House of Commons Hansard #132 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was municipalities.

Topics

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

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October 2nd, 2003 / 4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on this opposition day motion, which states:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should initiate immediate discussions with the provinces and territories to provide municipalities with a portion of the federal gas tax.

I have listened to the debate throughout the day. I think there is a consensus with regard to the importance of the health and well-being of our cities and our municipalities.

I have often thought, quite frankly, that large municipalities have attracted away large numbers of people from smaller communities. They have not only the best but they have the worst, because they also have become what is often referred to as “the doughnut hole”, in that people do not really live there during off business hours. People just go to the big cities for their business and maybe for some of the major entertainment things, but as for the people who live there, in fact this is the urban magnet situation, where those looking for social services et cetera have been coming.

It reminds me of the report that was funded by the federal government with some $800,000. It was a report on the homeless situation in the Toronto area. As I recall, the report found that 35% of the homeless in Toronto were suffering from some form of mental illness. Twenty-eight per cent of the homeless in Toronto were youth who had been alienated from their families and of which 70% had experienced either physical or sexual abuse. Some 18%, I understand, were aboriginals off reserve. About 10% were transient women on the streets, more likely than not victims of abuse or other difficulties.

Large urban centres have tended in the past to get a disproportionate amount, I believe, of the support from programs, but I also believe that maybe that has been to the detriment of the ability of other communities with the potential to have more vibrant economies, with the potential to attract and keep a skilled labour force, to attract business and economic development, to create wealth there, to grow their population, and to provide safe, secure streets and a safe community in which to raise children.

I have often thought that we need to look at an appropriate balance, because everyone cannot live in large major centres. That is not to say that large major centres should not get support, but I asked this question earlier of a previous speaker. If we are talking about the $4.8 billion of federal gas tax and having a portion of that shared, if we are to disburse that to all the municipalities and cities across the country, there are a lot of municipalities and cities, every one with their hands out. How much would be significant or how much would be appropriate to make a meaningful difference in terms of the ability of that community to match dollars and to make something happen?

Maybe there has to be a little more discussion about which are the have cities and municipalities and which are the have nots, and about what our responsibility is to ensure that every community with reasonable potential has an opportunity to share equitably in whatever resources may be available, whether it be through a sharing of gas taxes or an authorized infrastructure program or some other cost sharing program that Parliament has approved.

I wanted to put that on the record as a preamble of other aspects of this issue we should be discussing. I should give some background information about the tax we are talking about.

This excise tax is 10¢ per litre on gasoline and 4¢ per litre on diesel. It does raise about $4.8 billion per year in revenues for the federal government. This is not a dedicated tax. It is not dedicated for investment in roads, repairs or other automobile or transport related infrastructure.

These moneys are not dedicated and in fact go into the general revenues, as members have pointed out all day long, into the consolidated revenue fund, and are used to support a broad range of programs obviously valued by Canadians, including things like the Canada health and social transfer, which takes care of not only health care but post-secondary education, welfare and the social supports needy Canadians must have to be able to survive in dignity.

The government recognizes that healthy communities and competitive cities are vital to the collective and individual well-being of Canadians. I have said in my speeches in this place that I honestly believe that the measure of the success of any country should be the measure of the health and well-being of its people. How are the people doing?

In this regard, we should probably talk about the health and well-being of the people in smaller communities, communities with potential, communities that have not been big players but maybe should be big players in terms of economic development and in terms of population growth, skills development and industrial development.

Not everyone has to live in the large urban centres. Not everyone has to work in downtown Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver or Halifax. All those cities have problems. They have large population bases, on a relative basis for their size, but look at the problems, at the urban magnet. I was talking about the homelessness report earlier. Forty-two per cent of the homeless in Toronto did not come from Toronto. They came from other communities, from communities that did not have the social supports to care for those people in need. These people migrate. They migrate to the large urban centres where the money has been poured in. That is where the social supports are. That is where they can live on the streets and get all the things they need.

There seems to be a counterproductive trend that has taken place. It is the urban magnet thing. If we keep pouring into the major centres, we are creating more gridlock, more pollution and unhealthy environments.

Yet in my own community, the City of Mississauga, our mayor has admitted openly that the city has been planned in a way that is not conducive to public transit. We have developed communities where we need to have cars to get out of our neighbourhoods to go to the grocery store, to go to the big box stores. This is the kind of thing our urban planners really have to be cognizant of. It is not a matter of how many people we can shoehorn into a neighbourhood; it is how a neighbourhood can be a vibrant, synergistic community where things like public transit are viable.

