Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and colleagues, for allowing me to reply to the Speech from the Throne delivered yesterday by Her Excellency the Governor General.
In 2006 Canadians went to the polls and voted for change. Our government ran on a clear platform. We received a clear mandate and we are delivering what we promised.
Now, a mere 21 months later, I believe we can say with pride that the government is clean, the economy is strong, and the country is united.
In the eyes of the world, Canada is back. This change, after years of scandal, inaction and threats to national unity, brings home to us the strength of Canada’s foundational values.
We have a love of freedom, a commitment to democracy, a reverence for human rights, and an adherence to the rule of law. Notwithstanding our imperfections, we have built a society that genuinely aspires to the highest ideals of civilization.
We balance the rewards of individual initiative with a collective commitment to help those in need.
We value people for who they are and what they contribute, and not for who they know or where they come from. We leave the conflicts of older worlds behind to live together here in harmony and we reach beyond our shores to help resolve those conflicts.
The generations that came before us set our country on this noble path: the Aboriginal people who established Canada’s first settlements, long before the arrival of Europeans; the French adventurers who laid the foundations of the Canadian state on the shores of the St-Lawrence nearly 400 years ago.
The British settlers brought their democratic ideals and institutions that we have modelled into our own and of course the immigrants from every corner of the earth have enriched our society with their traditions and ambitions.
Canada is their legacy to us. Enriching this heritage for future generations is our duty to them. Every day millions of Canadians are doing just that. They are setting the nation's moral compass by teaching their children right from wrong. They are building our economy with their hard work and they are making our communities better by giving more than they take.
In return for all that they give to this country, Canadians expect one thing from their government: principled, focused and effective leadership so that they can confidently plan for their future in a prosperous, safe and united country.
We titled our first Speech from the Throne “Turning a New Leaf”, reflecting our mandate for change. We have delivered on that mandate.
Now that we have turned a new leaf, it is time to fix our sights on Canada's longer term horizons, on where we want to go into the 21st century and how we will get there. That is why, for the second session of the 39th Parliament, our throne speech is titled “Strong Leadership. A Better Canada”. Strong leadership delivers more than it promises rather than promising more than it can deliver. We promise Canadians simply this: a better Canada for all of us.
We take inspiration from the great explorers of our true north Radisson and Des Groseilliers, Hudson and Franklin, Bernier, Amundsen and the rest. Just as they were guided by the North Star, we will be guided by a five point agenda for Canada. Our plan is principled and focused. We will strengthen the Canada of tomorrow while delivering real benefits to Canadians today.
For this session of Parliament, our government has five core priorities for a better Canada. We want to strengthen Canada’s sovereignty and place in the world; protect our environment and the health of our fellow Canadians; steer our economy toward long-term prosperity; modernize our federation and democratic institutions; and make our streets and communities safe again.
I do not intend to elaborate on everything included in the Speech from the Throne, but allow me to touch briefly on some aspects of the government’s agenda.
I would be remiss if I did not begin by addressing briefly the comments of the Leader of the Opposition. I, of course, take him at his word that he does not intend to force this Parliament to an election and that he will allow, indeed, the throne speech to pass and the government to proceed with its agenda.
As I listened to the Leader of the Opposition, it reminded me a little of the professor who goes through our term paper, marks all over it everything he disagrees with and then passes us anyway.
I have a bit of a different interpretation than the leader of the NDP on the remarks of the leader of the Liberal Party. While there was much criticism, I thought there was, if we actually cut through some of the verbiage, a fair degree of agreement, or at least apparent agreement, on the main priorities.
I note on Afghanistan that the main problem of the Leader of the Opposition seems to be calling it a combat mission rather than a military mission. I did not hear a claim or a call for Canada to simply leave cold turkey and abandon the Afghan people.
On crime, the Leader of the Opposition said that he would now consider passing all the government's crime legislation. Of course, we will be watching to see that happens in both Houses.
