Ottawa's economic advisers gather for first time with Morneau, cabinet ministers

OTTAWA – Finance Minister Bill Morneau met Monday for the first time with his group of hand-picked advisers who will help the federal government create a plan to boost Canada’s long-term growth.

The advisory council, which also met with several of Morneau’s cabinet colleagues, is made up of 14 leaders with backgrounds in business, academia and the administration of public pension funds.

Much of the discussion at the meeting north of Ottawa was dedicated to exploring how the government can work together with institutional investors, such as public pension plans, to help pay for infrastructure projects, Morneau told CBC in an interview.

He said he deliberately sought out the expertise of public pension funds by inviting the heads of two major plans to join his council — Mark Wiseman of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Michael Sabia of the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec.

“We can keep the money here, it will help Canadian retirees, so we’re thinking about, how can we amplify the federal investment by finding ways to work together with institutional investors?” Morneau told CBC.

“We’re actively engaged in that discussion. That was a significant part of our day today because, as I said, we want to think about the long term and how we have the biggest impact — and they’ll be part of that.”

The Liberal government has committed to doubling infrastructure spending over the next decade, which will raise the overall federal investment to $120 billion.

They say increasing infrastructure spending will improve productivity and create jobs.

That extra infrastructure spending, however, will contribute to five straight budgetary shortfalls that could inflate Canada’s public debt by another $110 billion.

Ottawa is seeking other sources of cash that could allow the government to expand the number of infrastructure projects while helping prevent the country from sinking even deeper into deficit.

Morneau has said investors like Canada’s pension funds have international expertise investing in big infrastructure projects.

Senior Liberals, including Morneau, have been praising a funding model for a $5.5-billion light-rail proposal for Montreal. The partnership would include investments from Ottawa, the Quebec government and the Caisse pension fund.

Last week, Morneau said Ottawa is studying the Caisse’s plan with “lots of interest.”

The Finance Department said council members were joined Monday by Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk at the meeting in Chelsea, Que.

The group is also expected to look for solutions that will address concerns such as helping more graduates find jobs out of university and managing the looming economic challenges posed by the aging population.

The government said one of its primary goals is to find ways to improve the economy over the very long term by, among other things, exploring how Canada can take advantage of its skilled workforce, available resources and strong fiscal position.