Bigger government, better economy say Canadian teens

They may hate high taxes, but Canadian high school students love big government – at least when it comes to boosting their bank accounts.

A nationwide survey suggests the country’s teenagers put a lot of faith in Ottawa’s ability to steer the economy, boost innovation and create jobs.

Young Canadians brought that viewpoint to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last week, hoping to help him decide what to include and what to cut in the federal budget he’s unveiling Thursday.

The survey and consultation, whose results were delivered to Flaherty’s office in January, were spearheaded by Civix, a national charity with a mandate to promote civic engagement with young people.

While 84 per centof those surveyed wanted personal income tax to hold steady or decrease, and 48 per cent think it should be capped at a certain amount, the vast majority believes the government has a “great deal” or “some” influence over the economy – a share that grew the most respondents paid attention to politics.

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“They want government to be involved in their lives,” said Civix president Taylor Gunn.

And many are counting on Ottawa to better their job prospects and future economic wellbeing.

Sixty-four per cent say Flaherty could create lasting jobs by investing in key industries; half said lowering taxes could promote growth.

Consistent with their affinity for big government, only 24 per cent said economic growth would come from reducing regulations, and only a quarter thought Ottawa should keep out of running the economy.

The iPod generation places a premium on innovation, and the majority thinks the government has a big role in bolstering it.

Students suggested grants, tax breaks, investments in post-secondary and direct funding of research as various means to that end.

But while teenagers feel good about the government’s role now, they may get a reality check a few years down the road.

“They tend to believe the government can do a lot,” says Ron Kneebone, who teaches economic and social policy at the University’s of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. “Economists know that governments can do a lot, but it can’t do everything.”

The confidence students place in Ottawa doesn’t appear to extend to foreign governments. They’re leery of foreign trade and foreign takeovers, and would like Ottawa to police predatory incursions from foreign government-owned companies.

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“Another government would try to get every ounce of money out of that company and try to take it back to their country to help their economic growth, which could have a positive or negative impact [on Canada],” said 16-year-old Marc Hanna, who travelled from Toronto to Ottawa as part of the student delegation meeting with Flaherty last week.

These teens have marinated in heated national debates over would-be foreign takeovers – of Potash Corp., Nexen Inc. and Rona Inc., to name a few – and it shows: A third thinks the federal government should make the final call on foreign takeovers. Thirty-six per cent said Ottawa should block takeovers of Canadian companies entities owned by foreign governments (41 per cent said it depends).

The proportions were nearly the same when it came to whether students believed foreign companies buying Canadian firms is bad for the country’s economic health.

Those attitudes may reflect the changing dynamic between young people and large corporations, said Ken Coates, a research chair in regional innovation who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan’s Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

“We once had large companies – Sears, HBC – recruiting on campus, providing good, stable career opportunities,” he said. “Many of those Canadian companies are gone, purchased by American ownership” – a trend followed by downsizing, layoffs and instability in large companies during the recession.

But Kneebone said today’s youth aren’t that different from the generations that preceded them.

“Young people have always been leery of foreign ownership,” he said. “If you think back to the 1960s and 70s, the young of the time were very concerned about foreign takeovers.”

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Kneebone said teenagers may be placing undue emphasis on factory closures or layoffs associated with foreign takeovers, instead of putting the events in the context of the thousands of jobs created daily by the economy.

Teenagers were marginally more open to trade: Sixty per cent believe increased prosperity. But they were picky about trading partners: The plurality had misgivings (either “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable) about trade with India and Mexico. The vast majority, by contrast, felt comfortable trading with long-standing partners like the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

“They are trying to push as much money into their economy instead of actually benefiting us,” said Sewa Adegorite, another Toronto student meeting Flaherty last week. “So that’s why we are not really sure which foreign countries we should trade with.”

And more than half said human rights records of potential trade partners should take precedence when it comes to hammering out trade agreements.

“I do look at moral issues too,” said Hanna, whose family immigrated to Canada from Egypt. “In Egypt, it was not just how they dealt with money, but moral issues that caused turmoil.”

With files from Elton Hobson.  


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