Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in this important pre-budget debate.
As a member of the Standing Committee on Finance I was very closely involved in the prebudget consultations. I am proud to be a member of the government which opened up the budgetary process to Canadians in an unprecedented fashion. The Minister of Finance is to be commended for having undertaken this innovative initiative which has been done since 1993. It was exceptionally well done again this year.
The finance committee was split into two groups. The western wing which covered the western provinces was headed by the able parliamentarian from Essex-Windsor, the vice chair of the committee. The eastern wing was headed by the chair of the committee, the member for Willowdale.
We heard from over 300 associations and individuals and received numerous representations from people from all walks of life. Therein lies the strength. We heard from people not only from every geographical region but virtually from every single segment of society. They told us what they thought ought to be in the next budget.
Hearings were held in Ottawa and across the country. By holding hearings locally we were able to make the consultative process that much more accessible. In addition, the finance committee agreed to split in two, as I indicated. This was extremely useful because we were able to spend a full week on the road to hear Canadians, quite apart from the many meetings that we had here in Ottawa.
One consistent theme to the testimony was the support of Canadians for the government to finish the job that had been started. Canadians know we must continue to meet and surpass our deficit targets then move forward to begin to pay down the debt.
The committee is in favour of adopting the objective proposed by the Minister of Finance to bring the deficit back to $9 billion, or 1 per cent of GDP by 1998-99.
To date as we all know, the government has successfully met and exceeded its deficit targets.
We recognize that these have been difficult times for all Canadians. However it is imperative that we work toward a more affordable and efficient government and an era of sustainable government programs. It is critical that our deficit targets be met so that we can start working on the debt.
During the consultations Canadians gave us guidance, a framework from which to work and to build for the future. Canadians made their priorities clear. They want us to begin addressing problems that have been neglected in the past in order to build on our future.
I will focus my discussion on a number of areas of priority that were mentioned by Canadians. I would suggest that the opposition parties would do well to listen to what is being said because they might glean some valuable insights that could help them make some constructive suggestions to the government as opposed to continually whining, berating and denigrating the excellent work of the Minister of Finance and the government in this area.
Priority areas of concern are those issues which came up time and time again during the consultative process. Those are the areas that we need to build upon for the future. The committee believes that action needs to be taken in future budgets. However, actions taken must be within the context of our ongoing commitment to meeting and surpassing our deficit targets, dealing with the issue of our enormous debt, the restoration of our fiscal health and I reiterate, finishing the job we started.
The committee recommends that Revenue Canada determine the changes to be made to the earned income supplement, to make it easier to adjust to changes in the employment situation of parents, and to provide assistance when needed.
In 1989 the House of Commons unanimously approved a motion seeking to eliminate poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000. The committee very strongly believes that assisting children in poverty must be the main priority of government. We need to find a way to speed up the way in which resources get to those that need them.
A good example is the working income supplement. Currently this benefit is based on the previous year's income. As a result it is not responsive to changing circumstances, not as much as they ought to be, and we need to rectify this situation.
The committee congratulates the federal task force on people with disabilities for its excellent work and recommends the inclusion, in the next budget, of measures that will take into account the additional costs incurred by people with disabilities.
I had an opportunity to meet with my hon. colleague the member for Fredericton-York-Sunbury concerning the task force report. I must commend him and his colleagues for their excellent thorough report. What I took away from that meeting above all else is that Canadians living with a disability almost always have additional costs. Within federal jurisdiction we should take action in the area of tax policy to deal with this situation. In addition, any actions in the area of tax policy should be in support of the social policy objectives of inclusion, independence and productivity.
The committee recommends a significant increase in the support provided to literacy organizations under the National Literacy Secretariat, which currently stands at $22.3 million per year.
During the consultations we heard from witnesses that the changing economy is demanding ever higher levels of literacy from all working Canadians. Our future will require workers, managers and executives with higher skills that are required today and constant upgrading I might add. Literacy is an essential tool in such a knowledge based economy and more so than ever before. Our challenge is to provide literacy and learning for all because without these tools workers and employers will fall behind their competitors. We believe that this problem can be addressed through partnerships with every sector of society, co-ordinated through the efforts of the National Literacy Secretariat.
Subsequent to the release of the prebudget report, I have received a congratulatory letter concerning literacy from Frontier College which reads in part: "This is great news. This is the knowledge and information age and every Canadian must be able to read and write well in order to be part of it-.The finance committee gave us the assurance that we will have the resources to continue this fight".
There are a number of other such letters from members of other communities who felt that this prebudget report was of first quality and addressed the needs of Canadians. I would be delighted to share those with all of my colleagues.
Tuition fees are increasing everywhere in the country. The committee made three recommendations.
These recommendations dealt with carrying forward tuition fees as deductions against future income, doubling the $500 exemption for scholarship, fellowship and bursary income, and special opportunity grants being provided for students with parental responsibilities. These recommendations recognize that an investment in education is an investment in our future. Research and development was recognized as key to Canada's ability to compete in the global economy.
The committee recommends that priority be given to increasing the funding of granting councils such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Medical Research Council.
The committee recognized the important work and the unique opportunities provided by the Networks of Centres of Excellence program. It recommended the renewal of the program for a third term.
Recommendations were made on the implementation of a second, more modest national infrastructure program. The committee recognized the great success of the first infrastructure program. Support was given for the second program which is well directed and available to traditional infrastructure projects such as waste treatment, water supply, transportation, et cetera, as well as to health care and educational institutions. Support for health care and educational institutions represents a long term contribution to Canada's overall level of productivity and our long term prospects for high level, high knowledge jobs.
We recognize the importance of charities and the voluntary sector. The committee had a number of recommendations concerning endowments, bequests, corporate donations, stretch proposals, withholding taxes, community economic development, program related investment and taxpayer awareness.
To conclude on this issue, the committee believes that its proposals to increase tax incentives for charitable donations will help correct the imbalance resulting from the reduction of direct subsidies, and it recommends that these proposals be implemented.
We recognize the important role played by charities in our communities. We recognize the need to help them find sources of additional resources in a fiscally responsible manner and the role the government can play. I received a letter from an organization called Heritage Canada. It congratulates the committee for its recommendations in the area of charities: "Recommendations in the area of charitable giving are similarly welcome. Greater incentives to encourage more in the way of personal and corporate giving could clearly have a beneficial impact on the heritage field".
At a town hall meeting in my riding I had the opportunity to meet with members of my community, my advisory committee. Their recommendations were not unlike others. Constituents are supportive of our fiscal goals and deficit reduction targets. They want us to invest strategically in the future, in our young people and in certain research that could be value added. They want to make sure that universities and community colleges are not neglected. They want increased R and D funding that will create better jobs and a better quality of life for all Canadians. They urged us not to forget small and medium size business and they wanted to be sure that we considered another modest infrastructure program.