Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in this House to discuss the budget that was tabled by the finance minister a month ago today, on February 18.
I will begin my remarks by extending my warmest congratulations to my colleague, the Minister of Finance, for the excellent budget he tabled in the House. Of course, this budget, his fourth, builds on the measures announced in the three previous budgets and on the extraordinary work done by this government over the last few years. The work we have done is so exceptional indeed that, when we came to power in 1993, few Canadians expected us to do so well in managing our country's public finances.
This government has put Canada's public finances on such a sound footing that we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. For years and years, Canadians had been criticized by foreign markets throughout the world for having lost control over their public finances. We have now regained that control thanks to this finance minister and to the government which has contributed to these efforts.
Now that we have put our public finances on such a sound footing that foreign markets and Canadian economists have regained confidence in us, that interest rates are at their lowest level in thirty years and that inflation is finally under control, what kind of society do we want to build, now that our finances on a sounder footing than any time in the past thirty years?
What the Minister of Finance showed us in his budget was a government whose primary focus is giving hope back to Canadians, because the budget, in a fundamental way, puts people first.
Now that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are turning our attention to people.
This is a government that wants to build a stronger society, a society that gives everyone a chance to make a contribution, a society that gives even those who are sometimes the least fortunate a chance to hope again.
I often kid my colleague, the Minister of Finance, telling him that he has been just as wrong in his forecasts over the years as all his predecessors. Obviously, I kid him because, if he has perhaps erred, it has been in the sense that the deficits have been lower than he had announced, whereas previous governments have, for years now, always announced lower deficits than they actually produced.
I, of course, prefer the Minister of Finance's rigorous management and tendency to underestimate our deficits rather than constantly overestimate them. I think this was by far the best way of operating.
Naturally, we are concerned about the continuing high unemployment. We are obviously aware that our increasingly healthy economy has created more jobs in Canada since 1993 than the economies of most industrialized countries, that our performance has far surpassed the average of G-7 countries. In this we must take pride.
It is still not enough. We must do more, and I, for my part, am confident that we are going to achieve much better results with the continuing high performance of our economy. It is important that the growth of the Canadian economy, which rests on a solid foundation thanks to this government, can now lead increasingly to job creation everywhere.
I would now like to draw your attention to the kind of society we are going to build on the solid foundation and the achievements of recent years. We on this side of the House have compassion for the least fortunate members of our society and we must stand united, as a society, and invest in each other's future.
The priority we have set, a priority I would consider national because the Government of Canada arrived at it in discussion with the provincial governments, is the situation of children in low income families. The child tax benefit is one of the first investments we can make. Now that we have some leeway, the Minister of Finance has shown that this government continues to be concerned about the least fortunate members of our society, those who are most vulnerable.
What we have also demonstrated as well is that, by focusing on the children of low income families, we are investing in the future, since everyone is aware that poverty consistently leads to situations that are harmful to society. Poverty is unacceptable in itself, for the people experiencing it, but it is an extremely heavy burden for society as well.
Thus, when we invest in the children of poor families, we are strengthening the social fabric of our society, and therefore are making what might be called an investment in the future, rather than a social expenditure, for poverty can kill every spark of promise there is in an individual. I believe that everyone can see that poor children start off with a strike against them. They have more school problems, and more need of the health care system. Knowing that the poor are always more liable to end up unemployed and dependent on social programs, we must therefore make sure that fewer children start off life on the wrong foot.
A child who starts off on the wrong foot has a hard time changing gears and overcoming obstacles later. These children need to be nourished; the same goes for their spirits, their hearts, their souls and their potential. This we have done, in a way that strikes me as eminently responsible.
We wanted to break down what we call the welfare wall. The child tax credit established by this government in conjunction with the provinces across Canada is intended to break down that wall. This is an extensive, nation-wide effort, in which the provinces and the Government of Canada are working together in an area of concern to them both.
What do I mean by the welfare wall? The social assistance trap which holds too many children prisoner. Very often, parents faced with the decision of whether or not to return to work opt for staying on welfare so that their children will continue to benefit from the programs-such as dental care and coverage for certain prescriptions-they are entitled to as welfare recipients.
As a government, we have determined that we must help families get off welfare if they have the chance, without penalizing their children. This is what we are doing by putting $850 million in new funding into the child benefit. This will come into effect on January 1, 1998, perhaps earlier if the program we want to create with the provinces can be ready sooner.
The idea is to reduce the social welfare trap that penalizes parents, or at least their children, if they agree to go back to work. The purpose of the child tax benefit is to provide equal opportunities for children in low income families with one parent working, by allowing provincial governments to use the money freed by the increased federal tax benefit to ensure that these children have access to better, more equitable services. This is the goal of our policy.
From an economic point of view, this policy is fundamentally sound and, from a social point of view, it is an investment in our future. We all know that a child who has a bad start in life will ultimately cost much more to society. This policy seems extremely interesting to me.
