Madam Speaker, I am very happy to have the opportunity today to speak on behalf of the NDP on third reading of Bill C-28. I will first comment on the format of the bill.
I am the NDP member on the human resources development committee. I recall that at one of the first meetings of the committee, a government representative attended and told us about the various provisions available on websites and government publications that were designed to make government more understandable to people.
Certainly as a new member of the House trying to wade through various bills and motions and understand the complexity of the issues before us, I certainly concurred with the government representative. I saw it as a positive step that the various government departments were interested and intent on trying to make government more understandable to ordinary Canadians.
Then along comes Bill C-28. Looking at the volume of this bill, more than 400 pages to be precise, there is no question that this bill and how it has been drafted takes us in exactly the opposite direction to what the government states is its goal in terms of making legislation more understandable to Canadians.
In actual fact, Bill C-28 is very technical legislation. It deals with income tax measures from the February 1997 budget and many technical amendments to a whole variety of acts, including the Income Tax Act as originally outlined in Bill C-69.
This needs to be said before we get into the substance of the bill. It has already been debated by some members that because of the format in which this bill came forward, its complexity and the technicalities it contains, it is ridiculous to expect that Parliament would deal with such a complex bill. I would suggest that the language in the bill and the way it is presented would be incomprehensible even to the most highly paid tax experts. They would certainly have difficulty in deciphering this bill.
The bill is simply anti-democratic because of its format and its language, but most important because of its content. It is wrong for a government to present legislation that is steeped in such isolating language and expect not only parliamentarians but ordinary Canadians to understand and to be informed about what the government is doing.
I wanted to make that comment at the beginning because as a new member of the House it is something I am interested in. It was curious to me that we have been told efforts are being made to make the language more understandable but this bill certainly takes us in a different direction.
I would like to focus some of my comments on Bill C-28 in terms of what it proposes or purports to do in increasing the Canada health and social transfer.
In Bill C-28 we are told that the Canada health and social transfer will be “increased” from $11 billion to $12.5 billion. This is not something new. In fact we heard the announcement not only by government members during the federal election campaign in May 1997 but also in the budget which came before the House for the next fiscal year.
It is very interesting that we are told repeatedly that Canadians can expect to see an increase in the Canada health and social transfer. The government is putting forward the message in that way, that it is an increase. The reality is that this is not an increase at all.
It is simply the government making a decision because of enormous public pressure from opposition parties, from provincial governments and most of all from Canadians who have told the government that they are suffering from the impact of massive cutbacks in the Canada health and social transfer. What has the government decided to do? Rather than provide an increase, it simply is not continuing with another round of cuts that it had previously announced. That in reality is what the so-called increase to the Canada health and social transfer is all about.
It is regrettable there are not any government members present in the House today to hear that because this is something which sorely touches every Canadian. We can look at the polls. Concerns have been expressed about the cutbacks in health care, in social services, in social assistance and in education. It is a very critical point to look at the main mechanism by which the federal government uses revenues from Canadian taxpayers and transfers them to provinces to build and create social programs in our country.
We in the NDP find it shocking and outrageous that the government would put forward this bill and include in it a supposed increase in the Canada health and social transfer when in actual fact it is not an increase at all. Indeed cash transfers to the provinces for health care, education and social assistance have not increased by one penny. That is the reality of what has happened.
I would like to continue on this point and refer to some material that has been prepared by the National Anti-Poverty Organization, NAPO. This group has done extensive research to assess and analyse the impact of the devastating cuts in the Canada health and social transfer, particularly on low income Canadians. This is very important, valuable work.
On one side of the House we hear from government members that we should not worry about what is going on, that in fact they are there to defend the interests of poor Canadians, that they are there to defend the interests of poor children. I can say that this organization, an independent anti-poverty advocacy organization, comes to a very different conclusion.
The organization released a report entitled “Government Expenditure Cuts to Health Care and Post-Secondary Education: Impacts on Low Income Canadians”. That report documents that cuts in government funding of social programs have not only led to increasing inequality in money income, but rapidly growing inequities in access to both health care and post-secondary education.
It is pointed out in the report that federal cash transfers to the provinces under the Canada health and social transfer for health care, post-secondary education and social assistance were cut. Here again is where we hear the real story. Not an increase as the government is telling us, but a cut from $18.2 billion to $12.5 billion over the past two fiscal years.
What is very interesting about the report is it goes on to analyse what this means in real per capita terms, that is taking into account the effects of population growth and inflation. If we look at it from that point of view, then the federal cash transfers for social programs fell by more than 40% between 1993 and 1997.
Initially this came about as a result of the freeze on spending under the Canada assistance plan and the established programs financing. Of course since 1996 that cut of more than 40% has come about because of the deep cuts that have been made to the Canada health and social transfer.
That is what has actually happened in this country. It is not what government members have told us and certainly is not what is contained in Bill C-28.
It is very important that we consider the real impact and consequences of these cuts. It has meant in Canada that there is growing inequality and there is increasing poverty. Since 1989 the tragic situation in Canada is that 538,000 more children now live in poverty. To read those statistics does not give a real sense of the tragedy involved in terms of young Canadians, poor Canadians and poor families. These people historically have relied upon federal programs, on the co-operation between federal and provincial governments on transfer payments, for example for social welfare. These things traditionally have had great meaning and value particularly for poor and low income Canadians.
