First, when we came to office, we set about putting our fiscal house in order. We did this because we knew that it was the essential foundation for lower interest rates and higher economic growth. That means jobs. That is exactly what we have achieved. We knew that without a fiscal turnaround we would never be in a position to pursue broader tax reduction.
In his first budget in February 1994, the Minister of Finance shared with Canadians this government's vision for the future and firmly stated how we would get there.
The Minister of Finance declared that we are pursuing a balanced approach to fundamental reform to create jobs, to continue to care for those in need and to get the deficit down. We have done that.
Our sound judgement, our balanced approach and prudent planning have secured important gains for Canadians, and it would be the furthest thing from the truth to suppose that this government would risk all that we have achieved together.
Let us look briefly at the achievements. As I said earlier, this government realized in 1993 that the key to a prosperous future for Canadians was getting Canada's books in order. Our prudent and balanced deficit control plan, centred on cutting government spending, has met its targets. In fact, we have exceeded them.
It is worth repeating the fundamental facts of our stewardship because it is our proven ability to keep our promises that should reassure Canadians that we will continue to keep them today and in the years ahead.
In 1993-94 the federal deficit stood at $42.5 billion, or about 6% of our economy. We said that we would bring that down to 3% of GDP within three years. This is a benchmark that is used in Europe and is centred in the Maastricht treaty, and that we would not stop until the budget was balanced. We exceeded our own target on the timeframe of balancing the budget.
By last year, fiscal 1996-97, the final deficit figure was down to $8.9 billion. That is 1.1% of GDP. That is $20 billion lower than the previous year for the biggest year over year improvement in our history. At $8.9 billion, it is the smallest federal deficit in 20 years.
In fact, we are now internally borrowing the money that we need. We are not borrowing internationally. There no more outside of the country credit leak, and it represent a resounding decline from some $33 billion since we came to office. I think that is a very good record.
Contributing to this success have been the unprecedented spending restraint measures introduced in our budgets. Also contributing to our deficit success is the new expenditure management system that the government has put in place, a system on one hand that affords departments greater flexibility in budgeting while on the other hand forces tradeoffs and reins in spending.
Last year program spending, that is all government spending except interest payments on the debt, fell by more than $7 billion to just under $105 billion. This means that between 1993 and 1994 and the last fiscal year, total program spending has been reduced by $15.2 billion, and our deficit progress has delivered real and rewarding results for Canada.
Let us take a look at interest rates. About three years ago short term interest rates in Canada were almost 2.5 percentage points higher than those in the United States. By last fall, they were almost two points lower than what was in the United States.
This is not an abstract achievement. It has meant, for instance, that a homeowner taking out or renewing a $100,000 mortgage for 25 years has saved $3,300 a year. A consumer, for instance, taking out a $10,000 car loan has saved $320 a year. It gets better. Savings on a $25,000 small business loan, the engine of our economy in this country, over 10 years would total $7,500. That is a definite advantage for small business.
Figures like that clearly illustrate the real benefits that this government's sound judgment and balanced and prudent management has secured for Canadians. That means lower deficits and lower interest rates.
We all know interest rates will be affected by many factors such as domestic conditions which can change and many global influences which are beyond the control of even the largest economies. We have seen this very clearly recently as Canada has been buffeted by what everybody refers to as the Asian currency flu.
Imagine what would have happened to this country back in 1991, 1992 or even 1993 when we were running a $42.5 billion deficit in this country with interest rates in double digits. It would have killed us as a country. However, through prudent management we got our country on line and within safe measures before something like that happened. It saved our bacon.
However, because our underlying economic fundamentals are now strong, as I have said before, we are in much better shape to meet this type of development than we were just a few years ago. That is why, despite the fact that our interest rates have increased, they are still below U.S. rates. That clearly shows that we have the right economic policies to weather the storm and to ensure that continued strong growth and job creation prevail.
Job creation is indeed another vital area in which we have made significant progress since coming to office. Between 1989 and 1993 some members in this House may recall that employment had dropped by over 100,000 jobs. Since this government has come to power, employment is up now by 1.1 million jobs. These are all in the private sector. Nearly nine out of ten of these jobs are full time.
Last December, for instance, employment increased by 62,000 jobs, contributing to a total employment growth of 363,000 jobs in 1997 as a whole. At 8.6%, December's unemployment rate, that is at the lowest level since September 1990.
The very real results of our second sound and balanced judgment in these three areas, the deficit, the interest rates and employment, are quite clear and, as far as I am concerned, very impressive.
There is more good news. The real GDP, the measure of economic growth, has risen by 4.1% in the third quarter of 1997. While the month to month figures can fluctuate, the growth has continued on average in the fourth quarter. In other words, it is an upward march. As a result, the consensus of the private sector forecast is that Canada's economy will continue to expand into 1998 and beyond.
Here is the type of evidence that backs up this outlook. Do not take my word here. Manufacturing shipments remain on an upward trend with the average growth for October and November running at about 5% and above on the third quarter. When the hon. member for Wild Rose asks about the dollar, that is one of the reasons. Because of that dollar our exports are very competitive. Merchandise exports increased by 1.5% in November and reached a record high.
Business investments have surged by some 25% over the past year and remain at a record high. Housing starts were up by 16% in 1997. Vehicle sales were up by 17.8%. Since its 6.6% plunge in late 1989 and late 1993, real disposable income has stabilized. Consumer confidence which declined by 6.9% between 1989 and 1993 has surged by 18% over the past year alone as the recovery has fully taken hold in the domestic economy. Consumer confidence has reached its highest level in eight years.
These are all very significant achievements but the real issue is what lies ahead. That is what we are talking about here today. According to the member for Medicine Hat what lies ahead is a 180 degree about face. He wants Canadians to believe that what lies ahead is a government prepared to abandon a course of balanced and sound prudent management that has brought Canadians the rewards that I have just described.
He wants Canadians to believe the government that is about to take this nation to a balanced budget in 1998-1999 is also a government that will take this nation back into the dark ages of overspending and deficit financing. That is absolutely wrong. This will not happen. We are not the party that changes its economic principles and political focus just for the sake of votes.
In the 1997 election I was the only one who stood at an all candidates debate and said if you want a tax cut vote for those guys, do not vote for me, and I am back. As the prime minister has said, we will never again allow the financial health of our country to get out of control. As the finance minister declared last October, responsible financial management is not a fad or a phase. It is a permanent feature of a successful society. These statements are the statements of the government that is going to take this nation into the next millennium financially healthy and strong.