Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak today to the report of the Standing Committee on Finance on the prebudget hearings.
I started speaking on this matter a day or two ago and, unfortunately, I was interrupted, so I am back again. I will begin where I left off. I left off by saying that, in my judgment, the government was searching for the answer but it would not tell people what the question was. I want to advance the debate a bit beyond that now.
This whole debate will be seen in a new light today as a result of the Prime Minister's town hall meeting last night. Last night we saw a side of the Prime Minister which I have not seen before. We saw a Prime Minister who seemed almost disdainful of the people who came forward, whose lives were in disarray because they were unemployed or because they had fallen on hard times. That stands in stark contrast to the words of the committee report.
The chairman of the finance committee is sitting across from me. I am certain he believes very strongly the words that are in his report which emphasize how much he cares about people who are unemployed, the poor and people who have fallen on hard times. However, I did not see that in the Prime Minister's responses to
questions from regular Canadians last night. Those people have fallen on hard times.
I want to talk about these issues one by one. These issues are very important to Canadians.
Last night at the town hall debate there was a graph shown on television which indicated that 42 per cent of Canadians said the number one priority they saw for government was unemployment. It is a huge problem. The Prime Minister brushed the whole issue aside.
In the finance committee report the government does speak of the unemployed, but mostly it boasts about the job the government has done in creating an environment so that the economy can create jobs. Last night I think that claim was really challenged by reporters at CBC when they pointed out that since the government came to power, only 109,000 jobs truly had been created outside of the natural growth in the workforce. Therefore it amounts to only about 30,000 jobs a year since the government came to power, which allowed the unemployment rate to come down to about 10 per cent, still a double digit.
I know I speak for Canadians when I say 10 per cent unemployment is completely unacceptable. When we look at the regional breakdowns it is even worse. In Saskatchewan there is 6 per cent unemployment; we are getting there. But in Atlantic Canada, Cape Breton, 22 per cent, as the lady claimed last night. That is unbelievable.
What did the Prime Minister say in response to that lady's queries about what can be done to help people get a job? He said "we have ACOA, some ACOA grants". I think we have been trying ACOA grants for 20 years and they have done nothing to fix the unemployment problem in Atlantic Canada.
He said "perhaps you can start a business". But as the lady correctly pointed out, when you are unemployed you do not have the money to run out and start a business. These are common sense responses. And with respect to the Prime Minister, after 33 years in this place and serving as a big city lawyer, I think has has become too far removed from the common people. I think he has forgotten what it is like to come from humble beginnings. The people who spoke last night were simply not satisfied with the Prime Minister's answers.
I think it would be irresponsible to criticize without offering some answers of our own. We have suggested there is another approach. We have suggested that the way to deal with the problem of unemployment is to create an environment, as the Prime Minister says, where the economy will produce real jobs. But the government has not done that. That is not done simply by reducing the deficit ever so slowly but not giving people any of the benefits of a balanced budget and surpluses.
We are proposing, and I think it is what a lot of Canadians want to hear, is balance the budget, shrink the size of government, get rid of the wasteful programs; and there are many of them. Give the provinces some of the responsibilities which are theirs in the Constitution and which the federal government has never done a good job with. When that is done, a surplus will be run. When that is done, people can be offered lower taxation.
The Reform plan is to download $15 billion in tax relief to Canadians across the country so that the people in Atlantic Canada, where taxes are unreasonably high and are going to get even worse under this harmonization agreement that the Prime Minister spoke of today in question period, will benefit tremendously from lower taxes. The problem with the Atlantic Canadian economy is it is so bound up by taxes that it cannot possibly create the amount of jobs necessary to help the people in Cape Breton, Newfoundland, all the regions of Atlantic Canada.
One of the saddest commentaries on the failure of the government to deal with the problems that seize the country is today's release from Stats Can that says an estimated 1.472 million children liven in "straitened circumstances" in 1995, in poverty, up 110,000 from the previous year. In the finance committee report government members pointed out that child poverty is a problem. It certainly is but words are not enough. During the last election campaign the words were jobs, jobs, jobs. What has happened? Virtually nothing. This time apparently it is going to be child poverty, but words do not put food on the table.
The government report says that not too much can be done. Maybe some money can be put into a working income supplement, maybe it could be enhanced. That is not enough. The Reform plan, $15 billion in tax relief, would take 1.2 million low income Canadians completely off the tax rolls. That is how people who are struggling just to get by are helped. That is how the poor are helped. That is how children living in poverty are helped. That is how 1.2 million Canadians would be taken completely off the tax rolls. That is the Reform fresh start.
Just a couple of minutes ago, as we went through Routine Proceedings, we heard petition after petition make reference to the GST. Probably a dozen or 15 members of Parliament got up with petitions in their hands saying that the government should fulfil its promise to get rid of the GST on reading materials.
Unless I missed it, I did not see that addressed in the finance committee report. Sometimes when things are not said it speaks volumes about the approach to an issue. This was a blatant promise
that was broken. Nowhere is it addressed in the finance committee report.
It is important that this is brought to the attention not only of Canadians who voted for the government on the basis of this promise but also the government MPs.
It is incumbent on government MPs to stand up and represent their constituents. They know very well that the Prime Minister wrote to the Don't Tax Reading Coalition just before the last election and said that he would get rid of the GST on books. It is still there. Yes, the government made some minor changes but it is still there. It is another broken promise. It should have been addressed.
The GST is barely mentioned in the finance committee report but Canadians had some hard questions for the Prime Minister last night. We had the spectacle of a waitress from Montreal standing up meekly at first, trying to challenge the Prime Minister on his GST promise, and what did he do? He attempted to dress her down. He tried to corner her and suggest somehow that she did not know what she was talking about. But she knew a lot better than he did what she was talking about.
She pointed out that the Prime Minister had said many, many times that he would scrap the GST and it was the basis on which she had voted for him. What did the Prime Minister do? He did not say: "You're right. I am sorry". He did not do what the Deputy Prime Minister had to do. He certainly did not resign. What did he do? He tried to deny that he had said all the things that a couple of minutes later appeared on the television news.
I would think, after having gone through the debacle of the Mulroney government and the myriad broken promises and the myriad times when people completely lost faith in government, the Prime Minister, the hon. member from Shawinigan, would have learned his lesson. Instead he let pride get in his way. He denied that he had said the things that ended up on the TV news a few minutes later and again, people have a very good reason to not trust government.
I wonder how many million people watched last night. I wonder how many million people saw a side of the Prime Minister that they had never seen before. We are all amused when the Prime Minister puts on his little guy from Shawinigan act. He is very amusing. He seems like a very nice man, but last night, although sometimes the words were there, there was a curled lip, there was an arrogant attitude. I did not see any sympathy at all for what the people out there were asking about.
After what we saw last night this whole debate has been put in a new light. I hope Canadians remember this as we approach the next election.