Now that we are witnessing the deep cuts in the Canada health and social transfer, we can see that poverty in this country has actually grown. Indeed the number of low income persons in 1996 was 40% higher than it was in 1989. In 1996 is when the Canada health and social transfer began to kick in. These are real statistics and something that cannot be denied by the government.
The other consequence that is very evident to local communities is high unemployment that has resulted from the massive cutbacks by the federal government. Again, this bill before us today, Bill C-28, will do absolutely nothing to reverse that, nor will the recent federal budget that came before this House. The reality is there is very high continuing unemployment in Canada that is simply a national tragedy.
Those of us in the NDP believe that it is the first priority of the federal government to attack and deal with this issue of high unemployment and to bring in real programs and targets to reduce unemployment. We have heard a lot from the finance minister about his targets to cut the deficit. But where have the targets been to reduce unemployment? Where have the targets been to reduce poverty in this country? They simply do not exist. I think that is a crying shame and the government should be ashamed of its record on that score.
In my riding of Vancouver East, probably the lowest income urban community in Canada, which includes the downtown east side, the impact of these policies and the impact of the measures that are contained in Bill C-28 is very visible already. In looking through this bill I had to ask myself is there anything in this bill that would improve the lives of people in my riding, in particular unemployed people and single parents who are struggling below the poverty line, who cannot find access to child care, who cannot find adequate housing.
Having looked at Bill C-28 and trying to make sense even of what it contains because the language is so difficult to deal with I and others in my party have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in this bill that will improve the lives of ordinary Canadians.
Will it improve housing or are there any tax measures that will improve the situation for low income Canadians to find affordable housing which is a very basic human need, the provision and security of shelter? There is nothing that will deal with that.
Will this bill improve access to health care? Regrettably the answer to that question as well is no.
Recently in my riding I organized a number of round table discussions with young people. Some of them were street people. Some of them were service providers working with young people who are unemployed and having difficulty finding work or having difficulty accessing post-secondary education. These round table discussions were very informative for me as the local member because they really brought home to me the stark reality that is faced by young people in this country. What these young people said to me is they know they have a very bleak and dismal future and the prospect for them to find long term secure employment that is not part time, that is not low wage, was increasingly diminishing.
When I look at the impact of this bill on my local riding and when I hear from my constituents, in particular young people who are unemployed, they tell me they are very fearful about their lack of access to post-secondary education. That is even in a province like British Columbia where we have been very fortunate to have a provincial government that has shown leadership and has frozen tuition fees three years in a row in order to ensure that there is some measure of accessibility.
B.C. has led the way in that regard, but even so it is very difficult for young poor Canadians to get into a university, a community college or a technical school simply because the tuition fees are so incredibly high. We have to ask ourselves why are those tuition fees so high. It is because of $2.1 billion which has been cut from education in the Canada health and social transfer that will not be reversed in this bill before us today, despite the claims from the federal government that it is increasing the Canada health and social transfer.
My constituents who are trying to get into community college, university or technical school know what the reality is trying to go through the door, trying to get into those schools and realizing that tuition fees are too high. Even if they are successful in going through the entrance, what are they then faced with? The next barrier is a massive student debt.
The average student debt a few years ago was around $13,000. Today the average student debtload is $25,000. Why is that? We can relate it directly back to the federal government which has shirked its responsibility to provide adequate funding for post-secondary education.
In the last month we have heard a lot about the millennium fund and how this will answer all our problems and needs. As the millennium fund begins to unfold and as students, young people and Canadians begin to understand what the millennium fund is all about people will realize it will not even come close to compensating for the massive cuts we have faced in post-secondary education.
What the government chose to do was rather than increasing its support to public post-secondary education that could have been contained in Bill C-28, it provided a scholarship grant program through a private foundation that only begins in the year 2000. Students will still be facing very high tuition fees because universities and colleges are forced to raise tuition fees to compensate for the decreasing funds from the federal government.
The impact of the bill, the lack of funding and the cutbacks in the Canada health and social transfer are not just felt in my riding, they are felt right across the country. Even here in Ottawa there was a very interesting situation yesterday where students at Carleton University organized a vote on several key questions involving post-secondary education because they are so concerned with what is going on in their own educational environment.
To refer to the material they have distributed to students in that facility, they said that recent decisions by the provincial government give the board of governors and the management of Carleton University the power to raise tuition fees for undergraduate students up to 20% over the next two years and to deregulate tuition fees for graduate students.
The students say about the putting out of this material that they need to ask themselves who sets tuition rates and how. Ask the federal government which jettisoned national standards by ending direct funding for education in 1996 and it will say it is the provinces' responsibility. Ask provincial governments whose main response to decreased federal government was to make it easier for universities to raise tuition fees and they will refer you to the universities. Ask Carleton management and it blames both governments for cutting education funding. Who is telling the truth?
In a sense the responsibility for tuition fees has become offloaded to everybody and nobody. That is what students at Carleton University are facing as they put forward the questions in a vote that was held on the campus yesterday. The questions they posed to students at that facility are as follows. “Do you think the board of governors and the university management should freeze tuition for the next two academic years, 1998-99 and 1999-2000 at current levels, yes or no? Do you think Carleton should honour its obligations to tenured faculty and students when making decisions about closing programs, yes or no?”
The full results have not yet come out but I know from speaking to members at the university that they have had a very high vote and they expect a very high, resounding yes in answer to these questions.
In closing, this bill contains nothing of real measure to help Canadians.