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Mr. Bains Goes to Rogers

Earlier this month, Navdeep Bains, who was Justin Trudeau's minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development from 2015 to 2021, announced he had taken on a new position as chief corporate affairs officer at Rogers Communications. As Bains had been the federal minister responsible for regulating much of what Rogers does, one might well ask some questions about the revolving door between the public and the private sector.

As a former designated public office holder (DPOH) myself, I am in the midst of a five-year ban on anything that can be qualified as lobbying. That is, any position where I would be interacting with the federal government for more than 20 percent of my time is professionally off-limits. When I was elected in a rural Quebec riding in 2015, all the rookie MPs were invited to a briefing with the ethics and lobbying commissioners. I rose to ask a simple question: "what is the difference between lobbying and influence peddling?" - to which then-lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd responded, in whole: "Influence peddling is illegal!"

That there must be a cooling off period in which well-connected former leaders of our country may not lobby is, to me, tacit recognition that the line between the two is somewhat blurry.

Many former MPs and other designated public office holders get around this by seeking employment with lobbying firms as "lobbying consultants" or similar roles, where they don't directly interact with the people they aren't supposed to for more than 20 per cent of their time; they just share their contact list and strategies with those who do.

One might ask what all these former DPOHs are selling. It isn't likely to be skills in door knocking; rather it is often access to the network of people they have developed through their time in public office. A call from John Doe asking for a meeting may not be answered quite as quickly as a call from, say, Don Boudria asking for the same meeting. It is also an inside knowledge of how the government works and how decisions are made, which is related to the first point - being on a first-name basis with the people making those decisions is something of an advantage in the game of professional government interaction.

But not all former DPOHs end up as lobbyists. Some just end up working in the industry they happened to regulate. Navdeep Bains is a case in point.

Through my short time in office, I spent immense energy and time working to get my own government to invest rapidly and completely in universal high-speed Internet, especially for rural Canada from which I hailed. My take was that Internet connectivity is as important as physical connectivity, namely roads, and that publicly funded infrastructure should remain in public hands. While we assessed the total cost of universal high-speed Internet at around $40 billion for the country, hard lobbying by rural MPs convinced an unenthusiastic Finance Minister Bill Morneau to support Bains' proposal for a program called Connect to Innovate. While the amount Bains' department requested was never shared, even internally, Morneau came through with a $500 million commitment in his first budget, just over one per cent of what was needed to achieve the goal - and less than two-thirds of what the federal government provided to develop only the first stage of Ottawa's LRT, a stark reminder to all rural MPs how little rural infrastructure matters to urban leaders.

Within weeks of the announcement of the program, in my own riding of Laurentides-Labelle, the community put together a proposal to create county-owned Internet infrastructure, providing fibre to the door to all but the most remote of households in one of the poorest counties in the province, and adding the infrastructure cost to the municipal tax bill, with the service provided by a community-owned cooperative created for the purpose. It is, to my knowledge, the only project in the country to be funded that was entirely in public hands.

I and others tried hard to ensure that any Internet project funded by the federal government would be public; that access to the fibre optic corridors that would be created all over the country would be accessible to anyone - and not be held as a monopoly by any private corporation.

The telecommunications industry, on the other hand, worked hard to ensure that private partnership would be a requirement in this program driven and managed by the Department of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, and that the Internet infrastructure would be publicly subsidized, but remain in private hands. There would be no limitation on a company receiving the $13 million limit in federal public funds, along with the matching provincial funds, to build a project, while refusing to share that publicly funded infrastructure with any other service providers or players.

Private telecommunications companies ate up the bulk of the money and much of rural Canada continues to have limited Internet access. But now, Bains, the minister responsible at the time, has landed gainful employment with one of the biggest players in the field. And for that, I congratulate him.

Originally posted on SubStack.

Posted at 03:59 on May 25, 2023

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