On the economy, I did not hear anything that differed substantially from the government's main lines of approach to the economy. In fact, I think he praised the very strong record that the Minister of Finance had created on the performance of the Canadian economy. I know he would like to take credit for that, but he has to be in power to do that.
On the federation and on democratic reform, whether it was the spending power of the Senate, I was not clear whether he was against those things or they were his ideas in the first place.
Most important, the Leader of the Opposition did not repeat his claim today, as he has so often in the past, that he could actually meet the Kyoto target, because we know that he could not and cannot.
Most important, of all the things I take note of, the Leader of the Opposition said that I was in fact his role model as the Leader of the Opposition.
Let me begin in terms of the substance of the throne speech with Canada's place in the world.
It is an understatement that we live in a global village where the economy, the security, the ideas and ideology and even the diseases of any one part of the world can be immediately linked or transmitted to another part. Canadians have always understood the critical nature of our connections to the rest of the world. We have never been an isolationist country.
Whereas in the past Canada participated in the world through its membership in the French and British empires, today we are a fully sovereign country. For the federal government, there is nothing more fundamental than the protection of this country's sovereignty.
Our most important potential sovereignty challenge is on our arctic doorstep.
Our most important potential sovereignty challenge today is on our Arctic doorstep where retreating polar ice, rising global demand for resources and the prospect of year round shipping are creating new challenges and exciting opportunities for the north. As Stan Rogers once sang, Franklin's dream of tracing “one warm line through a land so wild and savage” to “make a Northwest Passage to the sea”, seems about to be realized. However, it must be on our terms.
To ensure this we cannot just point at a map and say it is ours. Protecting and inserting our sovereignty in the Arctic and elsewhere requires real effort, expense and sacrifice. We cannot go 10 years without sending a single ship to the passage as our predecessors did. We have to use the north or we risk losing it.
Conservative governments going all the way back to Confederation have understood the importance of Canada’s true North.
John A. Macdonald, who oversaw Canada’s acquisition of our vast lands to the north and west, was the first to apply the “use it or lose it” principle of sovereignty.
Macdonald said, “were we so faint-hearted as not to take possession of it, the Americans would be only too glad of the opportunity and would hoist the American flag”. And so he assured our possession over the Arctic claims of Britain, just as he had created the Northwest Mounted Police to assure our sovereignty in western Canada.
Half a century ago, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker extolled his northern vision. He foresaw that Canada's future development and prosperity would depend on efficient transportation networks linking northern resources to southern markets. “Roads to resources” he called them. Therefore, he built, among others, our northern most road, the 700 kilometre Dempster Highway from Yukon to the Mackenzie River delta.
The opposition of the day has always dismissed such initiatives as unnecessary, fanciful and even wasteful, and history has always proven it wrong.
That is why our government established a strategy for the North, and why we have already taken a number of steps to affirm our presence and sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic.
In our first two budgets, for example, we have taken strong measures to strengthen the ability of our territorial governments to deliver services to northerners, with particular emphasis on northern housing for first nations and Inuit.
We are expanding our military and coast guard presence into the high Arctic and improving our surveillance capacity, including strengthening the Arctic Rangers.
We are stepping up our environmental activities and increasing the number of protected areas, as reflected in our recent announcement concerning a massive expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories.
And to mark International Polar Year, we are enhancing research in the High Arctic.
These research activities will help confirm our unassailable ownership of the Arctic Archipelago and the waters around them, including the Northwest Passage, along with the resources that lie beneath the land, the sea and the ice.
We will proceed with the first ever comprehensive mapping of Canada's Arctic seabed as well as the establishment of a world-class research station to be located in the Arctic itself. It will become the hub of our scientific activities in the north, gathering knowledge that will support our sovereignty and assist with resource development and environmental protection. The other Arctic nations of this planet already have most or all of these capabilities. Under our watch, Canada will not be left behind when it comes to the Arctic.
I should add that many of my colleagues will be working on these northern initiatives. They will be led by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, who has done such a terrific job of getting Canadian agriculture back on track.
