Madam Speaker, last month , this government introduced a budget that has been described as historic. The description is apt, for it was a budget of fundamental reform and national renewal. Today, we are considering legislation that will help turn those goals of reform and renewal into reality for the benefit of all Canadians.
The budget redesigns the very role and structure of government itself-because getting government right is essential to getting the economy right. The budget achieves dramatic savings to secure our deficit reduction targets-real, bottom-line savings based on prudent economic assumptions.
And this fiscal reform will continue to pay off, because the structural changes introduced by the budget will deliver savings, not just over the next two years, but every year thereafter. It is a tough budget, but it is also a budget of commitments kept and meaningful results.
Just as important, it is a budget of nation building-because it is firmly rooted in the principles of economic leadership; compassion; and increased fairness. Before describing the specific measures in the legislation, I would like to say a few words about the importance of passing it on a timely basis.
Canada's economic future remains at risk because of a $550 billion debt. A huge portion of government revenues are consumed by the cost of servicing this debt. That's money that could otherwise be spent to provide Canadians with services and programs, or to reduce the amount of taxes we pay.
The debt also makes us unacceptably vulnerable to financial markets and the harsh impact of interest rates. The unexpected increase in these rates since last year's budget has put tremendous pressure on our deficit targets. Meeting our targets is essential to strengthen confidence and bring interest rates down. This, in turn, is essential for greater growth and more jobs for Canadians.
The budget takes the actions necessary to meet these objectives. To hit our targets, we are implementing cumulative savings over the next two years of $15.6 billion. Over $13 billion of the savings will spending cuts. There will be no increase in personal income tax rates.
Going beyond, to 1997-98, our reforms will deliver a further $13.3 billion in savings for a three-year total of $29 billion. This is the largest set of actions in any budget since demobilization after the second world war.
We are also taking firm steps to increase tax fairness and close loopholes. The budget delivers almost $7 in spending cuts for every $1 in new tax revenue. The actions set out in the budget involve changing the size and shape of government by hard choices on priorities. By 1996-97 program spending will fall from $120 billion last year to just under $108 billion.
By 1996-97 our financial requirements, the amount of new money we will have to borrow in the financial markets, will be down to $13.7 billion or 1.7 per cent of GDP. That is better than every other G-7 country. Most important of all, by 1996-97 the debt no longer will be going faster than the economy. That is the key to fiscal stability, to putting our debt ratio on a permanent downward track.
Canadians realize the importance of achieving fiscal targets. They know this is the budget our economy needs. They affirmed this in the consultations leading up to the budget and they reaffirmed it in the response to the budget itself.
Financial markets have also recognized that the budget will promote an improvement in public finances. However, to secure the savings that will lead to this improvement, we must pass the legislation as expediently as possible. Anything less would compromise our commitments to a secure and prosperous future for ourselves and for our children.
There is no need for further budget background. It has been extensively discussed in the House. Let me turn therefore to the specific elements of the bill before the House.
Provincial transfers. One of the most important elements of the bill is the reform of transfers to the provinces. The federal government wants to create a transfer system that functions better and is fiscally sustainable. The centrepiece of this reform is the replacement, beginning in 1996-97, of established program financing for health and post-secondary education and the Canada assistance plan, with a single consolidated block transfer, the Canada health and social transfer.
The Canada health and social transfer represents a new approach to federal-provincial fiscal relations. This new approach is marked by a greater flexibility for provincial governments, and more sustainable financing arrangements for the federal government. It continues the evolution toward more mature fiscal relations.
Although provinces will have greater flexibility in addressing their priorities, the budget made it clear that the principles of the Canada Health Act will be enforced. There will be no change in the principle that provinces must provide social assistance without minimum residency requirements.
We believe the new system will be more effective in meeting contemporary needs. Our fiscal situation demands that it also be less costly than the current system. That is why, when the CHST is fully implemented in 1997-98 the total of all major transfers to provinces will be down by about $4.5 billion from what it would have been if it had been transferred under the existing system. However, to put this into perspective, the reduction will be equal to about 3 per cent of the aggregate provincial revenues.
