/Thread 45: Alberta votes, Ontario fights carbon tax, and reflecting on the fire at Notre-Dame

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“They’ve talked a lot about saving the artifacts within the church itself, but the church is an artifact. It’s such a beautiful, perfect example of French gothic architecture.”

Host Sarah Turnbull is joined by /Thread panelists Shannon Proudfoot of Maclean’s and David Reevely of The Canadian Press. The trio discuss: the outcome of the Alberta election and what it means for the feds, why the Ontario government is fighting back against Ottawa’s carbon tax plan, and reflecting on the devastating fire that engulfed the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral this week.

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Industrial policy is back — except in Ontario

Industrial policy — government interventions to grow and improve the competitiveness of select industries — is back in fashion, according to a new paper by John M. Curtis and Dan Ciuriak published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP).
In fact, industrial policies never really went out of style, except in the Anglo-American democracies. For the past three decades governments in the Anglosphere — regardless of the party in power — have shied away from industrial policies and embraced the notion that state interventions to promote specific economic sectors usually do more harm than good. This is allegedly because governments don’t have the necessary information to “pick winners.” The market, according to this view, is always far superior at allocating resources than any government ever could be.
Under this paradigm, the best thing governments can do to promote investment, industrial development and economic growth is to get the so-called economic fundamentals right and let the market — that supreme and venerable vehicle for the efficient allocation of resources — take care of the rest. In practice, the prescription calls for low taxes on capital and income, balanced budgets, low debt, low and stable inflation and a light regulatory touch. These are the necessary ingredients that will permit the market to work its magic on the economy.
Governments in this country have by and large bought into this mainstream view for over two decades, and have implemented this policy agenda, to varying degrees. Successive governments in Ottawa, for example, have rarely missed an opportunity to brag that Canada has the best economic fundamentals in the G8.
In the context of this conventional wisdom, the industrial policy light has barely flickered in this country.
But now, according to Curtis and Ciuriak, industrial policy is resurging, even in the more skeptical Anglo-American countries. They argue this is due to the global financial crisis/recession, and the slow and uneven economic growth that has followed. Governments are increasingly looking for some way — any way — to get growth back onto a decent trajectory, and in particular to regenerate manufacturing industries that were hit very hard during the recession.
This marks a big shift in attitude. For decades, governments in this country wouldn’t utter the phrase industrial policy for fear of being labelled economically illiterate by the high priests of mainstream economics and their apostles in the business media. Today, however, the competency of the economics profession is in serious question given its role in creating the intellectual foundations for the policies that brought on the global banking crisis of 2008-09 and the worst recession many countries have experienced in 80 years. Not to mention the fact that mainstream economics’ remedies to the crisis have produced scant growth in most countries thus far.
We might now, therefore, be on the cusp of a new economic policy paradigm. As Curtis and Ciuriak claim, it is those countries with robust industrial policies — especially in Asia and other emerging markets — that have seen superior growth performance post-recession. Those are the kind of facts — as opposed to theory — that tend to catch the attention of governments struggling for an economic narrative to put to citizens in a slow-growth and relatively high-unemployment context.
Canada is no exception. The Harper government, on paper the most free market administration in living memory, is adopting a more industrial policy-friendly mindset. There is evidence of this in policies to promote extractive industries, but also with significant new initiatives in the aerospace and defence sectors, both of which are well-known candidates for industrial strategies in almost all advanced countries. The relatively new Federal Economic Development Agency for Ontario is also to a degree an industrial policy instrument.
Curiously, though, the one government in Canada that you would expect to be embracing industrial policy seems lukewarm to it. Ontario has experienced the most alarming economic transformation of any Canadian province in recent years. Its manufacturing sector lost 255,000 jobs over the last decade. The province’s share of Canadian GDP fell from 41 per cent to 37 per cent over that same time period. For three years now, Ontario, traditionally the milch cow of Confederation due to its powerhouse industrial economy, has been officially a “have not” province, receiving billions of dollars in equalization payments from Ottawa annually.
Yet we seem to see more enthusiasm for industrial policy in blue Ottawa than in red Queen’s Park, which still emphasizes deficit reduction as the key to Ontario’s economic prosperity. While the Wynne government is pursing an aggressive transit agenda, it seems less enthusiastic than its predecessor in developing “green” manufacturing to offset some of the decline in the auto industry, and shows little interest in policies aimed at other sectors that offer promising growth opportunities.
Now is probably the time for the Ontario government to embrace the industrial policy paradigm and advance an economic agenda for the province that works in practice but maybe not so well in theory.

