Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity today to debate this opposition day motion and to speak particularly about the issue of highway transportation.
The story we have to tell as a government and the types of things we are proposing and intend to proceed with show quite clearly that the resolution condemning the government is totally inappropriate, misses the mark and does not accurately reflect the reality of what is taking place today.
Quite frankly the issue of transportation is an important one for me and for my riding. Parry Sound-Muskoka, part of the most beautiful part of the world, depends in large part on tourism. Indeed the vast majority of tourists who travel to my part of the country do so on the highway transportation system.
In my riding we depend so much on that industry that almost one out of every two jobs is tied to tourism. For every million dollars of new tourism expenditure we attract to my riding, primarily again through the highway transportation system, we create 39 person years worth of employment. For me personally as the member for Parry Sound-Muskoka the whole issue of highway transportation is an important one.
I also had an opportunity with others on all sides of the House to participate as the chair of the natural resources committee in a rural development study. We had an opportunity to talk to Canadians from coast to coast to coast about the needs of their communities, about the need for improving the economic climate that exists in rural Canada.
Almost to a person in the types of testimony that was provided to us the issue of transportation infrastructure, particularly highway infrastructure, came up. Not only was there the issue of tourism which we heard about from my constituents and from constituents across Canada, but we also heard about the importance of moving our natural resources from where we either harvest them or extract them in rural Canada to our markets and the importance of the highway transportation system to do that.
There is also the importance of a strong highway transportation system in terms of being able to value add to our natural resources in rural Canada and of being able to move those to market in an efficient way.
The committee on natural resources in its rural development study has examined this issue. It clearly states that transportation is important. The government is committed and concerned to have seen us as a committee of the House deal with the issue. I congratulate members of the transportation committee, which released its report yesterday dealing with the whole issue of highway transportation in Canada, for the work they have done, for the report they have tabled and for the recommendations they made in terms of highway renewal.
Not only for rural Canadians but for all Canadians the highway transportation system is critical. Ninety-five per cent of all transportation that goes between cities is on our highways. Seventy-five per cent of all freight that we move goes by highway. Sixty per cent of our exports to the United States, our largest export partner, goes by road and 80 per cent of our imports. Therefore it is critical for rural Canadians and for Canadians everywhere.
We need to look first at where we stand today. The reality of the situation when we are talking about highway transportation is that it is primarily, although not exclusively, a provincial responsibility.
Just this past October the Minister of Transport had an opportunity to meet in Prince Edward Island with his counterparts. He talked to them and dealt with the whole issue of a national highway policy. He received strong support from his provincial and territorial counterparts for the need to move forward but with a clear understanding that the lead responsibility in the issue of highway transportation rests with the provinces. The federal government should and must take a role in highway policy.
Historically the federal government has supported the whole issue of highway transportation since 1919. The best example occurred between 1949 and 1971 through a series of federal-provincial agreements involving the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway. As it had been in the previous century when it was linked from coast to coast by rail the nation was being linked coast to coast by a national highway.
The commitment and the ongoing involvement in highway transportation continue today. The federal government in fiscal year 1996-97 is committing somewhere close to $300 million or $292 million through federal-provincial agreements to highway construction and maintenance. In addition it spends approximately $100 million on highways and bridges for which it has direct responsibility.
Improvement in our highway transportation system is needed. That is why the government has had both the natural resources committee through its rural development study and even more directly the transport committee working on trying to develop ways to proceed, the proper actions that should be taken, the kind of strategy we should be looking at as a government to pursue improvement of our highway transportation network.
As the report on transport made quite clear there is a need for action now. We have an aging system. It is considered to have a 30-year lifespan. Right now it stands at something like 14 years. We are facing increased costs to maintain the system. As it grows older governments at all levels are having to commit increased financial resources to maintain it.
There is growing congestion in our major metropolitan centres. I often drive to Toronto and it does not take long to see the congestion. There has not been adequate investment in our highway transportation system.
Where do we go as a nation? Where do we go as Canadians? Where do we go as governments of all levels? One of the important things we need and one of the things the transport committee suggested is a national highways policy. We need a framework. We need a blueprint. Governments need a strategic road map to ensure a proper highway transportation infrastructure.
The committee made a number of suggestions and included a number of components which I think are appropriate. It talked about the need for a long term commitment of federal financial assistance. It talked about the need to develop partnerships between the public and the private sectors and between different levels of the public sector and the provincial and federal governments. It talked about the need to explore and develop new technologies and best practices in creating and maintaining our highway infrastructure. It talked about the need to develop innovative financing models to come up with the necessary financial resources that will
be required to make the major investment in updating and maintaining our highway infrastructure.