The City of Toronto has in perpetuity had problems with the Toronto Transit Commission. It constantly has its hand out saying it needs more money because it cannot keep its trains and tracks in good order and it does not have enough people using it. I think I know why it does not have enough people using it: because the Toronto Transit Commission has one of the highest transit fare prices in North America and people are looking for alternatives. People do look for alternatives. If the prices were reasonable and competitive, maybe people would then start reusing it, but I think it has jaundiced the situation simply by maintaining high levels of transit costs.

We are talking about supporting Canadian communities. I hope the member who moved the motion and his party are talking about communities that need that hand up, that lift, that boost to allow them to develop that economic base to attract skilled people, to attract the industry, to be able to generate the wealth within their community so that they can invest in their own community and continue to grow.

It makes a lot of sense strategically. If the federal government is participating in cost shared programs and they must be cost shared. There have been far too many examples where moneys have been given by the federal government for specific purposes and moneys have ended up in bank accounts and forgotten about. It happens time and time again. It happened in the province of Ontario with Mike Harris, the former premier. It was unbelievable that about $500 million was put in a bank account and forgotten about.

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4:45 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Moore Port Moody—Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam, BC

You are talking because you are scared.

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4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

No, he is not the premier anymore, nor is Ernie Eves after today, I suspect. Dalton McGuinty will be called upon by the people of Ontario--

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4:45 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ted White North Vancouver, BC

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order. This is election day in Ontario. It seems there is some electioneering going on. Would it not be appropriate for us to restrain ourselves from commenting on who might be winning elections on election day?

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4:45 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I would simply have to say that I doubt that it is a point of order. It might be a useful reminder for people to be aware, of course, that it is an important day for the electorate of Ontario. However, we will pursue the debate on the matter before the House.

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4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, in deference to the member, I think I will leave that point. The point was made.

We have also had a number of important programs which have in fact led to some good outcomes, cost shared programs. I have a list and looking down the list of the examples that were given I see greater Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Saguenay is there as well because they are twinning route 175.

Even in the examples given by researchers the only things they could think of as the big ticket items were big cities. I do not live in Toronto. I live in Mississauga but we are the sixth largest city in the country. We used to be the bedroom community of Toronto and we had no commercial base. We were the bedroom community and relied predominantly on a residential property tax base. In recent years the city has developed an attractive community for business to migrate to. We have an equitable commercial base and the community is thriving. In fact we now have gridlock in Mississauga, so go figure.

We talk about things like urban sprawl. The best way to do things is not to have people spread out too thinly in a city. We really have to pack them in nice and dense; high rises, high density places and slip another house between two others. In that way we get more density and we are able to support public transit that otherwise would not be sustainable at those kinds of prices. These are some important things.

Even in my own community which is a fairly well-off community of about 650,000 people there is a shortage of affordable housing. There are people living in poverty. There are people who live on the streets. There are people who cannot find work and are in the welfare cycle. They are in fact the children of parents who are themselves in the welfare cycle. Those are some of the problems. We need to encourage other communities to grow and become vibrant and have an economic base so that they will provide for their own. There is a level of dignity in the country which all Canadians not only should aspire to but are entitled to. That is why we have to invest.

I agree with the sentiment of the motion today. It makes some sense but the onus on all parliamentarians would be to ensure that the kinds of investment we make are equitable among the municipalities, the communities of Canada. We must make sure that those moneys are properly cost shared. We must make sure that those programs are implemented and delivered on a timely basis. We must make sure that the people of Canada have every evidence that their hard-earned tax dollars have been used for the betterment of the communities of Canada.

They are very noble objectives but we have had some bad examples in the past where programs that were promised did not happen. We have had programs where moneys were given. I can recall a situation where moneys were given for MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, equipment for the health system in various communities. It turned out that the moneys were used not to buy new equipment but rather to pay for equipment that had already been bought but not paid for.

Those are the kinds of things that should be the intent of the motion, to increase the availability of health services or health equipment and diagnostic equipment or to increase affordable housing or to reduce the level of poverty or welfare, or to create the supports that are necessary within a community. Each community would take care of its own members, whether they be the disabled, the mentally ill, youth alienated from their families, aboriginals off reserve, transient women or those who have dependencies on drugs or alcohol or other maladies.

Communities need infrastructure because it allows them to provide the kinds of supports and services that their people need. Then every community can say with pride that it makes the necessary contribution so its people can be proud of their contribution to the growth and development of Canada at large. We are the sum of our communities in terms of our economic health and well-being. When any community suffers, we all should share the shame for that.

