"If we don't have communications,
we virtually don't have a country."
An interview with Communications Minister David MacDonald
Modulation: Recently, concerns have been voiced about the information revolution and the possible negative effects it may have on our society, our quality of life. What is your perspective on the information revolution?
MacDonald: One of the reasons people have been somewhat apprehensive about the information revolution is that they see a real loss of freedom, that they may be controlled or managed in a kind of Orwellian sense. They think about 1984 which is getting closer and ask, "Is this the kind of society we really want? The fear is a reasonable one but it is often overstated. It assumes that one individual or a few individuals can somehow orchestrate information. But what we have learned is that the organization of information is in itself a random if not chaotic process. There is no kind of neat, rational, rhythmic progression of the arrangement of information. In fact, the possibilities are much more exciting and beneficial. For instance, the opportunity for people to solve serious problems - whether they be social, economic, or even emotional - by being able to access data useful to them in the resolution of those problems is very exciting. The opportunity to overcome centuries-old prejudice and misunderstandings and the way in which the information revolution could equalize opportunity for people are also exciting. From my viewpoint there are many more positive aspects than there are negative or potentially fearful ones. In Canada, of course, we have a particular opportunity because in some areas, we have been in the forefront of all this. But to take advantage of this, we will have to tackle the challenges the new technology will create for our economy and our culture. Canadians will have to understand the far-reaching effects the information revolution will have on us. We will need an overall policy for dealing with its effects on employment, and on possible export of Canadian information - and the jobs that go with it - to foreign data banks. We will have to maintain production of software and hardware in this country. Research and development in high technology will be important.
Modulation: Along these lines, Britain, France and Japan seem to be backing micro-electronic technology as a key to building future industrial strength. What should Canada be doing right now, to take advantage of recent technological breakthroughs?
MacDonald: First of all, we should become conscious that we have, through a variety of experiences, achieved important leadership in several areas of the computer, micro-electronic information technology. "We have very clearly to specialize in certain areas. We can't possibly cover the whole waterfront." We have very clearly to specialize in certain areas. We can't possibly cover the whole waterfront. Therefore, we have to say, "What are the areas in which we have a particular expertise, in which we have gone somewhat ahead of others?" It is important that we cooperate. I am impressed, for instance, with the way in which we've had an increasing amount of co-operation with France. And a recent visit to China by some of our officials has opened new opportunities. Such co-operation provides domestic benefits, industrial benefits and international benefits. I am also impressed by some of the things that are happening in this country. Trials are underway throughout Canada as we explore some of the key elements of the information technologies - direct satellite-to-home broadcasting, Telidon and fibre optics, for example. There has to be very close collaboration between the public and private sector, because we are into such a new field that by itself I don't think the private sector will be able to maximize the opportunities. We have to bring together in a creative way public and private sector co-operation. We have already had some of this in the telecommunications field, so we should not be alarmed by it or become ideologically horrified because of it. That isn't very useful.
Modulation: You're not thinking in terms of increased funding by the federal government?
"There is no hesitation on the part of the government to more spending if there is going to be some long-term industrial or social benefit."
MacDonald: That is only one element. The federal government has already spent a fair bit in funding and it may well be spending more. There is no hesitation on the part of the government to more spending if there is going to be some long-term industrial or social benefit. But there are other ways in which we can certainly be more aggressive in terms of building relationships internationally, and in terms of giving encouragement or aid to companies that can develop export markets. We can be more aggressive in the way tax laws are designed, to encourage more domestic production. All of these should be looked at and none of them involve in a sense just giving money. In some ways giving money by itself is a rather insufficient way to attack the problem.
Modulation: So these measures that you just mentioned are ways in which we could increase the one per cent of gross national product that Canada is spending on research and development?
"This government is committed to substantially increasing its support for research and development in both the private and public sectors."
MacDonald: That's right. As you know the government has made a very clear commitment to increase research and development much beyond the 1 per cent level, to around the 2 1/2 per cent range. We have already taken some steps on that. The research councils directly funded by the federal government are certainly going to be direct beneficiaries, but not the only ones. This government is committed to substantially increasing its support for research and development in both the private and public sectors.
Modulation: Some time ago you were asked about your statements on bringing together the technical and content aspects of broadcasting.
MacDonald: Software and hardware.
