In the face of massive tech-fuelled disruption, the finance minister tells PPF’s Edward Greenspon he’d prefer to offer Canadians new opportunities and education than a basic income.

By Lee-Anne Goodman

Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, talks inclusive economic growth with Edward Greenspon, president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, at the PPF’s Growth Summit on Thursday, April 20, 2017 in Toronto. (Martin Lipman/PPF)

Canada’s finance minister outlined the Liberal government’s efforts to boost economic growth in the face of the looming threat of massive technology-fuelled job disruptions and tepid labour force participation growth for women, youth and Indigenous communities.

“We want to benefit the broadest cross-section of Canadians, and have inclusivity as a starting point,” Bill Morneau said at the Public Policy Forum Growth Summit on Thursday, April 20.

He added the government’s goal is to create middle-class growth and to jumpstart labour market participation across the country, but he was asked what that might mean in the years to come if jobs are displaced on a large scale by technological advances and artificial intelligence (AI).

“How does this desire for more labour market, and getting people ready for labour market, fit with a labour market that isn’t necessarily going to be there?” Ed Greenspon, president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, asked Morneau.

“We’ve seen disruption before,” Morneau replied. “When faced with a challenge, what do you do? You start to think about the ways that you can prepare yourself for addressing that challenge.”

Video: Watch the full interview

The starting point in the face of impending disruption, he added, is to make sure Canadians have the right training and skills for the changing economy — for example, to ensure children are taught how to code early on.

“We need to make young people more resilient in the face of these changes,” he said.

Greenspon asked if a guaranteed basic income was on the horizon in the face of major technological disruptions.

He noted that Ontario is launching a three-year pilot project this spring, and Finland recently adopted a two-year guaranteed basic income initiative for its unemployed citizens. Tesla founder Elon Musk has also said that governments may have no other choice but to pay their citizens a living wage if large swaths of people lose their jobs to technology in the years ahead.

Morneau was non-committal, saying the government is watching Ontario’s guaranteed basic income experiment, but adding its focus was on helping people who are “challenged to be successful.”

“You should never close off avenues … but we are thinking about how we can help people to be successful,” he said. “Our sense is that we want to make sure that we are providing people with opportunity.”

“This sense of anxiety is very real” — Bill Morneau

Morneau was optimistic when asked if inclusive growth — economic growth that benefits all citizens — is a tough sell in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in Great Britain and Donald Trump’s election in the United States. Both of these seismic political events were viewed as evidence of an anti-globalization movement, a rise in nationalist sentiment, a distrust of liberalized trade policy and widespread skepticism that economic growth truly benefits anyone but the wealthy.

“This sense of anxiety is very real,” he said. “It’s given us renewed resolve that we need to be showing people the benefits of growth … so that people will be able to be behind the kind of investments that we’re making.”

Those investments include long-term infrastructure projects that will outlive the life of individual governments, he said.

He added that there needs to be a long-term, sustained approach to growth, but “we’re not going to have that unless people believe it’s going to benefit them along the way.”

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