The $850 million that will be allocated as of January 1, 1998 will be added to the $5.1 billion the government is already paying for the child tax benefit. As of January 1, 1998, $6 billion will be paid out to families with children. We see this benefit as a down payment the government hopes to increase in the future as soon as our financial picture improves. The money to help low income families will rise from $3 billion to close to $3.9 billion, an increase of around 30 per cent.
Thus, 1.4 million families, or more than 2.5 million children in Canada, will see an increase in the benefits they receive from the Canadian government. The results are remarkable, because at the same time we have managed to update Canadian federalism by proving that we can work in harmony with the provinces in this country.
Canadians are sick and tired of seeing two levels of government quibbling over jurisdictions. They want us to work together. We must clarify our roles to avoid this constant stepping beyond the limits of our responsibilities and to avoid creating conflict situations. We must clarify our roles, and that is what we have done with the national child benefit.
The Government of Canada will provide income support for families, while the provinces have agreed to redirect money from welfare to programs and services for children living in low income families. It is this kind of partnership that shows how flexible Canadian federalism can be, how Canadian federalism can be a real boon to the priorities we want to establish, including for our children.
It is time that we realize that federalism is not some game, either the government in Ottawa wins and the provinces lose or the other way around, when the provinces win it is Ottawa that loses.
Federalism is a win-win situation when the two levels of government determine that our federation can be more harmonious and less conflicting. This is the great work we are doing at the ministerial council on the social union. Progress has been absolutely remarkable in the last few months.
I would like to thank my provincial colleagues very much for their extraordinary work and contributions they have made to the national child benefit for which all Canadians are already so grateful and pleased because they can see the better society it is going to build.
The second priority of our discussions at the ministerial council on the social union is the issue of Canadians living with disabilities. We have also taken important steps in the budget to help many of the 4 million Canadians, about 15 per cent of citizens in the country, who live with disabilities. It is absolutely important that in this society that we build on the solid foundation we have built over the last few years, after four budgets from the Minister of Finance, which have established the foundation. It is important that the society we build on that foundation will allow every citizen to participate more fully in life in Canadian society.
We know that the 4 million who live with some disability have more obstacles to overcome to participate in society. This is why in our budget we really wanted to respond to several recommendations of the task force headed by my colleague, the member for Fredericton-York-Sunbury. The Scott task force has done wonderful work to really bring our attention and focus on the priorities of Canadians living with disabilities who must be helped by the government to participate more fully in life. This is the kind of society we believe in. It is important that it be reflected in society.
We have therefore renewed the VRDP. The budget has actually set aside $168 million to extend the vocational rehabilitation of disabled persons program for another year. It is a very good program which is helping Canadians with disabilities to get back to work and to contribute and earn a living with dignity, which every human being in the country is entitled to.
In addition to the VRDP this budget provides $70 million in tax assistance to Canadians who are facing significant medical costs. I think it is a very important element which will help them as well.
The budget also provides for investing $30 million in a new opportunities fund which assists the economic integration of persons with disabilities in their community. We will operate in partnership with non-governmental organizations, NGOs.
In fact I welcome the outstanding job done by members of these NGOs who are working together with organizations for Canadians who live with such disabilities. Without these NGOs, they would not have the same quality of life. That is why we are working very closely with these NGOs to help them financially and in the work they do to help persons with disabilities in Canada to enter the labour market satisfactorily, something they want very much.
This budget has also shown how concerned we are about our youth. On February 12, few days before the budget was tabled, I had the honour to announce, on behalf of the Government of Canada, the youth employment strategy.
The youth employment strategy is not just a strategy for youth, but a strategy designed by young people for young people. We consulted them. What did they ask us? They said: "Sir, could you please help us get better access to the information we need to get a job? Could you tell us about training programs and careers that are
available to us?" As you know, there are many in my own department, Human Resources Development Canada.
So we put in a 1-800 line which is perfectly democratic. It gives everyone access to programs and services, even people living in rural areas, because we did not forget the outlying regions in this strategy. With our 1-800 line, democracy has reached those regions as well, through access to programs and services.
Rural youth are extremely important for us. This is why we were so pleased to be able to connect them through a web site available all over the country with a 1-800 line that everyone can have access to in a very democratic way wherever one lives in the rural regions of this country.
We have been asked by people to get them out of the vicious cycle of no job, no experience, no experience, no job. We have created 110,000 work experiences in order to allow young people to get work experience. It has been clearly demonstrated that people who have such work experience through an internship somewhere get a job within a few months after that.
That is why, once this work experience has been acquired, a young person tends to find a job more easily, I mean a steady job, after his training.
Since the Chair would like me to conclude, I want to say that the work we did in the social union council is particularly useful and constructive, now that our public finances are in good shape, in fact better that they have ever been in Canada for decades. We can now look to the future with far more hope and enthusiasm. We now know that the social safety net we have in Canada will be strengthened in the years to come. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We again have something to look forward to. And we are very pleased to share this prospect with the provinces.