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Trudeau government's lead economic guru offers peek into growth council's work

The global expert who heads the Trudeau government's economic advisory council has offered a glimpse into the group's brainstorming sessions on how best to lift Canada's drooping growth prospects. Dominic Barton, chairman of an advisory committee to federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, responds to a question during an interview with The Canadian Press, in Montreal in a May 19, 2016, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
October 14, 2016 - 5:38 AM

OTTAWA - The global expert who heads the Trudeau government's economic advisory council has offered a glimpse into the group's brainstorming sessions on how best to lift Canada's drooping growth prospects.

Dominic Barton shared details of the team's focal points during his appearance this week at a public policy summit in Ottawa. They include easing immigration rules to attract more talent, retraining swaths of the workforce to adjust to the rapid rise in automation and creating what he calls the world's first infrastructure agency designed to rake in private and foreign capital.

The influential 14-member group, which has the prime minister's ear, will zero in on a handful of concrete ideas that will be rolled out a few at a time, Barton said.

Above all, he said the concepts will be ambitious and the results will be tangible.

Unless, of course, some of the ideas flop.

"We will know very clearly whether they're in or out, and whether we've failed," said Barton, a Canadian who is the global managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Co.

"It's going to be very clear. It will either be exciting or very embarrassing."

Barton, a sought-after expert who has advised governments and corporate leaders around the world, was hand-picked by the Liberals to help revive the economy. He chairs a council of advisers with backgrounds in business and academia.

His remarks Wednesday didn't lay out many specific proposals, but they did shed considerable light on where the group has been digging — as well as the general direction it hopes to go.

Barton told the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa not to expect the council, which has pored over reams of research, to come up with a "new silver bullet."

Instead, he said Canadians should anticipate "bold implementation" of existing ideas that aim to "jolt" the system.

Barton said he has confidence in Canada's prospects to boost its growth, as long as it takes advantage in several key areas and addresses some imposing challenges facing the economy.

The biggest headwind, he warned, is the country's swiftly aging population.

The size of a workforce is a critical driver of economic productivity, Barton said. Canada has seen, on average, GDP growth of about 3.1 per cent over the last 50 years — growth Barton said could fall to 1.5 per cent if nothing is done.

"Demographics are pretty reliable to look at — these are not just some forecasts," Barton said. "It's a call to action."

To respond, the council is looking at ways to take advantage of a national trait he described as unique to Canada: its openness to immigration.

He said he doesn't take that openness for granted, but stressed it's something on which council members feel Canada needs to "double down" if it wants to attract highly skilled talent, particularly young people.

On the labour front, Barton said the council has explored ways to help people navigate "job dislocation" caused by advancing automation. Options include stepping up efforts to retrain workers whose jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete.

Research predicts that as many as half of Canada's nine million middle-class jobs are susceptible to automation and, over the next five to 10 years, the rate of job dislocation will double compared to what the workforce experienced in the last five to 10 years.

If the country doesn't do more to retrain its workers, he said Canada could eventually see frustration similar to what has emerged in places like the United States and the United Kingdom.

Canada, meanwhile, has many strengths it can use to its advantage, he said.

Assets range from world-class universities, to an ag-food industry packed with potential, to the political and fiscal stability that outside investors covet.

Attracting private capital to invest in economy-enhancing projects like infrastructure — from outside and inside the country — is crucial for Canada, he said.

Barton said that work would be easier through an institution that maintains some independence from government. That vehicle would combine private cash with public investments to create large-scale infrastructure that create jobs and boost productivity.

The idea of such an institution has been around for several years in places like Australia and the U.S., but no country has fully brought such a concept to life, he said.

In general, Barton said Ottawa has encouraged the council to think big.

"The government's been incredibly supportive to us to just say, 'Go for it. Don't worry about the politics, don't talk about interprovincial issues, that's none of your business. Just focus on the ideas.'"

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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