supercluster notion, which increasingly seems to resemble 1970s-style economic policy only with money flowing to tech and life sciences instead of manufacturing and natural resources.

This is not innovation.  It is not even #innovation.  It is simply bad policy garlanded with photo-ops and annoying buzzwords.  Time to blow it up and start again.


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2 Responses to The Unfolding Disaster of the Liberals’ Innovation Policy

  1. Charles Reeve, OCADFA says:

    “This is not innovation. It is not even #innovation.” Only Tuesday morning and that’s already got to be one of the best lines of the week. Great post!

  2. Jamie MacMaster says:

    “Time to blow it up and start again.”

    I’m predicting you’ll get a visit from the RCMP.

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