For people of my vintage, Steve Martin turned comedy on its ear. I was reminded this week of one of Martin’s best film moments from The Jerk when the new phone book arrives.
Earlier this week the new Halifax Index was released from the Halifax Partnership. Yay. For most, it might seem a little dry, but for people in the public policy world, it’s darn near exciting. Even for those not wonky enough to be enraptured with economic and demographic data, it tells a compelling story.
While there’s much to be pleased about living here in Nova Scotia (especially during warm, sunny weeks like this one past), there are also some sobering numbers provided in this year’s Index. The document is basically a diagnosis of our social and economic health. HP’s Chief Economist, Ian Munro does his best to avoid painting too gloomy a picture, but when you dig into the numbers, neither real growth nor public perceptions are anything to pop champagne corks about. Essentially, he says, we’ve got some good news and we’ve got some…well, work to do.
On the good news front, the population is increasing and apparently business optimism is up in spite of the fact underlying decision making around investment and innovation would suggest otherwise. The number of jobs inched up and the commercial property tax base has grown, City Hall’s fiscal picture shows very modest spending increases and the municipal debt is being slowly, but steadily chipped away.
There are, however, many challenges. While the population is growing, a considerable portion of that is the result of rural Nova Scotia shrinking and an increase in international students. While this growth is a good sign, longer term trends are not yet established and historically our retention rates are dreadful. It should be noted there is some cause for optimism with the establishment of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Project, which sets aggressive goals for attracting and retaining new Canadian to the region, but it has only just started and we need to be careful not to prematurely declare victory and set unrealistic forecasts based on very short term results.
MQO’s City Matters survey, released as part of the Halifax Index, did not paint a very pretty picture either. The survey asked people to rate Halifax as a desirable place to live. While it was characterized as mostly flat-lining, the numbers were either unchanged or showed declining opinions on a variety of metrics including; being a good place to raise a family, indoor and outdoor recreation, housing affordability, arts and culture, ease of getting around, and other quality of life indicators.
Construction activity and other major projects including Irving’s ship building and the re-decking of the Macdonald Bridge bumped to GDP growth to 2.2 percent which may explain the sense of optimism, but Halifax continues to dwell in the bottom tier of benchmark Canadian cities, and GDP only hit 0.3 percent per capita.
There’s a great deal more useful analysis in the Index and Ian Munro and his team at the Partnership deserve credit for providing a very useful document to spur discussion around the challenges facing economic growth and social satisfaction measures. While the partnership also sets targets for improvement, it’s up to the business community to put forward clear policy recommendations to assist decision makers.
The Halifax Index 2017 is a very useful tool as it serves as a warning that we cannot be complacent about advancing ideas around economic growth. We have a huge job ahead of us to make Nova Scotia a more business-friendly, competitive environment. Our tax and regulatory burden remain foundation problems and with the demographic trends outlined by this index and many other studies, policymakers need to get serious about establishing long-term forecasting mechanisms to get a clearer picture of the heap of trouble awaiting us 20 years down the road. While I was excited to see its release, given the results in the Halifax Index, I think I may have been a little happier getting the phone book.