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OECD says Liberals should hardwire quality-of-life framework into pandemic budget

OTTAWA — An international group that includes Canada is urging the federal Liberals to weave quality-of-life indicators into the budgeting process as a way to justify any post-pandemic stimulus.

OTTAWA — An international group that includes Canada is urging the federal Liberals to weave quality-of-life indicators into the budgeting process as a way to justify any post-pandemic stimulus.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says the country is in a decent position to develop such a framework.

Canada already collects data on well-being and considers how budget measures could affect men and women differently.

About half of the OECD's 37 countries measure the well-being of their citizens as part of public budgeting because of shortcomings of relying solely on economic measurements.

Internal documents show that Canadian officials have looked at indicators of how people fare economically over time, mental and physical health, social cohesion and environmental quality to supplement economic figures.

The OECD report says once the framework is set, it should be "hardwired into budgeting" and potentially expanded to other policy areas like the tax system.

A commission or similar independent body could report annually to Parliament about the indicators to feed into the budget process, the OECD says in its survey of Canada's economy released Thursday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic galvanizes the urgent need for such measures — given its wide-ranging impacts on people’s well-being and the deepening of existing inequalities," the report said.

"Indeed, it might help the government to defend whatever strategy it uses to 'build back better' and balance its promises to ensure a green recovery that is also inclusive and supports the broad social, economic and health needs of Canadians."

In late July, Middle-Class Prosperity Minister Mona Fortier was given a detailed briefing package about how Canadians were faring under many of the standards used by other OECD countries.

Fortier, tasked with developing the framework, was told that productivity and wages are low by international standards even though the country's labour force participation rates and household incomes are relatively high compared to its peers in the OECD. 

The result is that "Canadians need to work more hours on average to achieve these high incomes, leaving less time for leisure," officials wrote in the briefing note.

It also noted the gender wage gap between what women and men earn, which is one of the highest in the OECD, "likely in part due to the difficulties in accessing and affording child care."

Officials also highlighted how Canadians perceive themselves as healthy, while many are "overweight or obese." They said people here feel relatively safe, but many visible minorities and newcomers "face discrimination in their workplaces and in consumer settings." They also pointed to the national tax-and-transfer system as "less progressive than other countries that have larger market earnings differentials to address."

The briefing package, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, also outlined a federal hunch that anxiety about affordability before the pandemic, despite income growing faster than consumer prices over time, could be due to households being "more and more exposed to economic risk and insecurity over time and relative to previous generations."

In late August 2020, the Liberals received the results of an $82,400 public opinion research report, written by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, on how Canadians viewed a national framework on quality of life.

The point of the exercise was to help the government in its communications plans and tactics on the quality-of-life framework, and make sure what goes out isn't out of step with current public sentiment. 

The report's authors wrote that it was clear the pandemic had profoundly affected everyone's lives, but there also didn't appear to be a universally held definition of "quality of life." For some, it was having the necessities of life. For others, it went beyond economics to include being healthy, less stressed and having work-life balance.

"In terms of expectations of the federal government, most felt that the ultimate goal should be to realize success for Canadians on a number of levels," the authors wrote. 

"However, many had low expectations of the federal government in this regard."

What participants suggested was that the government adopt measures already recognized by other countries, or neutral third parties like the OECD. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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