Advanced Education and Skills Minister Kevin O’Brien says something should be coming soon — maybe even within a couple of weeks — but his critics say that the government is already much, much too late.
In the 2011 general election, the Progressive Conservatives promised they would work to increase the population of the province.
“We are committed to cultivating conditions that enable families and communities to grow,” the official party platform says. “We will develop a Newfoundland and Labrador population growth strategy focused on creating and improving conditions favourable to in-migration and an increasedbirth rate.”
But nearly 2 1/2 years later, they still haven’t presented a strategy for population growth. All of this comes against the backdrop of a Conference Board of Canada prediction that within a couple of decades, the Newfoundland and Labrador population will shrink by tens of thousands of people, and the steadily aging population will place a massive burden on the reduced tax base.
O’Brien said they’ve been working steadily on their population growth plan, and the final strategy will likely be done by Canada Day.
In the meantime, within a couple of weeks, he said the government will be publishing a discussion paper that sums up what they heard during provincewide consultations held last year. He said it’s a complex job, and it couldn’t have been done in any less than 2 1/2 years.
“I caution people that think that you can throw a strategy together in a year or two and it’s all going to be good. I don’t believe in that. I believe in doing it right the first time around,” he said. “It spreads across many departments, takes in many aspects of government — just to highlight a couple, all our social programs, economic programs and all that kind of good stuff.”
PC party leadership candidate Bill Barry is unimpressed.
“Governments act on a basis that a problem postponed is one solved. So how does government react to a problem? Well, the first thing they do is form a committee and they’ll committee it to death,” he said. “We can’t afford to not engage immediately. Every year that we don’t try to set a plan and policies to deal with the issues, it makes the solution harder.”
Barry, O’Brien and both opposition parties seemed to agree, in general terms, that the solution is a combination of better child care and steady jobs for young people that will convince them to stay in the province. Several people pointed out that the current megaproject economy of Muskrat Falls, Voisey’s Bay, Hebron and so on. Is training young people with skilled trades, but once the project is done, they often move away to find steady work elsewhere in Canada.
On other aspects of the issue, there’s some disagreement. One part of the population growth discussion is about where exactly people live. Barry said he doesn’t believe the government can totally reverse the trend of shrinking rural communities, and should instead focus on expanding the communities that can be saved.
“Is that trend going to reverse? probably not.” he said. “What I’m saying is we can’t defeat the whole trend, but maybe if we’re having a real discussion as to where investments go so we end up with not everybody living on the Avalon Peninsula, how about that for a start?”
Liberal MHA Lisa Dempster said she believes the government can reverse the trend and repopulate rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
“A Liberal government that I am a part of, I will be pushing to see that we create a new economic
development model to stimulate economic growth in rural areas in the province,”
she said. “Our rural towns are bleeding out slowly, but I also believe that health-wise, mentally, we live in the best part of the province. We have the best quality of life.”
Dempster also pointed to child care and jobs as the answer.
So did New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael. She said big projects like Muskrat Falls don’t do much to stabilize or bolster the shrinking population in the long term.
“The short-term jobs that exist through construction are not the kinds of jobs that will build our population,” she said. "What is their plan for diversification of the economy to come up with permanent jobs that will keep young people here?”