My intervention was primarily motivated by raising the awareness that there some communities in our municipalities and cities that are not well off and which need support.

The sentiment of the motion is well founded. I know some have raised the issue about jurisdictional authorities, et cetera. There is some concern about moneys being given to the provinces. The federal government raises the taxes through the gas tax, therefore, it is accountable for those taxes. If those moneys are turned over to some other jurisdiction for a purpose, we also have to ensure that there is accountability. We have to make sure that our share of the money, cost shared with one or two other levels of government funding and maybe even some private funding, is in fact properly executed in an appropriate manner and at the best value for Canadians.

We have had far too many examples of where tax dollars have not been wisely spent in some of these programs. That puts a greater onus on us to be more rigorous in terms of scrutiny of the proposed project's accountability by those who have taken government money for specific purposes. There needs to be proper reporting, proper recognition and supports being delivered to the people as a result of those, rather than some of the examples we have had where the intended results were never achieved. We have to learn from our mistakes. I think members will agree that governments are not perfect, that mistakes sometimes are made.

In this particular motion the sentiment is correct. We have a challenge though to make sure that we do it right but that we also have that equitable distribution so that even the least of our communities will have the potential to grow, to help themselves and will have an opportunity to equitably participate in the benefits of the tax dollars of the taxpayers of Canada.

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4:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Andy Burton Skeena, BC

Madam Speaker, my background is in municipal politics, relatively small community municipal politics so when the member opposite spoke about the problems with smaller municipalities and so on, it piqued my interested. However I suspect very strongly that his definition of a small municipality and my definition are somewhat different.

I come from a province that has a lot of very small communities where 8,000, 10,000 or 12,0000 people would be deemed to be a large community. I suspect the definitions are somewhat different.

Certainly I agree when the member opposite states that there is a fairly disproportionate amount of funding going to the larger communities. The problem I have as a member from a smaller rural area with small communities is that these funds, these gas taxes and certainly infrastructures funds as well, seem to be tailored around the demands and the requirements of the large municipalities with populations of 100,000 and up, of which there are not a lot in British Columbia. There is Kamloops, Prince George, Kelowna, a few on Vancouver Island, Victoria, and then of course Vancouver that probably fit the bill. However the smaller rural communities just do not fit.

In my estimation, most of these cost sharing programs fit the bill for the urban communities, not the rural communities. The little rural communities are left out. Yet the wealth of Canada comes from our small rural remote areas. Whether it is oil and gas, or minerals, gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper, most of it comes from more remote areas with small communities. Timber resources do not tend to be in downtown Vancouver. They logged that 120 years ago. The timber is in the north where the small communities are. Yet great amounts of money are generated, in terms of income tax, gas taxes and fuel taxes, that go to the federal government but very little of that comes back to these small communities.

That is a real travesty. It is something with which we need to deal. Small rural communities are definitely shortchanged. Quite often they cannot fit infrastructure programs, for instance, because they are cost sharing and they do not have the wherewithal to come up with their share. They have a very limited tax base and in some instances basically none because all the workers have moved out to bigger cities. It is just a huge problem for smaller communities.

Does the member have any suggestions as to how we could better assist, in a financial way, the small rural communities that are really truly the backbone of Canada.

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5 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, that is an excellent question. The member has squarely hit the point that I was hoping to make, that there has to be this equity. Let there be no doubt that I come from the sixth largest city in the country. It is a large urban centre but small compared to Toronto. I think 19% of the population of Canada is in the GTA. It is a foreign place to people from remote or rural areas of Canada.

The member raises an interesting aspect. If we were applying things on a per capita basis, communities such as the member has talked about, small rural communities or where there might be some mining, et cetera, which have no population base or no tax base to speak of, could not possibly get, on a per capita basis, enough money to make any difference.

Maybe the response would be this. Why are we trying to help everybody with the same instrument, as opposed to what would help those areas? How will we ensure that those areas that need infrastructure, or safe sewer and water systems, or roads so trucks do break down as often because of deterioration of roadways get what they need? Those things are probably the most important in some of the more remote areas because of the nature of the activity that goes on there. I agree wholeheartedly with the member.

Maybe we should not consider simply the gas tax because almost under any formula a small community of a couple of thousand people will not share. Maybe we have to look for ways. If we cannot treat everybody the same and be equitable, maybe we should treat those in this gasoline sharing or other instrument of sharing of revenues with those communities that have the potential to develop an economic base and the equity would come by the delivery of other benefits through other programs to the those areas specifically targeted that could not possibly benefit under this program.

