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Finlayson Op-Ed: How Canada can put its economy back in gear (Troy Media & The Province Newspaper)

“Building an economy that works for the middle class” is the preferred mantra of the Trudeau government now ensconced in Ottawa.  Rarely these days does one encounter a federal government news release that fails to tout the benefits of a thriving middle class.  The term “middle class” itself, however, is never defined, making it difficult to know if progress is being made in delivering on what the government describes as its most important objective. 

On at least some measures, the middle class in Canada actually looks to be doing reasonably well.  Take incomes, for example.  From 2010 to 2014, the total pre-tax income of the typical family – defined, statistically, as the “median” family consisting of two or more related persons – rose from $80,900 to $87,000, in constant 2014 dollars.  This amounts to an increase (after inflation) of 7.5 per cent over four years – a decent gain. 

Against the backdrop of a chronically weak global economy and a Canadian economy struggling to eke out any growth at all, it won’t be easy to increase median real incomes at a faster pace than during the 2010 to 2014 period. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Trudeau and his colleagues want to try.  In doing so, they can tap into the expertise of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth appointed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau earlier this year.  Its mandate is to come up with “bold and innovative ideas that will lead to a higher standard of living for the middle class, and those working hard to join it.” To be effective, such ideas will need to boost the growth potential of the Canadian economy over the medium-term and beyond.

What could be done to establish conditions favouring stronger economic growth and a better future for the middle class?  The Advisory Council will no doubt produce an extensive list of suggestions.  In the meantime, there are several areas where smart government policy can help.   

One obvious priority is to accelerate investments in infrastructure, including technologies that facilitate the efficient use of scarce infrastructure assets.  With record low interest rates, there has never been a better time to invest in infrastructure – especially in projects geared towards improving productivity and raising the economy’s growth potential.  Budget 2016 took some steps in this direction, but there is more to be done.  The challenge extends well beyond the traditional public sector domain.  In pursuing its infrastructure agenda, the federal government should be seeking to leverage private sector capital pools and rely more on user charges and innovative financing arrangements in order to manage costs and risks to taxpayers.  It should also be looking to expedite the many tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure investments currently being proposed by private sector companies and consortia all across the country.

Second, it is critical to ensure Canadian goods and services have access to global markets.  This calls for an outward-looking, pro-active approach to trade and investment policy.  If the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the comprehensive trade and economic agreement with the European Union remain stalled, Canada will need to pursue bilateral discussions with trading partners in Asia and Europe.  We must also press on with efforts to strengthen the North American partnership and modernize the Canada-U.S. border to streamline the movement of low-risk goods and travellers.

Third, Ottawa has to start paying more attention to the global competitiveness of Canada’s natural resource industries – industries that directly support hundreds of thousands of “middle class” families and supply more than half of the country’s merchandise exports.  To thrive and grow, our natural resource industries need excellent rail and road networks, efficient ports, and expanded energy infrastructure that allows Canadian oil and gas to reach offshore markets where the demand for energy continues to increase.  And while the Trudeau government has pledged to overhaul the key regulatory regimes affecting natural resource projects and related infrastructure development, it is vital that this work not result in even more cumbersome and delay-prone review and approval processes – an area where Canada is already saddled with a poor reputation in the eyes of global capital markets and the investment community.

Finally, Ottawa can better align the tax system to support economic growth and the creation of high-paying jobs.  This means keeping general business tax rates low, ensuring that tax policy encourages the speedy diffusion of advanced technologies across the business sector, paring back the thicket of boutique tax credits and incentives that have proliferated since the 1990s, and modifying tax rules and administrative procedures to account for the shift to the digital economy.    

 Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia.   

As published in Troy Media and The Province Newspaper.