Of course, our role in the world is not just about our own sovereignty. It is also about effective action beyond our borders, in concert with our friends in the international community.
And we cannot be completely effective in either of these respects without solid, well-led and well-equipped armed forces.
That is why our government will continue rebuilding our long-neglected Canadian military. We want to ensure that our men and women in uniform are able to do the work that we ask of them at home and abroad as safely and as effectively as possible.
I have visited our troops in Kandahar twice in the past 21 months. The Minister of National Defence, the Minister of National Revenue and former national Defence minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages, the Minister of International Cooperation, and several other colleagues have as well.
I have also attended Red Friday rallies and other events where communities, friends and others show their support. I have spoken to many of our soldiers and to their families, including some who have lost loved ones.
The soldiers who are serving this country in Afghanistan and the families and the friends who are supporting them back home rank among the finest Canadians I have ever known. Their compassion for the people of Afghanistan, their resolve in the face of a barbaric opponent, their manifest skill and professionalism and the diplomats and development officers they work with are a credit to our great country.
Our mission in Afghanistan is a noble and necessary endeavour. It is making a difference in the lives of men who were victims of Taliban oppression, for children forced to live in ignorance, and for women who had no human rights.
Remember, all of us, that these are ordinary human beings like ourselves, the vast, vast majority of whom just want to live in peace, give their families hope and build a future for their communities.
Parliament will have to make some decisions on the future of the Afghan mission post-2009 within the next year. I hope all parliamentarians will pay attention to the analysis and advice, which the former deputy prime minister, John Manley, and this panel of eminent Canadians will share with us in the near future.
For our part, both in and out of power, this party has faithfully supported our military and their mission since it began in Kabul in 2002 and, of course, since our forces were sent to Kandahar in 2005 by the previous government.
We cannot understate the responsibilities we have undertaken to the Afghan people, to the international community, and to the men and women of our diplomatic, development, and defence forces who have made such enormous sacrifices on behalf of all of us.
Once again, we cannot understate the responsibilities we have undertaken to the Afghan people, to the international community and to the men and women of our diplomatic development and defence forces who have made such enormous sacrifices on behalf of all of us. This Parliament must not let those people down, Mr. Speaker, and I can assure you we will not let them down.
The mission in Afghanistan reflects our conviction that Canadian foreign policy must promote our values and defend our interests. This philosophy is at the very heart of all our international policy initiatives. It was behind our call to confer honorary Canadian citizenship on Aung San Suu Kyi, who has waged a heroic struggle to bring democracy to Burma. It is seen in our participation in the United Nations mission in Haiti. It guides our international assistance programs, which will be refocused and strengthened over the coming weeks.
Our conviction that foreign policy must promote our values and serve our interests drives our effort to renew Canada's engagement in the Americas. Many nations in Latin America and the Caribbean are pursuing market reforms and democratic development, but others are falling back to economic nationalism and protectionism, to political populism and authoritarianism. That is why it is so important for countries like Canada to engage in their own hemisphere, to demonstrate that there are alternative models that can meet people's aspirations. Their choice is not simply between unfettered capitalism and cold war socialism.
The Canadian model of democratic freedom and economic openness, combined with effective regional and social support, offers a middle course for countries seeking democratic institutions, free markets and social equality.
Canada can make a difference in the world.
I do have to respond to a couple of things that were said earlier on Africa. This government is the only government among the G-8 that is meeting its commitments in Africa. It has to be said.
In Darfur, a brutal, brutal tragedy for so many people, this government has been involved in assisting the United Nations and the African Union. When I met last month with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, I made it clear that he can expect Canada's help in any way that the United Nations requires that help in Sudan.
We can make a difference. But we will not make a difference by returning to the days when the government lurched from one fashionable international cause to the next, never pausing to assess whether we were making an impact or whether we even had the necessary capabilities to do so. In short, we will not be returning to the days of a government with an announcement on everything but a plan for nothing, as was the case with the previous government, most notably on the environment and climate change.