An austerity agenda hidden in an ‘NDP budget’

The Ontario government tries to satisfy everyone.
How does a minority government mired in a big deficit and in the grips of weak economic growth craft a budget that satisfies the NDP opposition and keeps the financial markets content?
Bob Rae, premier of Ontario for five years in the early 1990s, faced economic and fiscal challenges like this throughout his time in office but failed to triangulate such disparate interests. Paul Martin — undisputed master of the fiscal and economic universe for nine years as finance minister under Jean Chrétien — headed a minority government that negotiated a budget in 2005 with the NDP that managed to secure the support of Jack Layton, but was frowned upon by Bay Street.
By contrast, the inaugural budget of Premier Kathleen Wynne and novice Finance Minister Charles Sousa has likely succeeded where these and previous attempts at placating left and right have failed. The NDP will undoubtedly support the budget because it meets most of their demands. And Bay Street should be quite satisfied with a fiscal plan that is consistent with their agenda.
Most of the commentary has characterized this budget as a major victory for the NDP, upon whose support the Wynne government relies to survive, Tim Hudak’s Conservatives having committed to vote against it regardless of its contents. It has even been suggested this is more NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s budget than anyone else’s.
To be sure, Horwath’s main demands were met, notably closing some corporate tax loopholes, putting in place a youth unemployment strategy, establishing new supports for small business, additional funds for northern Ontario infrastructure and committing to a legislated 15-per-cent cut to auto insurance premiums.
That said, the most important element of the budget runs rather contrary to NDP orthodoxy. This part is buried toward the end of the lengthy tome under the heading “Ontario’s Recovery Plan.” It is in here that we find the stuff the financial markets will like. And it is here that we locate the method to execute a comment Sousa made in a speech on April 22: “The most important and fundamental thing that we can do, together, to secure our future prosperity is eliminate the deficit.”
Put simply, the austerity drive — eliminating Ontario’s $10-billion deficit by 2017-’18 — is the cornerstone of the Wynne government’s agenda, even if the government hasn’t emphasized this.
Importantly, this deficit elimination objective will be achieved by holding program spending increases to less than one per cent per year on average over the next five years. Which might not sound terribly ambitious unless you consider that this is under the rate of inflation, meaning it equals a significant real cut in government spending.
Consider further that health care spending — which has been rising seven per cent per year on average for 30 years — eats up 42 per cent of Ontario’s program costs.
Then add to that the fact that we are on the cusp of the “grey society” — a period of unprecedented aging demographics which will put huge upward pressure on health care budgets — and one starts to realize the magnitude of the fiscal challenge Wynne and Sousa have set out for themselves. The budget document acknowledges this, stating that holding program spending rises to less than one per cent for years to come “will require some difficult choices.” Indeed it will.
Most of these choices have not been grappled with in Budget 2013, and lie in the future for the Wynne government. And despite dire warnings of its imminent demise, this government will almost certainly have a future of at least a few more months, if not another year and another budget.
The Wynne government’s effort at fiscal and economic planning has demonstrated skill on the part of the budget’s architects. They have crafted a document that both left and right can find their values reflected in, which is no small feat. That, in a sense, seems to be the essence of Liberalism today. By injecting into the budget some NDP inspired initiatives — and then emphasizing these publicly — the government is almost certain to survive. And by committing to a fairly tough austerity agenda — even in the context of weak economic growth and relatively high unemployment in Ontario, which might argue for rather less austerity — the government maintains its fiscal prudence credentials. The budget is an impressive piece of political strategy.
In the final analysis, however, what we really have here is a scene setter for a second Wynne-Sousa kick at the fiscal and economic can in a year.
Budget 2014 is where the rubber really hits the road — where the premier and finance minister will have to make some fundamental choices about the basic direction of and role for the Ontario government in the economy and in the lives of citizens.