Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for St. Boniface.
I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this prebudget debate. The government has done a good job of getting our finances back on track. The deficit has been reduced from $42 billion to $24 billion in 1996-97, and it is a projected $17 billion in 1997-98. These numbers are as a result of a concerted effort implemented over a gradual period but it must be acknowledged that many Canadians have sacrificed to get there. Before I get into just who they are, I would like to also point out that there are parties present in the House today who would have moved faster and cut deeper, given the chance.
I look at the campaign that we all waged some three years ago and both the Progressive Conservative Party and the Reform Party pledged to eliminate the deficit inside the first term. I recall during a budget debate more recently when the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party specifically demanded that we cut deeper and faster, again repeating the expressed position that we should eliminate the deficit inside our first term in office. This course of action would have left devastation throughout the regions most affected by the reduction of government services such as the Atlantic region.
Now that we have made some progress, real progress in the area of deficit reduction, we need to start focusing on the future instead of focusing on the problems of the past. We also have to recognize that some problems have been neglected as we have pursued deficit reduction. We have to start working for those people, poor children and Canadians with disabilities to name just two groups.
I recently hosted a public policy forum in my riding of Fredericton-York-Sunbury to deal specifically with the budget. The discussion included questions around the deficit, the role of the private and public sectors with respect to economic growth and the harmonized sales tax.
The majority of individuals at the forum expressed the view that the country's social safety net cannot stand another round of cuts, that the government has cut those kinds of expenditures as much as it can. They proposed that we must now look at high end tax reform as there is a sense that many large corporations and Canadians at higher income levels are not paying their fair share.
Discussions around the role of the public and private sectors in the economy focused on whose role it is to create jobs and how to do it. Forum members suggested that the government does have a role to play in intervening in the economy to protect disadvantaged Canadians and disadvantaged regions, to show leadership in dealing with global adjustment, school to work transition and lifelong learning.
Since the traditional safety net perhaps is not as comprehensive as it once was, we need to create an environment that will produce equality of opportunity. We have to start dealing with the problems of child poverty. We need to address the unique obstacles faced by persons with disabilities on a daily basis.
The government needs to make sure that the country is working for everybody. In other words, the role of the state is an active one. It is to mitigate the inequity of the market for underprivileged children, seniors, middle aged persons with disabilities. We have an obligation to intervene on behalf of those less likely to succeed in a market driven, survival of the fittest world.
This flies in the face of the ideologies of both the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party which have said that the government should get out of the face of Canadians, that the market will correct itself. That will undoubtedly succeed for some, those who are active participants in and beneficiaries of a purely market driven system, but I ask: Is the government's job to work for those individuals or for the individuals for whom the market does not work? This is a fundamental question, one that these two opposition parties should stop and ask themselves.
When many of us on this side of the House were agonizing over the impact of the deficit reduction imperative, lobbying internally and fighting the good fight, the right wing parties insisted that we were not cutting quickly or deeply enough. Now that the economy is getting back on track, they have the unmitigated gall to complain that we are not spending enough, a position that pushes hypocrisy to a new level.
I want to reiterate that I believe there is a time for deficit reduction. After the last election our debt was at an all-time high. We were spending far more than we were taking in. This needed to be dealt with so that we could reclaim our sovereignty and stop looking over our shoulder at those threatening to take over our finances.
As we reclaim our fiscal sovereignty, we can now institute the programs that help those most in need without having to spend all our energy focused on interest rates. In other words, we see light at the end of the tunnel. We must restore the faith that Canadians have in us that we are going to be dealing with those social imperatives.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to bring to your attention an issue which I know is very important to you, Canadians with disabilities. I had the good fortune of recently chairing a task force that looked at the issue of how the Government of Canada should intervene in
our society to make life fairer and more equal for Canadians with disabilities.
The government task force produced a report which calls on the government to consider 52 recommendations which included dealing with the cost of disability, allowing Canadians with disabilities to have more access to the workplace, and tax measures that would underwrite the cost of disabilities to a large extent by the government. Basically, it was to see to it that Canadians with disabilities have the same shot at the quality of life Canada is prosperous enough to offer to all.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to an issue I know is important to all of us. I urge the government to take very seriously the recommendations of our task force report. I also suggest that we take every opportunity to use whatever capacity has been generated by our good management to see that Canadians who have suffered during this fiscal imperative have their needs attended to.