On some of these points the government has made very clear what it intends to do. The fact that it is presently committing close to $300 million to highways in Canada is appropriate. We should continue at a minimum to make that kind of financial commitment to a national highway system.
This has been debated a bit by previous speakers in the House but it is important that a infrastructure program be used to assist in transportation. In the program announced by the government right after the election in 1993 much of those funds were used in several provinces to help with important transportation related projects.
Unlike what one member was trying to suggest before, the program worked based on decisions as to the local priority, where the money should be spent and the types of transportation infrastructure. If transportation was chosen the decision was made at the local level. It was not made by the bureaucracy in Ottawa or by the members who sit in the House or in the various provincial legislatures or by their bureaucracies. The decision was made where it should be made: by local councils, local individuals who understand and know their priorities. We should continue to have such an infrastructure program and part of it should be used for transportation.
I will speak as a rural member for a second. It is important to note rural Canada has significant challenges that are somewhat different from those faced by urban Canada. Our transportation system is one of them. Obviously the geography is different. We have much larger distances to go. The density of our population is such that the need to communicate between a series of smaller municipalities intensifies our need for a highway transportation system. Our need to pursue our economies by transporting natural resources to market suggest that as we pursue a commitment of federal dollars, be it through an infrastructure program or otherwise, we must remember the needs in rural Canada are particularly high. We must recognize that when allocating the resources we allocate as a government.
We need to look at our financing options. We need to be creative. The third party sometimes has difficulty with the whole concept of being creative in government, looking at new solutions and looking forward as opposed to looking backward.
There are a number of creative ways to attract investment into a highways infrastructure. It could involve different levels of the public. It could involve a situation where we attract private investment into the infrastructure program, where we have the private sector invest in highways. We could recover that investment in a number of different ways. It could come from the public pursue through governments paying back that investment over years as the assets are depreciated. Or, it can come from the public through user fees if that is the types of decisions that might be made.
The key point is that we need to be creative in how we approach our financing of this type of infrastructure. I applaud the transportation committee in making that point very clear. We need to be creative. We need to reach out for innovative solutions in how we create highway transportation infrastructure.
The motion suggests that the government should be condemned. It is hogwash to use that word because the government should not be condemned.
The government should be complimented because in the last three and a half years, through its sound management of the Canadian economy, through the work it has done in managing Canada's finances, it has been able to create a financial environment that allows it options it would not have had if it had not acted in a prudent manner.
It is appropriate to look for a second at how some of that has worked. First, the government has taken a deficit which was about $42 billion when it took over and it is going to come in somewhere a little over $17 billion. We will know soon when the Minister of Finance brings in his budget.
The government is moving very quickly to a balanced budget. That will allow it to be able to make a long term financial commitment to a highway transportation system without increasing the debt. The government will be able to make that long term commitment without having to add on to its carrying charges. Sound fiscal management in reducing the deficit is giving the government the options to pursue such things as a national highway transportation policy.
By having economic policies that have led to the lowest interest rates in 40 years has made it possible and attractive for the private sector to make investments in things like highway transportation. The environment has been created. That is what the economic policy is all about. The government has created an environment, in this case low interest rates, that will give the private sector the opportunity to make the kinds of investments that it wants to be able to make.
These economic policies have led to the lowest sustained rate of inflation for well over a generation. It gives governments and the private sector the opportunity to make long term capital plans with some sort of surety in terms of future cost. That is what a stable inflation environment has been able to provide. It is working to allow the government to work in partnership with the private sector to pursue a policy that can lead to improved highway infrastructure.
Let us look at another matter. The government has created an environment so that trade has increased substantially since it has been in office. It has increased by something like 28 per cent. Today about 42 per cent of the value of all the goods and services produced in Canada come from trade. We have created the volume, we have created the market, we have created the need so that a proper investment and infrastructure can occur.
The member talked about not wanting to invest in a highway that was going to be empty. The reality is that as a trading nation and with the volume of trade going up, again investment in transportation infrastructure makes good, sound economic sense.
In summarizing, let me state clearly that first, the government has had some very specific policies that have helped in the area of highway transportation infrastructure. That is important to know.
Second, the government recognizes that more needs to be done. We do need an improved highway transportation infrastructure and the government is moving forward in that respect. We saw it with the natural resources committee, we saw it with the transportation committee. We are seeking out solutions. The Minister of Transport has met with his provincial and territorial colleagues to come together and find the best way to go forward.
Finally, by bringing sound fiscal management to this country, by creating a low interest rate environment, a stable inflation environment, the government has created the conditions so that investment can occur in our transportation infrastructure.