Mr. Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this debate on the government's Speech from the Throne. I know that the number of members who can speak on this matter is limited and severely curtailed by the rules of the House, so I really am delighted to respond.
I am delighted for two reasons. The first one is, frankly, because I am still here and for that I want to thank the people of Hamilton Mountain who have given me the opportunity to be their champion in the House of Commons for a second term. I am deeply grateful for that.
Second, I am delighted to participate in this debate because it is central to setting this Parliament's agenda for dealing with the unprecedented downturn in the Canadian economy. Families in my riding, like Canadians right across the country, are profoundly worried about their jobs, about their pensions and about their savings. They are counting on the federal government to take bold and strategic steps, and they are looking to their members of Parliament to have courage in the face of adversity. Yet, the throne speech, which sets the agenda for this entire session of Parliament, fails to match the urgency or the depth required to protect working families in this economy.
Let me clear, our number one job is to protect Canadians during this economic crisis. I have heard members speak about the need to stimulate the economy. I have heard others rightly point out that we do not just need to stimulate the economy, but we need to stabilize it. The difference of course is more than mere semantics.
However, the bottom line is that the economy and the market are not some supernatural phenomenon. Neither were they created by divine law. They were man-made constructs and as such they are relationships that are governed by the rules that we created. These rules create a framework for determining winners and losers, and that makes it incumbent upon all of us to recognize that the economy is a moral question.
As Tommy Douglas used to say, the economy is made for man, not man for the economy. Yet we have built economic structures that serve powerful global forces acting in their own interest, presenting profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right. The sky was the limit and there seemed to be no concomitant social obligations. We were all led to believe that governments are the problem and that markets are the solution.
If the current economic crisis has proven nothing else, it is that markets cannot do it alone. Yes, markets can bring prosperity, but governments not only have a role to play, they have a responsibility to act. For far too long now our economy has failed to serve the needs and the aspirations of Canadians. In fact, workers in our country have now paid four times for the economic crisis that we are in.
First, they have lost their jobs. Since 2006, Canada has lost over 151,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector alone. Unemployment is projected to rise to 7% by next year and our industrial heartland is decaying around us.
Second, workers have paid with their pensions. Workplace pensions and private pensions have all taken a huge hit as a result of the market collapse and those close to retirement are spending tomorrow's savings to make it through today.
Third, workers no longer have adequate access to protection through employment insurance. Nationally only 38% of unemployed workers receive government benefits, down from 75% in the early nineties. Workers paid for this insurance coverage and yet they cannot count on it when they need it most.
Of course, they are now paying for this economic crisis a fourth time as their tax dollars are going to bail out corporations like the banks. It is time to say enough is enough.
It is time to right the balance and work to stabilize the economy in such a way that it will serve Canadians. It is time to be bold and it is time to be strategic. It is time to roll up our sleeves and work together to build an economy that serves the needs and aspirations of our people.
As the very first step, we have to abandon the Conservative government's policies of throwing money away on unconditional corporate tax cuts. Unconditional tax cuts will not provide the stimulus that our economy requires. Quite the opposite. Tax cuts only benefit those corporations that are profitable enough to pay taxes. If a company is in danger of collapse, it does not pay taxes and blanket tax cuts do nothing to help it to survive.
Moreover, we should not be providing tax breaks to companies that outsource or ship jobs overseas. In my hometown of Hamilton people will remember what happened at the John Deere plant just down the road in Welland. John Deere gladly pocketed the tax breaks and then closed its profitable plant and shipped the jobs down to Mexico.
Unconditional corporate tax cuts are not the answer to revitalizing the Canadian economy, yet these corporate tax cuts will cost the government $7.3 billion in 2009-10 alone. That money would be so much better spent on investing in the inherent productivity that resides in the talent, creativity and energy of Canadians. We need to invest in the real economy.
Let us look again at the four ways, that I mentioned earlier, in which Canada's workers have paid for this economic crisis and let us look for solutions for each.
First and foremost, we need to develop an economic stimulus package to create jobs. In the short term, that means strategic investments in infrastructure. Let us commit to an ambitious plan to partner with communities to repair our crumbling cities, invest in public transit and build affordable housing. I know that the city of Hamilton, for example, is ready to start construction now on a new sewer and water plant. The planning is done. The engineering is done. With the federal government's support, construction could begin immediately. It is good for workers, good for suppliers, and good for the city of Hamilton.
I know that municipalities in other parts of the country have similar jobs that are virtually shovel ready. Projects related to energy retrofitting homes and buildings, expanding our renewable energy capacity, and improving our communications technology backbone also offer economic stimuli. Of course, we need to support the manufacturing and auto sectors, not by writing blank cheques to perpetuate the status quo, but by providing the kind of financial assistance that will transform the industries and keep jobs in Canada.
Second, we need to protect the pensions of hard-working Canadians. This has to be done in consultation with labour, with business and the provinces, so that we can explore programs like a pension insurance program. In the last Parliament, I introduced Bill C-270, which would have given workers' pensions super priority in cases of commercial bankruptcies. Legislation such as this is still a critical part of the solution in safeguarding Canadians' pensions.
For those Canadians who are over the age of 71, let us at least consider a moratorium on mandatory RRIF withdrawals. I think all Canadian retirees were profoundly disappointed that pensions were not even mentioned in last week's Speech from the Throne.
Similarly, the throne speech was silent on reform to Canada's system of employment insurance. As a result of the rule changes that recent governments have made to the system, unemployed people must now all but exhaust their savings before EI is even available to them. Let us fix EI. It is a critical tool for poverty prevention and the money that unemployed Canadians receive will flow directly back into the local economy, thereby helping to create badly needed jobs and keeping small businesses afloat.
There was a time when EI was a vital part of retraining and skills development assistance. That is no longer the case. In fact, we have no national training strategy at all. Tackling the skills shortage must be part of the solution if we do not want to further compound the length and depth of this economic downturn.
Finally, let us talk about the contribution Canadians have already made to ailing sectors of our economy such as financial institutions. To date, they have contributed $75 billion just to secure our banks. They need to be assured that there will be strong oversight that tracks where that money is going. Whenever sectoral assistance is provided, taxpayers need a full and transparent accounting, and where appropriate, an equity stake in return.
These are just four areas for concrete action, and yes, they do represent bold steps, but hard-working Canadians deserve no less. They already know that New Democrats are committed to making the economy work for them, and despite the fact that the throne speech failed to stand up for working families and the middle class, it is not too late to protect their jobs, their pensions and their savings.
In just a couple of days the Minister of Finance will table his economic update. Perhaps that will give Canadians a few more specifics, but if it too remains tepid in its approach to protecting working families in these tough economic times, then we in the NDP will roll up our sleeves and work with our partners in labour, in civil society, and in our own communities to give Canadians the leadership they deserve.
We commit to being constructive and we hope the government will do the same, because as Tommy used to say, it is not too late to build a better world.