C.D. Howe president brings good and bad news

Deana Stokes Sullivan
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Economy

Bill Robson, president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute, says Newfoundland and Labrador's economic and demographic status is like a story with some good and some bad news.

Robson, who was in St. John's Thursday to deliver an address at Memorial University, said the bad news is the demographic squeeze in this province is more acute than other Atlantic provinces and, in the Atlantic region, it's more pronounced than the rest of the country.

Bill Robson, president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute, was in St. John's Thursday to deliver an address at Memorial University. - Submitted photo

Bill Robson, president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute, says Newfoundland and Labrador's economic and demographic status is like a story with some good and some bad news.

Robson, who was in St. John's Thursday to deliver an address at Memorial University, said the bad news is the demographic squeeze in this province is more acute than other Atlantic provinces and, in the Atlantic region, it's more pronounced than the rest of the country.

"The whole country faces the same kind of demographic squeeze," he said, caused by a big baby boom followed by an abrupt decline in the fertility rate. This means the whole country is getting old rapidly, Robson said, but what's brought it to a head sooner in this province is a long period of out-migration.

"Even when you adopt fairly optimistic assumptions about the future, such as the province achieving the targets that it's now set for attracting international immigrants and a modest level of in-migration, year in, year out, going forward ... it's not likely that there's going to be any kind of population growth in the province overall," he said.

"The population is likely to fall slightly over the course of the next couple of generations and the working age population is almost certainly going to be shrinking, Robson said.

"That's the bad news for a country and a province that up until recently counted on having more hands at work for every mouth we were feeding. That's going into reverse, so that presents a challenge, generally."

The good news relates to income growth. Robson said, although this province faces a shortage of working-age people, the amount of income generated for each worker over the last decade has been very impressive.

"In contrast to the rest of the country," he said, "the province is starting off from a very strong position when it comes to looking at some longer-term cost pressures, for example, in the health-care system. Unlike other provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador is actually seeing the cost of these demographically sensitive programs falling in the last decade and that's not been the case elsewhere."

Robson, who lives in Ontario, has won awards for his work on demographic change, health-care financing and monetary policy. He also recently co-authored a report, titled Stress Test, on demographic pressures and public options in Atlantic Canada.

There are some good options to deal with population loss, Robson said. He views the fact that a higher proportion of students at MUN are now from outside the province and outside Canada as a positive sign.

"You get them while they're young and the chances are good that they'll stay," Robson said. But there's two things that makes him cautious about saying migration is the answer to demographic problems.

First, Robson said, in Canada as a whole, an influx of immigrants doesn't actually change the age structure of the population all that much because the population that immigrates to Canada may be a little younger on average than people already here, but there's not a huge difference.

"So, for any kind of conceivable change in immigration, you're still going to face some of those demographic pressures," he said.

The other thing that's more specific to Newfoundland and Labrador, he said, is a tendency that's existed for years across Canada and many other countries.

"People generally tend not to move into rural areas. It's the larger cities that tend to be the most attractive magnets for population."

That means St. John's has an advantage here, he said. "It's a big centre, the kind that does attract people but, by and large, for rural areas, it's an uphill climb to attract people to come."

Robson said he concluded when he looked at this across Canada, "it's just a headwind that you're working against if you want to look at the migration side of it as a major answer. It can still help, but it's not, on its own, going to solve the problems."

Looking at this province's future, Robson said there are questions, whether the recent boom can be sustained and if income growth at the pace seen over the last decade can continue.

"Once the resource cycle turns, as resource cycles always do," he said, "will there be the economic base to sustain more rapid income growth?"

Robson believes in the importance of other investments to benefit the economy, including educational investments. He said when you compare the performance of students in school across Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador looks pretty good, but when you compare students across the entire country, students in this province are close to the national average but a little bit below it.

"There's room for improvement there," he said, because surveys have shown a tendency for the adult population in Newfoundland not to have skill levels as high as elsewhere in the country.

Robson said when a demographic problem is on the horizon and a province is in the middle of a boom, it should also be paying down debt to ensure a smaller interest burden to deal with in the future.

"It's almost just a matter of fairness to people who are going to come down the road," he said.

dss@thetelegram.com

Organizations: C.D. Howe Institute

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Atlantic Canada, St. John's Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Yvonne from da big lan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Geeze, where would we be without the brilliant minds at C.D. Howe to tell us about baby boomers and how small our population is, time for another award there Bill by'...

  • Leo
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    Having attended this event, I feel a bit more information on the event and the other presenters would be beneficial. The Community Accounts (while not related directly to the topic of this report) are a locally built and run solution in trying to capture some of the information people need to tackle issues such as the ones raised. A good news story here in the province for sure!

  • Penney
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Why is government encouraging more international immigration when we have difficulty keeping the people we have? Not to mention the many disincentives for younger people to start families. No wonder there's a demographic problem.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Robson said when a demographic problem is on the horizon and a province is in the middle of a boom, it should also be paying down debt to ensure a smaller interest burden to deal with in the future.------------- Boom times and this province is running another deficit , this maybe the harbinger that all is not well with our present government . The premier's piqued appearance may not be all due to his health problems .

  • Paddy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    Mr. Robson comes all the way from Ontario to tell us that the demographics in Canada, including Newfoundland, are changing--and this will have impacts!----How much does the C. D. Howe Institute pay him for doing this?

  • Yvonne from da big lan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    Geeze, where would we be without the brilliant minds at C.D. Howe to tell us about baby boomers and how small our population is, time for another award there Bill by'...

  • Leo
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    Having attended this event, I feel a bit more information on the event and the other presenters would be beneficial. The Community Accounts (while not related directly to the topic of this report) are a locally built and run solution in trying to capture some of the information people need to tackle issues such as the ones raised. A good news story here in the province for sure!

  • Penney
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Why is government encouraging more international immigration when we have difficulty keeping the people we have? Not to mention the many disincentives for younger people to start families. No wonder there's a demographic problem.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    Robson said when a demographic problem is on the horizon and a province is in the middle of a boom, it should also be paying down debt to ensure a smaller interest burden to deal with in the future.------------- Boom times and this province is running another deficit , this maybe the harbinger that all is not well with our present government . The premier's piqued appearance may not be all due to his health problems .

  • Paddy
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    Mr. Robson comes all the way from Ontario to tell us that the demographics in Canada, including Newfoundland, are changing--and this will have impacts!----How much does the C. D. Howe Institute pay him for doing this?