Automation is gobbling up factory jobs all over the world and it’s coming for white-collar ones, the new federal budget concedes, and our best hope is to build the robots and write the software that runs them.
How to pull it off? Well, that’s the tricky part.
Every budget has an element of voodoo to it, doing things that are assumed to be good for the country even if the exact mechanism is hard to explain.
For the Liberals, both on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park, it’s assuaging middle-class worries about supporting young children and aging parents and what happens if my company goes bust. Shrinking government has meant impoverishing public services that are the foundation of prosperity.
Wednesday, the federal government promised money for health care, for child care, for home care — billions of dollars in all, with the aim of freeing Canadians’ minds to focus on work while the government helps out with everything else.
The Liberals also want to help successful businesses become really, really successful businesses.
“Smart, ambitious investments in people, communities and high-growth industries lead to opportunities,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget speech said. “Opportunities lead to jobs, jobs lead to a more confident and growing middle class, and a more confident, growing middle class is the only path to strong and sustained economic growth.”
The middle class the Liberals really have in mind isn’t mining bitumen or rolling sheet metal, either. Where the Conservatives wanted to support Canada’s resource companies and figured cities would take care of themselves, the Liberal philosophy is precisely the opposite.
If you live in Alberta or Saskatchewan, the feds are waiting right along with you for oil prices to climb again. Alberta is getting a straight $30-million cash payment “to support provincial actions that will stimulate economic activity and employment in Alberta’s resource sector,” which seems mainly intended to supply a counter to any complaint that the budget is doing nothing in that area at all.
But if you happen to live in Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia, and especially in a city in one of those provinces, whoa, the government is here for you.
To begin with, the government promises to speed access to Canada for researchers and in-demand technology workers, and to make it easier for foreign companies to open Canadian offices. There’s money to help immigrants get foreign credentials recognized here. To encourage Canadian kids to pursue science and engineering, there’s $2 million a year for “learning opportunities” in those fields, and even $300,000 a year for new science-teaching awards.
A few million here and there, spread out across the country, over years. Worthwhile, but tiny potatoes.
If you run a business, however, the federal government wants you to prepare to be partnered with, supported, or invested in. You might be urged into a supercluster, which is like a cluster but super.
Let’s spend a moment on that. A cluster is when businesses that work in the same industry have offices near each other and sometimes work together and greatness results — think telephony and fibre-optics growing out of Bell-Northern Research in Kanata.
They’re notoriously hard to create by design.
Ontario and the feds have tried to do it with health sciences and biotechnology in Toronto. It’s gone sort of OK, but they also notoriously built a top-quality office tower there to fill with labs and researchers and couldn’t find them.
The federal government wants more clusters, in “advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital technology, health/bio-sciences and clean resources, as well as infrastructure and transportation,” and wants businesses to band together and apply to a $200-million-a-year program that will … er… the budget doesn’t say. Promote clusters, superly.
Superclusters are the biggest line-item in the $1.7-billion innovation agenda by far, totaling $950 million over five years. Nothing else comes close. God knows what the money will buy. Nevertheless, self-driving cars, Ottawa’s current technological preoccupation, seem like they’d count as a transportation thing to cluster around.
This is a risky form of government activism. Sinking public money into private companies that fail means, well, sinking public money into failures. Putting money into successful companies risks making them dependent on government, sapping them of the very agility that’s supposed to make them globally competitive.
Maybe you’ve heard of Bombardier, which is getting federal and Quebec-government help to support a great new jet it can’t seem to sell and has had a rich contract to supply streetcars to Toronto that’s fallen to pieces.
Despite the dangers, Morneau and the Trudeau Liberals are in tune with the Kathleen Wynne Liberals’ sense that there’s no use promising a return to a golden age of manufacturing — that if only we can make it really, really cheap to do business here, mothballed factories will reopen and low-skill high-pay jobs will flood back and we’ll make Canada great again.
In that, they’re acknowledging reality, which is at least better than beating hopelessly against the inevitable.
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