I met with leaders who helped draft the consensus climate change statements at the G-8 and APEC. They were not asking me how we were going to achieve our Kyoto target. They had figured out a long time ago, when Canada's last government spent a decade raising emissions year after year after year, that that government had no intention of meeting the Kyoto target.
What those leaders want to know is simply what target we are going to achieve and do we have a plan to achieve it. The Minister of the Environment has been clear. The targets he has set, a 20% reduction by 2020 and a 60% to 70% reduction by 2050, are among the most aggressive in the world going forward and have been recognized internationally to set the stage. He is moving now to implement the plan to achieve them.
And thanks to his efforts and those of his colleagues, we are engaged in a major effort to establish an international protocol that is to include all large emitters, including giants like the United States and China. The government will move forward with its plan for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants.
There is no time to lose arguing about yet another “new plan” that will never be implemented.
It is time. We have heard enough from the Leader of the Opposition with his seventh, eighth or ninth plan. It is time to pass the throne speech and let the Minister of the Environment get the job done, just as it is time to let the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Industry and all of their colleagues get on with the job of strengthening the position of the Canadian economy for long term prosperity.
I am pleased to report, wherever I go in the world, that Canada's economic fundamentals are very strong.
The Minister of Finance just announced one of the largest paydowns of federal debt in Canadian history, the direct result of which will be a reduction in personal income taxes under our Tax Back Guarantee legislated in Budget 2007.
Canada continues to enjoy one of the longest periods of economic growth in its history.
Unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in nearly two generations. Inflation and interest rates remain low. The real disposable income of Canadian households has been increasing strongly since this government took office, but we cannot be, and are not, complacent about the continued growth of the Canadian economy.
Recent volatility in financial markets emanating from the U.S. sub-prime market may be with us for some time to come. There is weakness in some of our export markets. Good jobs are threatened in some of our traditional industries and cost pressures in some parts of the country are creating their own pressures on the budgets of working families. Our government is aware of these challenges.
We have responded and, in this session, we will pursue our action in struggling sectors such as the manufacturing, forestry, fishery and tourism industries. We will also continue to take steps to bolster Canadian agriculture.
Speaking of agriculture, this spring when it looked like there would be marketing choice for western barley farmers, prices went up. When marketing choice was swept off the table, prices went down. The Canadian Wheat Board is supposed to be getting the best prices for farmers. That is what marketing choice will deliver and we will not rest until we deliver the choice that western farmers voted for.
Just as we will not stop defending producers in supply-managed industries.
The Minister of Finance will soon be presenting the fall economic and fiscal update, which will report on our progress. Our plan for Canada’s future prosperity is clear.
We are undertaking the largest public infrastructure investments in this country in over half a century. We are strengthening policies on science and technology, research and education. We are helping the disabled and those in poverty move into the workforce.
As the 20th anniversary of our free trade agreement with the United States approaches, we are reinvigorating our trade negotiations to open more markets to Canadian products, as we have done with EFTA. Of course we are dedicated to paying down debt, keeping spending focused on results and reducing taxes for Canadians.
We have cut the GST by one point, cut corporate taxes, and provided specific tax incentives for families, students, children’s sports, tool expenses, and public transit.
We will also be bringing forward a further long term plan of broad-based tax relief in this session.
I notice that the Leader of the Opposition, after voting against every single tax reduction this government has introduced, has now become outspoken in calling for tax cuts for large corporations. They cannot contribute any more. Let me assure you, Mr. Speaker, we will reduce taxes for all businesses as well as for all individuals and families in this country. Because in this country, there is only one party which, over the long sweep of our history, has been consistently committed to low taxes, direct benefits for families, fiscal discipline, and a free and fair market powered by the energy and creativity of the private sector, and that is the Conservative Party.
One of the intangibles that has recently been working to the advantage of all Canadians and to the advantage of our economy has been the clear improvement in national unity since our government took office. I know the Bloc is not happy but that is the idea.