Modulation: Exactly. You said you were not concerned right then about structural changes in the Department of Communications (DOC) and Secretary of State. Are you now ready to comment on whether you foresee integration of the two departments in whole or in part?
MacDonald: As I said earlier, the most important thing at this point is not to think about major restructuring or integration of one department into another. That takes a lot of effort and one can't be sure that at the end of the process you would have any better public institution than the one you started with What does concern me, however, has been the lack of co-ordination. I am trying to achieve much better co-ordination in two specific ways. First of all, as you know, we have structured Cabinet committees to ensure a much better decisionmaking, priority-developing process. That is very important because that is where the major commitments of the federal government are identified and acted on. Secondly, I am concerned about the working relationship between DOC and Secretary of State. Increasingly, in the next few months, I want to develop much better mechanisms for close collaboration between the two departments because they share so much in common. "We won't be able to get a satisfactory broadcasting policy for the 1980s without a special relationship between DOC and Secretary of State. That is definite." As I have said before, when you deal with a subject like broadcasting it requires the closest possible co-operation between these two departments. We won't be able to get a satisfactory broadcasting policy for the 1980s without a special relationship between DOC and Secretary of State. That is definite. If we are going to maximize the potential of the information revolution, it impacts heavily upon both DOC and Secretary of State. So my concern as Minister for both departments, to my two Deputies and to all staff within both departments is how can we get a really effective working relationship? It is not a question of whether we merge DOC and Secretary of State. We could well lose some benefits in that process. What is important, is that we not work at cross purposes or have costly duplication, or even miss great gaps because we each assume the other is doing something in a particular area and find out that neither is. We have to maximize energy, policy direction, and program activities through the closest kind of collaboration. That's my preoccupation.
Modulation: You don't have in mind a number of specific areas in which there is duplication between the two departments?
MacDonald: No. What I do find, though, are activities going on in both departments that would benefit from awareness of each other. And that, I find rather surprising. I was looking at one item the other day and had some questions about it. Suddenly I was looking at a document from the other department which fitted in perfectly and provided the material I was looking for. Now, if the two departments had been in touch with each other, the basic document I had been working with would have been a lot better.
Modulation: Do you see any other major changes for DOC in the near future?
MacDonald: I don't know whether it's safe to be too much of a prophet in all of this. But it does seem to me that if we hadn't a Department of Communications today, we would want to create one. I say that because as a country we have realized rapidly in the 1970s and will increasingly in the 1980s, that communications are vital to our national survival and our national purpose. I notice, for instance, the provinces have come to this conclusion too. When the provinces started out, they had departments of transportation and eventually, they created small departments of communications that maybe dealt just with telephone companies. But you will notice what's happening now in the provinces. The communications ministers are becoming much more important to their own provincial governments and they are developing their own sense of purpose. That's very valuable. Obviously, it causes tensions. We are going to have lots of discussions and lots of problems between the two levels of government. But I think this is healthy, because, quite frankly, for a country as large as ours what is more fundamental to survival than communications? If we don't have communications, we virtually don't have a country.
Modulation: When your communications legislation has been brought in and passed into law, how is it going to affect the federal government's responsibilities in communications?
MacDonald: I suppose that goes back to your earlier question. The Bill is going to require a lot more by way of policy direction on the part of the federal government and a lot more sense of responsibility in a public and political sense for communication decisions. "When public policy decisions are taken in communications, they should be taken by a responsible government." It is fair to say that over the past few years, there has been a tendency almost by default to let the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) be caught having to make policy. That was unfair and certainly unwise. When public policy decisions are taken in communications they should be taken by a responsible government. That is the way our system operates. In the kind of milieu which the new telecommunications bill forecasts, we will have to become much more active. This minister or some other minister is going to have to advise his colleagues more regularly on public policy decisions with respect to communications. That's what the public expects and certainly what the provinces expect.
Modulation: Can you tell me what your government's philosophy is on deregulation of communications in this country? We heard a lot about it before the election. "An obsession with deregulation as an end in itself could be just as destructive as over-regulation."