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5 p.m.

Liberal

John Bryden Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Madam Speaker, just very quickly, in this motion, is there not a problem associated with the fact that any money that is dedicated from the federal government, that is taken out of taxes, is essentially the same thing that was done with Ontario and the rest of the country with health care, where the Mulroney government gave money to the provinces from the tax revenue and the federal government subsequently lost control of that money? Is this not precisely the same situation if we give the money to municipalities, then in one way or another the federal government loses control of that money?

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5 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, the member is quite right. This hon. member has hit squarely a key point. This has occurred in the past in some programs. We have to demonstrate that we have learned from those experiences. As we know, the gasoline tax is not a dedicated tax. It is not dedicated to be invested in federal road repairs or for other transportation infrastructure. It goes into the consolidated revenue fund and moneys are given out in other ways.

However, even the Canada health and social transfer is not a dedicated transfer. It is calculated on the basis of how much this province gets for health, how much it gets for post-secondary, how much it gets for the social program funding. Once those moneys are transferred to a province, they are not colour coded and they do not have to spend the health component all on health or the post-secondary all on post-secondary. They can do almost anything they want. From a province to province basis, many have totally ignored support for post-secondary education in favour of getting the health care system to a level that it should be at.

It has started to compromise and created some differences. The member is quite right. We have to guard against these things. We need to have a plan which ensures that any moneys transferred hit the target squarely for the benefit of the Canadians for whom it was intended.

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5:05 p.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Champlain, QC

Madam Speaker, I am a bit shocked by the last two speakers. When the hon. member asked his colleague a question, he said, “How is it that, when we give dedicated funds for health care, for example, the government agrees to lose control of that money?”

I want to ask the hon. members opposite if they realize that this is a confederation and that we each have responsibilities? The provinces have their responsibilities. Quebec and the provinces are responsible for health, education and the municipalities. These are not federal responsibilities.

Refunds by the federal government are quite simply money it took that did not belong to it. This money belongs to the provinces so that they can administer what is under their responsibility.

The answer is, “Yes, clearly there is a real problem here”. The problem lies in the interpretation. Our country's problem is that the federal government is not doing its job. All it has to do is its job, which is to give the provinces the money they need to administer what comes under their responsibility in health, education and municipal affairs.

It is scary to hear this from ministers responsible for managing a country, which is a confederation, where everyone should have their own responsibilities. There is the rub.

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5:05 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I am sorry that I have maybe not expressed myself clearly enough about that point.

With regard to the Canada health and social transfer, the accountability is complete on the transfer. The point I was making about the CHST is that provinces are not encumbered or bound to spend the health component all on health or the post-secondary all on post-secondary. They have the latitude to move it around. It is simply the CHST is calculated with respect to the components and that is how we find the total amount.

What I said about the loss of accountability was, if there were an infrastructure program and it was cost shared and if we were simply to raise the tax, give the money to someone else but have no specific dedicated use, we lose control--

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5:05 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

I am sorry the member's time has run out. Resuming debate.

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5:05 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Grant McNally Dewdney—Alouette, BC

Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my colleague for Elk Island.

I will begin by mentioning a motion that we brought forward in the House not long ago on June 12. Our motion said:

That, in the opinion of this House, Canada's infrastructure needs should be met by aregime of stable funding; and that accordingly, this House call on the government toreduce federal gasoline taxes conditional on an agreement with provinces that, with the creation of this tax room, provinces would introduce a special tax to fund infrastructure in provincial and municipal jurisdictions.

That motion failed because members of the government chose to vote against it. Now we have a very similar motion before the House today and the government members tell us that they will support it. We will find out for sure when we have our vote.

However it is interesting to see that repeatedly, over and over in the House, government members have been opposed to the idea of returning a larger portion of gas taxes to the provinces and municipalities so they can put those dollars into improving roads and infrastructure in the communities that need it the most.

In fact we heard in debate today, in speeches brought forward by my colleagues, that other jurisdictions spend a whole lot more on infrastructure and road improvement with the gas tax moneys they collect. I believe close to 92% of all provincially collected fuel taxes are invested into transport related infrastructure projects. The federal government invests about 2.4% of the gas taxes that are collected back into roads.

Think of it as getting 2¢ for every dollar. Imagine that. As a taxpayer, I will send a dollar to Ottawa and Ottawa will then send me back 2¢ for infrastructure services and improvements to roads. Most people would consider that a colossal rip-off.