One of the important steps along this road was the recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, a measure widely supported in this House last year. That was a controversial act and some predicted, and I know they genuinely believed, that it would lead this country in the wrong direction. I have spoken in various parts of our country and outside our country in French and English, not just Quebec. I have urged, and I continue to urge, all Canadians to look at the beneficial effect that this historic recognition has had on the national unity of this country. Canada is more united today than it has been at any time since our centennial 40 years ago.
I believe that the results of the last election and reaction to the action taken since then—action on UNESCO, the nation, fiscal balance—are sending a very important message to us all.
Canadians, and Quebecois in particular, want to move forward. They have had enough of the old quarrels. They are fed up with the bickering between centralists and separatists, between those who would keep all the power in Ottawa, and those that would give all the power to an independent Quebec.
George-Étienne Cartier, MacDonald and their colleagues created a federation that, although not perfect, has served Canadians well for 140 years. In fact, the federation of 1867 created one of the most solid political institutions in the world, unbroken by tyranny or conquest, unbroken by social disorder or economic chaos.
And we mustn’t forget that Canada—a country born in French, a country with two languages and a multitude of cultures, which will soon be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of its first capital, Québec—is one of the biggest success stories in history.
Of course, I do not argue that Canada is perfect, and so we are committed to reforming it for the better. Our government has worked hard to respect the federal division of powers, to strengthen long-neglected federal jurisdictions, and to work cooperatively with the provinces.
In the next session, in accordance with our government practice, we will be introducing legislation to place formal limits on the use of federal spending power with respect to new programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction without provincial consent and to provide for opting out with compensation.
This is a historic measure, one that has already been welcomed by the government of Quebec.
I noticed that the Leader of the Opposition talked about why this would be a bad thing. One of the reasons he stated for how this would be a bad thing is that this might prevent him from trying to take the child care allowance from Canadian families and instead give it back to lobbyists, to researchers, to advocates and to other politicians. We are going to make sure we get that money directly to Canadian families.
We will also act within the federal jurisdiction to strengthen Canada's economic union, which is a fundamental responsibility for the national government, one that it must take in the interests of all Canadians.
When I say that Canada is not perfect, I think most Canadians recognize immediately that the Senate, as presently constituted, is one of its obvious imperfections.
I must admit to being rather disappointed that the Senate chose not to adopt the tenure bill, even after an excellent report on the subject prepared by the former Speaker of the Senate, Dan Hays. The government will reintroduce in the House, in a slightly amended form, the bill to shorten senators' tenure from a maximum of 45 years to eight years. I am tempted to say that such a reform should be a no-brainer, but I have been surprised before.
On the other hand, the government, while still supportive of allowing for the direct consultation of voters in the selection of senators, does recognize that this is a complex and controversial measure for some members. As such, the government will, upon reintroducing this bill, ask that it be sent to committee before second reading in order to get as wide-ranging a parliamentary input as possible.
Let me just say that I remain convinced the country deserves a reformed Senate, and an elected Senate for that matter, but the country needs the Senate to change, and if the Senate cannot be reformed, I think most Canadians will eventually conclude that it should be abolished.
In terms of reform, let us also hope that the opposition will see fit to stop delaying the adoption of the former Bill C-44. In this country, we are long past the time when the rights of aboriginal people living on reserve should be fully protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
I noted with great interest, of course, the leader of the Liberal Party talking about compassion and help for the less well off, but I do have to point out that ours is the government that signed the residential schools settlement and that is now implementing it and preparing the apology; that has cut the right of landing fee to people who have come to this country; that has increased funding for official languages communities across this country; that has redressed finally, after so many years, the Chinese head tax; that has established the Air-India inquiry which was so demanded; and that has concluded a settlement with the sufferers of hepatitis C. These are our proudest moments and they show the difference between talking and acting.
Last but not least, I would like to draw attention to the fifth part of our government’s long-term agenda for a better Canada, a point that affects many Canadians.
