Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this very important debate today, prior to the presentation of the federal budget. The purpose is to see how we can promote and bring about the dreams, aspirations and objectives of Canadians.
That is really what a prebudget debate is. It is an opportunity to talk about how we should order our priorities as Canadians and how we should order our priorities for Canada's future.
In the final analysis a budget is about what the real priorities of the government are; not the soothing assurances, not the empty rhetoric and not the promises which have no substance. It is about where the government will put its money, where it will allocate its resources and, therefore, what its real priorities are.
Let me make it very clear at the outset, on behalf of my colleagues in the New Democratic Party, that it is our absolute belief that the top economic priority for the 1998 budget is to set targets to reduce unemployment by at least 1%. At an absolute minimum unemployment should be reduced by 1%. We must develop specific strategies to attain that objective.
It is hard to get your answers right when you keep focusing on the wrong problem. That is exactly what this government has done over the last four years. It has focused on the wrong problem.
It is focused exclusively on inflation, failing to set targets for jobs. In the process the government is simply writing off literally hundreds of thousands of jobs, writing off an additional 500,000 jobs that are desperately needed by Canadians. Over a five year period an additional 100,000 jobs a year could push our unemployment rate to 5%.
I know there will be some naysayers who will say “We couldn't possibly bring the unemployment level in Canada to 5%. Who has an unemployment level among industrial countries of 5%?” Let's remind ourselves, in the process of trying to stiffen our resolve to tackle this problem, that the United States of America has an unemployment level today below 5%. I think it is 4.7% at the current time. The United Kingdom has an unemployment level below 5%.
The government has to ask itself and all Canadians are asking themselves the following question. How is it less of a priority for the Government of Canada and for the people of Canada to reduce the unemployment level to 5% than it is for the people of the United States or the people of the United Kingdom?
It is the number one priority for Canadians and it remains the number one priority for Canadians. It is a priority that is absolutely attainable if the government would finally recognize it and take up the challenge. Unfortunately, instead of a commitment to generate jobs and reduce unemployment, the Liberal policy has been designed to ensure that jobless rates do not sink too far, a perversity, surely, when we look at the numbers of people who are suffering.
The biggest threat to the future is the likelihood the government will refuse to allow growth to continue and instead will choke off any real recovery in its infancy by jacking up interest rates yet again by strangling the process of economic growth that is finally beginning to glimmer on the horizon.
Canadians know that when the Minister of Finance really means business, when he makes up his mind about something, when he accepts that something is indeed a priority, he sets targets and timetables for achieving them. That is exactly what we have seen the Minister of Finance do with the deficit over the last four years. It is what he does with inflation. He makes it clear that he is serious and he sets timetables and targets. It is what he proposes now to do with the debt.
Canadians know that targets mean commitment and timetables mean results. Over the last four years the Liberal government has been absolutely single minded in its approach to deficit reduction: massive program cuts, the largest layoffs in Canadian history, the sell-off of some of the nation's most valuable assets, and the elimination of many of the programs that provide support to Canadians in need, in fact many of the programs that define our very sense of being Canadian.
The government's persistent lying throughout has been: “There is really no alternative”. It has come to be understood as the TINA syndrome: there is no alternative. The tragic irony is that there was and still is an alternative which would have allowed the government to reach its original target for deficit reduction without the painful disastrous cuts that were the supposed centrepiece of this strategy.
Testimony before the finance committee indicated that 60% of the improvement in government finances between 1995 and 1997 came from a growing economy stimulated by low interest rates. Dr. Jim Stanford's analysis presented before the finance committee showed that if the government had merely frozen spending at its 1995 levels, allowed economic growth and maintained lower interest rates, the Minister of Finance could have beaten his very own deficit reduction timetable. He could have met his targets and still have reduced Canada's deficit to the lowest level among G-7 countries.
The study also demonstrates that pursuing a sustained 4% growth strategy simply by maintaining interest rates at the early 1997 level would add an additional $70 billion to federal balance sheets over the next five years to be spent on the important programs that Canadians depend upon, that our seniors deserve, that our children desperately need and that our young people require to enter the new millennium with some sense of hope and promise. In addition it would mean sufficient resources to allow for reasonable tax cuts targeted to where they would matter most and get on with debt repayment at the same time.
On the other hand, if real growth is stalled by the central bank's obsessively low inflation policy, the fiscal dividend may disappear altogether. That would be a tragedy.
Canadians need to consider this question. Are we willing to spend $70 billion over the next five years to keep inflation at a zero level, to keep wringing jobs out of the economy, to keep eliminating important social programs, in order to battle an imaginary mythical phantom of high inflation? Or, do we have other priorities like fighting unemployment, rebuilding our health care system, and ensuring our young people access to education and decent jobs?
The Liberals have been positioning themselves as a party of balance on economic issues. The title of the finance committee's report “Keeping the Balance” is another attempt to embellish that image. The point is that it bears no relationship or resemblance to what the Liberal government has actually being doing. The reality is that Canada has eliminated its fiscal deficit by creating a massive social deficit for which Canadians will be paying for a very long time to come.