My colleagues on the other side will say that the other 98¢ goes into general revenues and is spent wisely by the government on health care and priority areas. Over the years we have seen that the government has not done that. It has not used those tax dollars wisely. It has taken the tax dollars of Canadian and wasted them on lots of different things like the billion dollar boondoggle where the Minister of Human Resources Development admitted she did not know where a billion dollars went.

There was the advertising grant scandal that led to the former minister of public works being sent off to Denmark as our ambassador. There are all the things that have been built as tributes to the Prime Minister in his hometown of Shawinigan. Canadians are very tired of this kind of thing. If their dollars were being wisely invested into priority areas, that would be something else. However they see the abuse of their dollars. They pay gas taxes at the pump every couple of days or every week and they see those tax dollars simply go to Ottawa to die. That is not right.

We need a plan in place but I do not think we will get it from this government. We did not get it from the finance minister who will be the future prime minister and is the current leader of the Liberal Party. In fact he was the one who put in place a one and a half cent a litre tax to retire the deficit. When the deficit was retired, he forgot to take off that cent and a half tax. I do not think he forgot. He purposely allowed that tax to stay in place even though the deficit had been retired. When he was the minister of finance, he was sucking out hundreds of millions of dollars more than he needed to and not returning those dollars back to the provinces and municipalities for improvements to roads and infrastructure projects. That is simply not okay.

I mentioned earlier some transportation projects and infrastructure and road projects in my own riding. Dollars could have been used years ago to put a bridge into place across the Fraser River from Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge to Langley. That project has been talked about for close to four decades, but the dollars have not been available. If dollars were returned to the province, that project could have been completed many years ago. It is on the books to go ahead in 2006 with no thanks to the federal government, but with thanks to local municipal governments and the Government of British Columbia.

The Pitt River bridge has had some work done on it, but vast improvements could be made there too if infrastructure dollars were returned to the provinces and to the municipalities as we are proposing. The twinning of Lougheed Highway from Maple Ridge to Mission was also talked about earlier.

Those are key important projects that could have been improved. Safety for the residents in my riding could have been improved. The flow of traffic in goods and services around the lower mainland could have been improved.

We are losing millions of dollars in productivity because of the snarl that we face in our community in the lower mainland because the government has refused to put back dollars it has sucked out of Canadians and British Columbians through fuel taxes. That needs to change.

The Canadian Alliance is suggesting that the federal government permanently vacate a portion of the federal gas tax, about 3¢ to 5¢ a litre, and allow provinces the option of collecting that revenue. In order to ensure that this money is not used for other purposes, as was suggested by our Liberal friends here, the transfer of these revenues to provinces and on to municipalities would be conditional on signed agreements that these resources would be used for infrastructure. The government could do that. We will do that because it is part of the Canadian Alliance policy.

We heard the government trumpet its infrastructure programs in the House today. I remind people who are watching today and listening to this debate that they are “take a dollar give 2¢ back” kind of programs.

We see big signs wherever the federal government is building roads. I encourage people to put up their own signs where roads have not been improved saying that the road has not been improved because the federal government has not returned tax revenue back to their local municipality or to their province. We would see signs like that in a lot of places if individuals chose to point out the fact that the federal government has not been doing its job in returning gas tax revenues to the provinces and to municipalities.

Our plan would provide a reliable and stable revenue source for infrastructure. It would be as transparent and visible as constitutionally possible. It would have zero additional administrative and compliance costs. The provinces already have their infrastructure programs and collect gas tax revenues. Our program would be efficient. Additional resources would be allocated to regional and local priorities. Our program would be equitable.

These revenues would become part of the equalization formula to ensure that all provinces received the same per capita share of gas tax revenues. More important, this approach promises a worthwhile level of funding. We would see a lot of changes. We would see a lot of improvements to the municipalities and provinces in terms of infrastructure programs and roads, and improvements that need to be made.

We know that government members and the former finance minister, the current Liberal leader and future Prime Minister, have said that many cities have suggested that having access to a portion of the revenues generated by the gas tax would be a significant help in making their budgets more reliable and predictable.

How can the people of Canada trust a man who was at the helm for nine years imposing these taxes, had every opportunity to put this kind of plan in place, and who chose not to change this “take a dollar give 2¢ back” program in terms of infrastructure? How can we possibly trust him to now change that and give Canadians the proper amount of infrastructure and road support that the municipalities and provinces need?

That simply will not happen. Canadians can only trust a group such as the Canadian Alliance with a new plan and a new policy.