MacDonald: Deregulation is a bit of a catchword these days. People are bound up in red tape and they are asking, "Is there any way we can escape this kind of restrictive approach on the part of large institutions and bureaucracies?" Undoubtedly there are some aspects of regulation which can be simplified and in certain instances removed. I find, though, deregulation is a bit like restraint. Everybody wants deregulation, provided it favours their situation. Broadcasters say they want deregulation but they wouldn't want a situation where anybody who wanted to could go on the air and start broadcasting. You can imagine the chaos and problems that would create. So one has to ask how can we make systems operate so that it is not a question of bureaucratic secondguessing? Nor a question of always imposing, from the outside, onerous regulations that make no institutional sense. An obsession with deregulation as an end in itself could be just as destructive as over-regulation. I am a pragmatist when it comes to deregulation. I don't have a blind loyalty to it because I think blind loyalties to just about anything can be very destructive.
Modulation: You are not starting from the position that it would be beneficial to deregulate as much as possible across the board?
MacDonald: I take the view that I want to see systems work. If the systems aren't working, then we have to ask why. I don't regard deregulation as holy writ. I regard it as a sensible principle - one that should be applied in a sensible way, not without thought nor sensitivity.
Modulation: I want to ask you about direct-to-home satellite broadcasting. Canada is a world leader in satellite communications and yet we have a lot of people in remote and rural areas who still have limited access to a choice of communication services. Do you see individuals getting the right to own their own earth stations to receive direct-to-home satellite broadcasting service in the near future?
MacDonald: There is a certain inevitability about direct broadcast satellites. One has only to ask what the time frame is in terms of its practicalities and expense involved. One reason I became convinced we had to move much more rapidly in developing our own domestic satellite program was simply that if we waited until it was easy for each individual to have his own earth station and we had done nothing to prepare our own Canadian signals, we would be in a situation we have feared right from the start of broadcasting: we would suddenly be a captive audience for somebody else's information, somebody else's messages, somebody else's entertainment. That, from my point of view, would be socially destructive. The short answer to your question is yes, there is going to be - I don't know how soon-that kind of direct access. My concern isn't so much whether individuals will have the right to own earth stations. Once the technology becomes available it would be very difficult to say that they won't have that right. It hasn't been the history of this or - any other government to say you can't have the right to a certain technology. What we do have a right to as a country though, is to ensure that when individual Canadians have access to those satellites, there are a significant or sufficient number of Canadian signals. And that is not at all assured at the present time. That's the crunch. That's the critical and tough issue that this government has to face.
Modulation: With regard to Telidon, are you very committed to backing Canada's effort to win out in this? It's a pretty competitive field internationally.
MacDonald: It is a very competitive field. But through the work done at the Communications Research Centre and in co-operation with the private sector, we have developed a videotex system as good as or better than most of those presently competing internationally. We would be close to irresponsible if we didn't do everything we possibly could to maximize that advantage. I am a very enthusiastic supporter of what Telidon can mean to us in industrial terms, in export terms, and also in terms of the kind of interactive services it can provide for us. "I think it is important that people know that the Government of Canada strongly supports Telidon."
I am enthusiastic enough to have asked to have a Telidon terminal in my office on Parliament Hill. When people come to see me I want to show them that this thing actually exists. Once I learn how to operate it I can give informal demonstrations, whether it is to cabinet colleagues or to visiting diplomats or others. I think it is important that people know that the Government of Canada strongly supports Telidon.
Modulation: Would you be pushing funding for it?
MacDonald: Yes. We already have. We have made some substantial commitments, for example we've got this co-operative effort with Bell Canada. Certainly if the indicators continue to be positive. I would want to make every effort possible to make Telidon happen.
Modulation: One last question. Do you have anything you want to say to the staff of the Department of Communications?
MacDonald: I have had an opportunity to meet a few of the staff in the regions as I visited provincial ministers of communications over the past few months and I have met some of the senior staff here in Ottawa. I find it a bit frustrating not to be able to have more direct contact with all the staff. As a matter of fact, in December we had a two-hour public meeting and reception. We tried to get as many of the staff as possible to that meeting. I feel that when people work for a department, for a Minister, they should at least have a chance to meet him at some point, to know what he or she is like, to let the Minister know what they think is good, bad or indifferent about the department they work for. Our work is a collegial effort and I think people are more enthusiastic about their work if they think the person in charge really is sensitive to the variety of things going on in the department. So it is my hope to get to know more of the staff on a more personal basis as the months go by .4
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