Election 2006: Technology and the Tories

The minority Conservative government elected Monday night is promising major changes to the way the public sector deals with Canadian businesses such as IT vendors, even if the concerns of several industry trade groups were largely ignored throughout the 53-day campaign.

Spokespeople for Ottawa’s Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) sounded hopeful on Tuesday that they would have a good chance of finding a friendly audience once Stephen Harper and his new cabinet take office. The associations asked parties during the campaign to consider a variety of priorities. These included a mandate to drive commercialization, boost IT investment as a way to aid productivity, solve a projected skills shortage and increase the role of women in IT.

“It’s very positive in the short-term,” Barry Gander, CATA’s executive director, said of the Harper victory. “Hopefully there won’t be great instability, which is ultimately one of the main issues for us. It’s getting projects moving ahead and out of the morass of criticism. All the parties have a view that they need to work together to move agendas forward, and we’re looking forward to that.”

Talks with Industry Canada and other departments were delayed or curtailed following the election call late last year, Gander said, as “people were waiting for the new approval  chart” before making decisions. CATA will be focusing primarily on measures the government can make with respect to direct business-to-business marketing and exports, he said.

“There were a number of good businesspeople elected. They have an understanding of what business needs are,” he said.

ITAC president Bernard Courtois singled out James Rajotte, MP for Edmonton-Leduc, as an example of a Tory conversant in the issues of concern to the high-tech industry. However the reality of another minority government will require co-operation from all parties, he added. 

“What we’re talking about is not a particularly partisan or a political theme. They’re a fundamentally economic theme,” he said. “Even with the NDP there was a recognition of the support needed for science and skills development and tax support for investment.”

It’s possible, however, that in three to four years the industry wouldn’t be able to tell there was a change in government, said Jack Carr, an economics professor at the University of Toronto

“In terms of what they offered as an economic package, both Conservatives and the Liberals were very similar,” he said.

Among its major promises, the Conservative Party said it will appoint a procurement auditor, whose mandate will be to ensure fairness and transparency in the procurement  process and to address vendor complaints. The Conservatives have also said that  contracting rules need amendment to ensure that the procurement process is free from political  interference. Small vendors, including those vendors located outside the National Capital Region, will receive due consideration when bidding on federal government contracts, according to the Conservative platform.

The idea of another watchdog could create an unnecessary extra layer into a system that is already constrained, said Gordon Kyle, a director with Partnering and Procurement Inc. based in Halifax.

“It’s all about giving everybody that should have one an opportunity to bid and not predefining the companies or capabilities in such a way that you favour anybody or disfavour anyone,” he said. “There are tradeoffs in that, though. You can end up erring on the side of fairness and making it difficult to get good solutions. Or you can err on the side of what appears to be good value and make it impossible for newcomers to enter the bidding.” 

Courtois welcomed any moves that would give Canadians a clearer picture of how it spends its money.

“We’re an industry that sells a lot to government, so there are all kinds of activities we’re looking for in the area of transparency,” he said. “I have to say, though, that the Liberal government had certainly proposed a lot of reforms from the standpoint of accountability and controls and checking. What we’re looking at now is more a change in political mindset.” 

It’s a mindset that has changed a lot amid ad spending scandals and increased scrutiny following the Gomery inquiry, Kyle added.

“It used to be a trough. Now it’s no longer a trough. In fact it’s the opposite — there’s so much paranoia,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m shocked and dismayed at some of what goes on around purchasing.” 

The Conservatives have also promised that Auditor General Sheila Fraser will review its procurement policies, and to follow through with her recommendations.

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