New industry minister faces tech and science challenges

A long list of science and technology issues are awaiting new Industry Minister Tony Clement, who takes over the role from Jim Prentice after Thursday's cabinet shuffle.

A long list of science and technology issues await new Industry Minister Tony Clement, who takes over the role from Jim Prentice after Thursday's cabinet shuffle.

At the top of that list are several promises made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the election campaign, such as a pledge to spend $500 million over five years to help roll high-speed internet out to underserved rural and remote regions.

Harper's plan calls for a $1.5-billion project, with the rest of the money coming from provincial governments and the private sector. The project is supposed to begin by 2010 or 2011 "at the latest," he said.

Clement will have to convince provincial governments and private-sector companies to buy into the plan, which is intended to stop Canada's continuing decline in world broadband standings.

Clement moves to Industry from Health, a cabinet post that went to Leona Aglukkaq. In the shuffle, Harper also created a new junior cabinet position, minister of state for science and technology, and named second-term MP Gary Goodyear to the role.

Tied to the broadband plan will be a decision on $4.2 billion raised during this summer's auction of wireless airwaves. The government has yet to outline its plans for the significant windfall, which was nearly triple the amount expected.

The Conservatives have also pledged a number of science and technology funding programs that will fall under Clement's purview. These include a promise to spend an additional $850 million on science and technology investments by 2009-10, a $75 million venture capital fund for late-stage technology companies and the addition of $200 million to the Automotive Innovation Fund and the Strategic Aerospace Defence Initiative.

The Conservatives also promised in their platform to introduce anti-spam legislation, ban unsolicited commercial text messages and implement a code of conduct for cellphone companies. They also promised to strengthen the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as well as the year-old Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

Clement's most challenging task will be to reintroduce controversial copyright reform legislation. His predecessor, Jim Prentice — who moved to Environment — was heavily criticized when he introduced Bill C-61 earlier this year. The bill was disparaged for favouring copyright holders and for potentially criminalizing normal behaviour that millions of Canadians currently engage in, such as recording television programs.

The new minister will also have to deal with a report on Canada's competitiveness issued this summer by an expert panel put together by Maxime Bernier, who preceded Prentice as minister of industry. The panel recommended the lifting of foreign ownership restrictions in several sectors, including uranium mining, airlines and telecommunications.

During the election, Harper said he planned to follow the panel's advice on the first two sectors but he was silent on the third, which covers telephone, cable and wireless companies.

Clement, 47, will also have to help repair the government's image within the scientific community, many of whom spoke out during the election campaign about the dismissal last year of the national science adviser and what they said was their lack of voice in policy-making decisions.