Employment numbers make Harper's day

At current growth, economy could produce a million jobs in just two years

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The first thing any prime minister asks, when presented with the latest labour-forces statistics, is how many jobs have been created since his government took office.

This is not a number that is normally crunched out of the monthly or quarterly StatsCan data, so the PM's office usually writes it up in a covering memo with the latest labour-force survey.

In Brian Mulroney's time, the demarcation line was September 1984, the month he took office. So the lead bullet on the monthly memo was always how many jobs had been created since then. The memo would usually come back with a marginal note instructing this "bullet" be included in speeches.

In Stephen Harper's case, the starting point is the January 2006 election. In the five quarters since then, the Canadian economy has created nearly half a million new jobs, 158,000 in the first quarter of 2007 alone, the strongest employment growth in five years.

Go ahead, make Harper's day.

In January of last year, there were 16,321,000 Canadians working in this country. In March 2007, there were 16,798,400 million employed Canadians. About 477,000 more Canadians are working today than when the Conservative government took office.

In the boom years of the mid-1980s, it took a full mandate for the economy to create anything close to one million new jobs - a bullet with boasting rights. At the current rate of employment growth, the economy could create a million new jobs in only two years.

The employment rate in March, StatsCan reports, reached "its highest level in 31 years," led by Quebec and British Columbia, which "boosted their employment rates to record levels."

As StatsCan notes: "Quebec's employment rose by an estimated 29,000 in March, the largest monthly gain since May 2006. As a result, Quebec's employment rate rose to 60.8 per cent, its highest level in three decades. Gains in March were spread across a number of industries. The unemployment rate in Quebec edged down to 7.6 percent, hovering near its 31-year low."

How, in the midst of the best job figures in three decades, did Jean Charest, the best campaigner of this era, almost manage to lose the Quebec election? That's a very good and interesting question, and the answer has a lot to do with Charest and the Liberals running a lousy campaign that allowed their opponents to focus on broken promises and a high dissatisfaction rate rather than forcing the issue on present and future prosperity.

Nationally, the unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent 15 months ago had fallen to 6.1 per cent by last month.

In Canada, six-per-cent unemployment is considered virtually a full-employment economy - a job for everyone who wants one. The U.S. economy is even stronger, with 4.4-per-cent unemployment last month, which would indicate strong consumer demand going forward, a positive harbinger for the Canadian export-based economy.

Except that Ontario, the manufacturing heartland of the country, continues to bleed industrial jobs, StatsCan reports, "as growth in the service sector was partly offset by weakness in the goods sector. So far this year, (Ontario) employment is up only 0.4 per cent, well below the national growth rate of 0.9 per cent."

And Ontario's unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent, up from 6.3 per cent the previous month, is nearly half a point above the national rate.

These are stunning numbers. Ontario's unemployment numbers are almost never above the national average, but that's where they've been for months.

Only the growth of the service sector, especially financial services, has offset Ontario's job losses in manufacturing. And this is not a good number for Dalton McGuinty to be taking into his provincial election in October.

It's the job and unemployment numbers in the three western-most provinces that are truly spectacular. Alberta's oil boom continues to fuel an economy with 3.6 per cent unemployment, the lowest in the country. But Saskatchewan, also enjoying an energy boom, has the second-lowest unemployment rate at 3.8 per cent, while B.C. has the third-lowest at 3.9 per cent.

The only cloud on the horizon is inflation driven by wages. In Alberta, wages were up 5.4 per cent in the first quarter, which in turn drove a 4.5-per-cent increase in prices for consumer goods, while the national average wage increase of 2.4 per cent is well higher than the 1.6-per-cent increase in consumer prices.

But those numbers wouldn't be in the PM's memo, at least not anywhere among the lead bullets.

For a sitting prime minister, these job numbers are better than any poll.

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