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Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to reporters in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says skills training will be a big focus of his 2019 budget in addition to longer-term plans that will ultimately drive the Liberal Party’s fall election campaign.

The minister is currently on the road promoting last month’s fall economic update and its tax breaks for business investment, but he provided an indication Monday of where his government is heading next.

“What you’ll see us doing in our next budget broadly is thinking about how we can continue to make a difference. Skills and training will be a critically important issue as we think about that,” he said Monday at an event in New York organized by Politico. He said the budget “will likely be more about mechanisms, [rather] than saying ‘We’re going to train you for this particular sector.’”

The election is scheduled for October, 2019, meaning Mr. Morneau’s spring budget will be the government’s last opportunity to make major financial decisions before Canadians head to the polls.

“Of course there’ll be other things [in the 2019 budget] that are also critical as we think about the next iteration of – hopefully – our government, so there will be a bit of the next steps that we will want to lay out for Canadians,” he said.

A focus on skills is a recurring theme for Mr. Morneau. His past two budgets included billions in spending on training programs such as new money for apprenticeships, student jobs and funding for an Indigenous skills and education program worth $2-billion over five years.

Earlier this year, the government announced a new “Future Skills Centre” with a budget of $225-million over four years and $75-million a year thereafter that “will be tasked with exploring new and innovative approaches to skills development.”

The arm’s-length centre will examine national labour trends, test and evaluate training methods and make recommendations to governments, the private sector, labour unions and postsecondary institutions.

Economist Miles Corak, a professor with the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York who previously served as a policy adviser to the government on labour issues, said there isn’t much more that Ottawa can do in this area on its own.

“Everything in this space involves the provinces,” he said.

Mr. Corak speculated that a Liberal government looking at re-election could be considering new ways to help people afford the cost of postsecondary training.

“If they’re saying you continually need to retool through all points of your lifetime … then maybe some level of postsecondary education should be free," he said.

Federal consultation documents released by Mr. Morneau’s department lists “better jobs” as one of the policy areas focused on in preparing the 2019 budget. The government is also looking at housing and other living expenses, support for seniors and health care, including the cost of prescription drugs. Ottawa is currently consulting on the possibility of a national pharmacare plan.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson released a report earlier this year that said Employment and Social Development Canada – the federal department responsible for training programs – is doing a poor job of tracking the effectiveness of skills training programs aimed at supporting Indigenous employment.

“Over all, we found that the department could not demonstrate that these programs increased the number of Indigenous people getting jobs and staying employed,” Mr. Ferguson told a House of Commons committee in October. “It did not know how successful the programs were in helping clients find sustainable employment.”

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