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Federal ministers are hell-bent on consulting

you: Paul Wells
If you run into a Liberal MP this summer, you will probably not escape without being asked for your
input on something or other. Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains is the latest to join the throng of ideaseekers.

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains is trumpeting the federal government's "Innovation Agenda." By Paul Wells' count, he's the fourth
industry minister to launch such an agenda. (ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

By PAUL WELLS National Affairs

Wed., Aug. 3, 2016

Canada must be a nation of innovators. 684 ideas for #CdnInnovation,

Navdeep Bains, the federal minister for innovation, science and economic
development, wrote on Twitter on Monday. Have you submitted yours
Bains added a link to the website for the federal governments Innovation
Agenda, which features a one-minute video assuring visitors that, indeed, Canada is a nation of innovators.

Perhaps this is because they have had so much practice. By my count, Bains is the fourth industry minister (as
people in his office used to be called) to launch an innovation agenda since the turn of the century. Jean Chrtiens
minister Allan Rock had one. Stephen Harper sought to contrast with the Liberals by refusing to mention
innovation. Then he appointed a panel on innovation, and then, noticing several years later that he was still prime
minister, he appointed another.
Now we have another federal innovation agenda. With a panel. And a public consultation one of 70 public
consultations this eager new government has launched since it came to office nine months ago. Thats a seven with a
zero at the end.
If you run into a Liberal this summer, you will probably not escape without being consulted about something. Bains
colleague Catherine McKenna wants to know what #CANClimateAction youre taking. Maryam Monsef, the minister
for democratic institutions, hopes youre #EngagedInER. (Thats electoral reform.) There are consultations on
trade deals, on home mail delivery, on appointments to high office.
Unfortunately the number of consultations may be outstripping the available supply of Canadians with clever ideas.
A month ago I wrote here that Monsefs electoral reform consultation came with its own Twitter hashtag,
#EngagedinER, which people were encouraged to use as they spread the word about their own local meetings, in
garages or living rooms or church basements, around the theme of changes to Canadas electoral system. Back then,
the hashtag had only been used six times.
I wondered whether Id provoke an avalanche of #EngagedinER activity by putting that information in a prominent
newspaper. I neednt have worried. As of yesterday, the hashtag had been used 41 times, 26 of them from a single
account (a woman in Guelph who seems genuinely excited about a chance to debate electoral reform). If
spontaneous local electoral-reform meetings are popping up all over Canada in the dead of summer, I can find no
evidence of it.
Bains says he has received 684 ideas for #CdnInnovation. This looks like innovative counting. The governments
(fourth!) innovation website lists several dozen proposals submitted by earnest Canadians. Some ideas are repeated
many times (start science and tech education earlier). Others are spectacularly off-brand (Decrease immigration
But the only way I can get the number of ideas to nearly 700 is to throw in another part of the website, which gathers
social-media commentary from Twitter, Facebook and other platforms under the title, What Youre Saying.
I suppose it depends who you are. From Twitter, the website gathers input from such ordinary Canadians as
Bardish Chagger, the minister for small business Kirsty Duncan, the minister for science a public-relations staffer
at Torontos MaRS Discovery District, which swims in lakes of provincial government funding the federal
Competition Bureau and the Canadian embassy in Moscow.
Almost none of these ideas is an idea. They are mostly messages urging Canadians to submit their ideas.
On all of YouTube, two videos use the suggested #CdnInnovation hashtag. Both were posted by Bains own
department. On one of them, the CEO of Shopify says it would be great if computer science were taught more broadly
in schools. This has the virtue of being probably true, not a new idea, and outside federal jurisdiction.
Theres no need to assume bad faith on the part of all these ministers. Listening is better than not listening. If even
four useful ideas come up, thats four useful ideas. I wont claim itll have been worth the money. That will really
depend on the ideas. But the instinct to ask Canadians is understandable.
Will the outcome be healthy? It depends. The ominous apathy greeting Monsefs electoral reform process, in
particular, is striking. She argues that a referendum would not reach as many Canadians as other consultation
methods. Her preferred method is off to a shaky start. A few dozen meetings, attended by the usual suspects, will not
be a revolution in democratic legitimacy. They could, instead, reveal a lack of public engagement that would
endanger the entire electoral-reform project.

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