We believe our approach to provincial transfers passes three important tests. First, the federal government has hit itself even harder. Second, we have given the provinces ample notice of our intentions. Third, the reduction in transfers is equitable across all provinces.
In addition to the introduction of the Canada health and social transfer, the bill also introduces other measures that will help reduce the cost of payments to the provinces. For example, the government is proposing to reintroduce to the fiscal stabilization program a provision which will trigger payment under the program only when economic conditions cause provincial revenues to decline by more than 5 per cent. The fiscal stabilization program compensates provinces if their revenues decline from one year to the next due to economic circumstances.
When the program was introduced in 1967, it provided compensation only in situations where the economic conditions caused revenues to decline by more than 5 per cent, that is, in the event of a severe economic downturn. The program was amended in 1972 to provide compensation if province's revenue fell at all.
Despite that change only two payments were made under the program between 1967 and 1990. However, the combination of the last recession and low inflation has triggered recent stabilization payments to virtually all provinces.
Now that inflation is low and stable, even a minor economic downturn can cause a decline in a province's revenue and thus result in a stabilization payment. This is not consistent with the intent of the program and is not consistent with current fiscal realities. Therefore, the government is reintroducing the 5 per cent eligibility threshold to the program. This measure will take effect for stabilization claims in 1995-96 and subsequent years.
The federal government will continue to play a major role in stabilizing revenues of provincial governments. However, it will do so only in times of severe economic shocks, as was intended when the program was originally introduced. There are no immediate savings associated with this measure.
The bill also includes an amendment to the Public Utilities Income Tax Transfer Act, PUITTA. Under PUITTA the federal government transfers to provinces and territories most of the federal corporate income taxes paid by privately owned electrical and gas utilities.
These payments were intended to level the playing field between privately owned utilities which pay income tax and provincially owned utilities which under the Constitution do not. However, it is up to the provinces and the territories to decide whether or not they will pass these savings through to utilities companies or to consumers.
Most provinces and territories do not rebate the payment to utilities or consumers. The majority retain it as general provincial revenue. Moreover, none of the provinces rebate its own provincial income taxes to these utilities.
The Standing Committee on Finance recommended that the federal government eliminate PUITTA transfers. Under the current fiscal circumstances, the continuation of PUITTA payments can no longer be justified. Therefore, the legislation proposes that PUITTA be terminated as of March 31, 1995. This measure is expected to reduce expenditures by an estimated $200 million in 1996-97 and $280 million in each of the two subsequent fiscal years.
The bill contains a final measure affecting transfers to provincial governments. It concerns the vocational rehabilitation of disabled persons Act or the VRDP. Under this act the federal government pays 50 per cent of the cost incurred by provinces in assisting disabled persons to become employable. As part of the government's reform of social programs, the maximum contributions to the provinces under the VRDP will not exceed the 1994-95 levels starting in 1995-96. VRDP entitlements are expected to be about $168 million in 1994-95. This measure will result in estimated savings of $4 million in 1995-96; $8 million in 1996-97 and $12 million the year after.
Let me turn now to another major area dealt with in today's bill, assistance to business. In the course of program review, departments across government took actions to reduce business subsidies. Such subsidies frequently fail to achieve their desired objectives. Many work counterproductively, discouraging adjustment and innovation. Overall the government is proposing to cut business subsidies by 60 per cent. This includes agriculture and transportation subsidies that were designed decades ago.
The bill proposes to repeal the Western Grain Transportation Act, WGTA, and to terminate the western grain transportation subsidy paid to railroads effective July 31, 1995. The reform of the WGTA will result in savings of $2.6 billion over the next five years.
However it is more than a deficit issue. The elimination of the subsidy will encourage the development of value added processing and the production of higher value goods. It will result in a more efficient grain handling and transportation system. It will help maintain our market access for grain sales in foreign countries and comply with our obligations under the agreement established with the World Trade Organization.
A number of further initiatives will facilitate the transition to the new system. They include a payment of $1.6 billion to owners of prairie farm land.