Last Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau set the date for the federal budget for next Wednesday (March 22) and naturally people are wondering: what goodies are in store? Without being privy to any inside information, here’s my take on where we are going.
At the press conference announcing the budget date, Minister Morneau dropped some important hints. The biggest one is that, contrary to what had been heavily promoted for the past year, this budget will not be an “Innovation Budget”, but will represent a “downpayment” on an Innovation Budget. From this we should probably deduce two things. One: the feds are broke. Well, maybe not broke, but certainly unwilling to increase borrowing in the face of a $30 billion deficit, slow growth and adverse demographic trends. Two: the government has – THANK GOD – attained enough self-awareness to discern that does not really know what it’s doing on this file. I noted back here that the Finance Minister’s Economic Council was flatly in opposition to the Innovation Ministry’s ideas about innovation clusters, and it probably came to the conclusion that making big budget commitments in the face of such disagreement was untenable.
To be clear: I am thrilled with this outcome. Yes, it’s too bad the feds seem to have wasted a year on this file. But far better to take a sober second look at the issue and make smart policy rather than to charge forward in order to meet an artificial deadline. I also take it as a favourable sign that the government has brought Ivey Professor Mike Moffatt – co-author of a large recent piece on Innovation Policy by Canada 2020 – into the ministry on a temporary basis. For one thing, he actually understands what innovation policy means outside the tech sector, a concept which has been missing from ministry discourse since the minute Minister Bains was appointed.
(Many of you have been asking to me on twitter to explain what the hell the terms “Innovation” and “Innovation Policy” actually mean. Sit tight: we’ll work on that one this week.)
There were also hints from the Minister that this would be a “skills” budget, a sentiment which has left many puzzled. A year ago, the big issue for the near term was supposed to be the renegotiation of Ottawa’s Labour Market Development Agreements with the provinces, which mostly hasn’t happened. Since then there have been no major policy initiative apart from that. There has been – via the consultations on Innovation policy – something of an understanding that skills are a big part of the innovation problem, but government thinking doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond “more coders”! as a result. (At a rough approximation, this government’s skills policy is more or less the same as the last ones, only if you just take out all the references to welding and insert the coding instead).
The worry here is that the “big initiative” will in fact be the implementation of the horrifically-named “FutureSkills Lab” promoted by Dominic Barton, chair of Morneau’s Economic Advisory committee (which I described back here). If that’s the case, we may be about to view the first really big policy disaster of the Trudeau era. First of all, no one is going to buy FutureSkills – essentially a kind of policy laboratory – as something which will help Canadians in anything other than the long term. Second of all, the feds have yet to discuss the idea meaningfully with the provinces and without their buy-in, this initiative will be Dead on Arrival, just as the Canadian Council on Learning was.
To be clear: I don’t think this is going to be the “big initiative”. I don’t think the Liberals are that stupid. But I guess we’ll see.
What about Science? Here, the news is not good. You may recall that the Government of Canada commissioned a Fundamental Science Review, and asked by the inimitable David Naylor to run it. Naylor, as requested, submitted the report to the Minister of Science in December. The Government of Canada has yet to publish it and refuses to answer questions about when it might be published. Why? It seems transparently obvious that the government found some of the findings inconvenient, and would prefer to bury it until after the budget. Maybe the report suggested the system needed more money (which would have been beyond the committee’s remit since it was only asked to comment on the management of the system, not the size). Maybe the report suggested that certain science bodies which the government has already decided to fund were redundant. Either way, the government seems to have decided the budget will be easier to spin if we haven’t all first read Naylor’s report. I have a hard time imagining how this could a harbinger of good news.
In sum: don’t bank on anything big in this budget. In fact, brace yourself for at least one major piece of goofiness. Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen, but best to be prepared.