The latest revelations of Ottawa's cost-cutting on labour market data come as no surprise. This Conservative government has a solid track record of sacrificing information for budget cuts. The long-form census, Statistics Canada and Canada's environmental libraries have all fallen victim to the government's red pen. Frustratingly, these funding cuts only seem to come to light after they've been carried out.
Which is precisely the case with the latest example of blind cost-cutting: An internal memo obtained by The Globe and Mail reveals Employment Minister Jason Kenney's department cut spending on labour market information by more than 20 per cent over the past two years. Spending on "Learning and Labour Market Information" – which includes gathering, analyzing and sharing labour data – dropped from $84.9-million in 2011-2012 to $66.9-million in 2013-14.
Reliable labour market data is a key driver of government policy. It allows us to better understand, for example, whether job-seekers' skills match labour market needs. It's key to shaping policy around education, training and immigration. But without reliable data, confusion reigns. Any debate about whether Canada has a shortage of skilled labour, for instance, is hopelessly ill-informed. As a result, policy-makers and economists can't even agree on the basics, such as how big Canada's skills shortage is, where it is most severe, or even if it exists at all. Decisions about everything from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to the Canada Job Grant are increasingly a function of political rhetoric rather than reliable evidence.
Five years ago, a government-sponsored advisory panel was created to come up with ways to improve labour market data. This week, the panel's chairman, economist Don Drummond said several of its key recommendations have yet to be implemented. As a first step, he says Statistics Canada needs more funding to gather all of that currrently non-existent data. Thankfully, the Harper government appears to be taking note, with plans to fund two new surveys of regional jobs data. Mr. Drummond also calls on federal and provincial ministers responsible for labour to work together on fixing any gaps.
In recent years, the Harper government has scaled back its data gathering with exceptional zeal. It is time to apply the same singular focus to restoring it.