Canada's real wealth is declining as we supposedly grow richer. The stock market is soaring. The GDP is climbing. However somehow there is not enough money to pull our kids out of poverty, to give young people the education they need to get decent jobs, to pay working men and women a living wage, or to maintain one of the best health care systems in the world in which Canadians have invested and which has become the envy of the world.
For the government it has been an official policy of forget about jobs, toss in the towel on jobs. We are told repeatedly that governments cannot create jobs and why should they really try. The essence of the Liberal solution is to make its problem someone else's problem by downloading debt and offloading responsibility to the provinces, municipalities, ordinary people, the charitable sector, the non-governmental sector and, most callously and most unforgivably, the backs of the poor. As a result the federal books may be in balance but the economy is very much out of kilter.
The headline in the local newspaper in my riding said it all the day that the finance minister appeared on the west coast before the finance committee. The headline read “Federal books doing well but the question is are Canadians doing well?” For far too many Canadians the answer to that question is no, they are not doing well at all.
Internationally we may be the first to balance the budget. This is something the federal finance minister constantly crows about, constantly congratulates himself about. While citizens in other industrialized nations saw their GDP per capita grow at an average rate of 9.1%, Canada alone saw its standard of living decline. That is not something about which the government should be congratulating itself.
As a result we now have the second highest incidence of child poverty among major industrialize countries, the second highest inequality index and the second highest incident of low pay for full time workers in the industrialized world. The finance minister may claim that Canada is leading the G-7 and is on the verge of a new economic era, but social and economic indicators reveal that Canada is marching backward into the millennium.
Since 1989 average family incomes have fallen by roughly 5%. In this country 538,000 more children are living in poverty. The number of food banks has tripled as the proportion of the population forced to rely on food banks has more than doubled. The number of Canadians filing for personal bankruptcy has gone through the roof. This does not point to a balanced economy or to a leading edge economy but to an economy that is running in reverse.
The real test of a balanced economy surely is not whether the government can balance its books at the expense of its citizens but rather whether it can provide the economic environment in which Canadians and families can balance their own books. We have been losing ground in that regard.
A stronger economy is key to the long term health of federal balance sheets. Our approach would be to build a high employment, growing economy which could generate a significant fiscal dividend and could provide an ongoing revenue stream to address the growing social deficit. Social investment that creates jobs and addresses the needs of children, youth and families must surely come first.
Let me be very clear about what the NDP priorities are for the coming year. We will be pushing for those priorities to be expressed in the forthcoming federal budget.
The first is to make full employment the primary goal of government with targets to cut rates by a minimum of 1% per year. The Bank of Canada should be instructed that employment growth is the central priority.
The second is to set targets for the elimination of child poverty and a timetable for implementation of that commitment.
In 1989 the country set for itself a millennium project. The House of Commons resolved unanimously an all-party resolution to ensure that we eliminated child poverty by the year 2000. Before we go looking for a lot of new millennium projects, let us follow through on the commitment adopted by the House, by all members on all sides of the House in 1989, and make the real millennium project the elimination of poverty.
What could have a greater long lasting benefit? What could be more enduring? What could more captivate the people of a nation than pulling together and working together to eliminate poverty so that we make a real investment in the future of all Canadians and the future of the nation?
The third priority we will be insisting upon is to make strategic investments to rebuild our failing public infrastructure. Our health care system, education and training systems and networks, environmental and cultural industries, social housing, child care and elder care, highway and other important transportation links that make this a real nation.
Fourth is to maintain a balanced budget over the next five years aiming for continuing GDP growth of 4% per year and some easing of the inflation target band. When this country continues to be totally obsessed with inflation, it absolutely fails to recognize that countries, including the United States to our south and the U.K., have recognized that yes inflation is a problem and yes inflation has to be kept in check, but they have understood that we have to be prepared to make jobs and economic growth our real priorities. That requires easing up a little bit on the inflation target band.
They have allowed inflation to go up in the 3% range. As long as Canada continues to insist on wringing inflation absolutely out of the economy, reducing it to the 1% range, then we are going to continue to choke off those 500,000 jobs that we desperately need.
Fifth, our priority is going to be maintaining overall tax levels in the short term but rebalancing the system to achieve greater fairness and to advance broader social policy goals such as the elimination of poverty, a fairer share of the tax burden and assistance for students and the disabled.
Wrapping up, my final priority that I want to advance as we head into this budgetary process is direct tax relief measures to the neediest through refundable tax credits such as the GST and exempting essentials from the federal sales tax rather than enriching subsidies for those earning over $75,000 a year. If circumstances permit, we want to reduce the overall GST rate by two points to promote job creation and give hard pressed consumers a break.
These are the measures that NDP members will be advancing. Already to date in this fall parliamentary session, if the proposals the NDP had been putting forward, the concrete and specific proposals for job creation, had been implemented by this government, we would have created over 175,000 jobs. This would have reduced unemployment to 7.9%.
We look forward to participating in the continuing debate in the run up to the budget. Most importantly, we look forward to seeing this government finally get its priorities right and invest in a real future for Canada.