Liberals seek public input on perennial quest for improved innovation

OTTAWA – The Liberal government is embarking on another round of public consultations, this time on the issue of fostering innovation in the economy.

It’s an old theme that governments of various stripes have wrestled with for at least two decades: how to improve the competitiveness and international clout of Canadian entrepreneurs.

Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, says the Liberal government will focus on six policy areas, including supporting research excellence, competing in a digital world, building business and research clusters and making it easier to do business.

Bains says ensuring government procurement supports smaller companies, cutting barriers to interprovincial trade and making it easier for Canadian firms to hire foreign “C-suite” executives are all part of the potential policy mix.

Bardish Chagger, the Liberal minister for small business and tourism, said the goal is to double the current 169 Canadian companies with sales of more than $1 billion — although she didn’t set a time frame.

The Conservative opposition treated the government announcement with disdain, pointing to the involvement of progressive think tank Canada 2020 in the consultations and noting the Liberal-connected group’s principals include a lobbyist who is registered to lobby Bains’s department.

Consulting the public through an online portal and a series of round tables headed by eminent Canadians is the latest attempt to goose the country’s entrepreneurial spirit.

A news conference Tuesday announcing the public consultation opened with a short video advertisement touting famous Canadian inventions such as the telephone and insulin, with a we-can-do-it tag line.

“Innovation is a mind-set,” Bains told the news conference.

“It’s the desire to challenge the status quo, it’s about finding solutions to problems and the outcome of innovation fundamentally is improving one’s quality of life, standard of living. It’s about good quality jobs.”

It’s also the Holy Grail of modern Canadian governments.

The 1997 federal Liberal budget, for instance, referred to making “strategic investments that will strengthen job creation in the long term by helping Canadians undertake the higher education, training and innovation needed to make the most of the opportunities provided by globalization and technological change.”

“Canada’s Entrepreneurial Advantage,” said the 2008 Conservative budget, “means creating a competitive business environment that supports innovation, rewards success and reduces unnecessary regulations and red tape.”

Bains acknowledged that more than 15 years after Canadian governments began cutting corporate tax rates, the promised research and development spending has not materialized.

“We in the past have looked at tax policy to spur R&D investment, but we ranked 22 out of 34 OECD countries,” said the minister.

“We have 11 per cent (in cash holdings) on the balance sheets of the large companies in Canada and the number has grown and that money is not being invested in R&D and that is a challenge.”

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