Canadians have always been proud of their safe streets and communities—something that long distinguished us from our friends across the border. Today, however, crime is erasing the promise of our Constitution, the promise of peace, order and good government.
Canadians want their safe streets and communities back. They want leadership that is tough on crime and reliable on national security and that is exactly what they are going to get from this government. Under our government, the protection of law-abiding citizens and their property is once again becoming the top priority of our criminal justice system and this will be the agenda we will pursue if Parliament adopts this throne speech. In short, the opposition cannot allow it to pass and then obstruct our core priorities.
That brings me to our first piece of legislation. Last year, our first bill was our historic anti-corruption law, the Accountability Act. This year, our first bill will be our comprehensive justice reform bill, the Tackling Violent Crime Act.
Just as the accountability act cleaned up corruption in government, the tackling violent crime act will be a first step in cleaning up crime in our streets and communities. And it will be a matter of confidence, because the time for talk has passed and the time for action has long since arrived.
Canadians are fed up with a criminal justice system that puts the rights of criminals ahead of the rights of law-abiding citizens, fed up with a revolving door bail system and soft sentences for serious offenders, and fed up with feeling unsafe in their homes and public places.
In the first session of Parliament, our government introduced 13 justice bills. Seven have been passed into law, but six, which included several key policy measures, were held up by the opposition.
Though we accommodated many opposition amendments, the bills were held up in opposition-controlled House committees or by the Liberal majority in the Senate for a grand total of 976 days. That is simply not acceptable.
Canadians are losing patience, so Bill C-2, our tackling violent crime act, to be spearheaded by the Minister of Justice, will reintroduce the key elements of those bills. It will, for example, take action on sentencing for gun crimes. Too often, people convicted of violent crimes involving firearms do little or no time. That is unacceptable. Under our law, serious gun crime will mean serious mandatory prison time.
Furthermore, in too many cases bail has been granted to people charged with serious weapons offences, and while on bail some of them have committed appalling new crimes. That is also unacceptable. Our bill will make it tougher for accused gun criminals to get bail.
The Tackling Violent Crime Act will also crack down on sexual predators. For far too long now, these predators have gone after our children. That too is unacceptable. This legislation will protect our children by raising the age of protection.
Our legislation will also crack down on drug- and alcohol-impaired driving. Too many innocent people have died at the hands of drunk or stoned drivers. Again, that is unacceptable. The tackling violent crime bill will give police and prosecutors more tools to get impaired drivers off our roads and keep them off.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, too many of the most violent, repeat and dangerous offenders in this country wind up back on our streets where they can offend again, again and again. Each time they do, Canadians look at their records, their rap sheets, and ask, “Why on earth was this person ever let out of prison?” There is nothing more unacceptable than that.
Again, let us be clear. We are talking about a few dozen of the most violent, dangerous individuals in this country. Our bill will make sure they stay behind bars, where they belong.
I have no doubt that some people will say we are being too aggressive. From high up in their academic ivory towers or from the boardrooms of their law firms, they will look down on the streets they never set foot on and say things like, “Criminals are really just victims of injustice, oppression and social exclusion”.
Try telling that to their real victims. Tell it to women who do not feel safe walking in their neighbourhoods at night or having their children in those neighbourhoods during the day. Tell it to the innocent teenager killed in a gang shootout on the streets of Toronto.
Tell it to the young girl in Quebec who was out riding her bike when she was struck by a drunk driver.
Tell it to the two Prairie boys who were kidnapped and horribly abused by a serial pedophile.
Tell it to the police, the prosecutors and the elected politicians of all stripes at all levels of government, including municipal and provincial, who have been clamouring for these laws for years.
There is no good reason for the official opposition to oppose or to delay Bill C-2. In fact, the official opposition campaigned in favour of virtually all of these initiatives in the last election and has had enough days, weeks and months, and in some cases over a year, to delay their passage. That is why we are making the tackling violent crime act a matter of confidence. We will be seeking timely passage of this legislation and, as is the case with confidence measures, the government will not accept amendments to the substance of these initiatives.