Mr. Speaker, as the House of Commons moves to a final vote on the 1999 budget, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about responsible government.
The theory of responsible government is at the heart and soul of how democracy functions. It is at the heart and soul of our parliamentary system. It is the foundation of Canada. The government is democratically elected and it is expected to fulfil its mandate on behalf of all the people in the country. Members of parliament are elected as democratic representatives of all constituents.
In the old days there were feudal lords and robber barons but democracy changed that. It is thanks to democracy that Canada is year after year chosen as one of the better countries in the world in which to live.
As the member of parliament for Ottawa—Vanier, I happen to represent some of the very richest people in Canada and some of the poorest people in Canada. What I am going to say may be more popular with one group than the other, but upon reflection they will hopefully all agree.
Several corporate leaders in the past few weeks have somehow come to the conclusion that the government should ignore the democratic mandate on which it was elected. They have this notion that they set the political agenda and the fiscal agenda of the governments. Some have even tried issuing veiled threats to coerce the Government of Canada into providing lower tax rates for high income earners.
Absolutely corporate leaders have an important role to play in consulting with the government and making their views heard. However, in this country it is one person, one vote and not the size of our chequebook that determines our democratic rights.
Part of responsible government also means conducting responsible debate. That means playing straight up with the basic facts. The Business Council on National Issues, the BCNI, purports to speak on behalf of the chief executive officers of Canada's 150 largest corporations.
Two weeks ago the president of the BCNI criticized the Minister of Finance saying “enough is enough” and added, “what we are asking the minister to do is to demonstrate his commitment to the importance of bringing down personal taxes as a priority”. What an absurdly unfair comment for such a business leader to make.
The Liberal government has already provided tax relief in this and in last year's budget. We have taken 600,000 poor Canadians off the tax rolls altogether. Families trying to raise two kids on $30,000 will no longer have to pay income tax. Families with incomes of $45,000 will have their taxes reduced by at least 10% this year alone. Middle to high income earners, and yes, even every millionaire in the country, has had their 3% surtax removed in this year's budget. The government has made reducing taxes a priority. It is just that we have been responsible about it.
In considering the BCNI's call for lower tax rates, I will point out some facts. The average compensation for CEOs of Canada's top 100 companies was $3.4 million last year. That was up 26% from the year before; a 26% increase in one year. I am not begrudging those people what they have earned. That would be up to their shareholders. I merely mention it to keep things in perspective.
There are thousands of public servants in my riding whose pay was frozen while the government attacked and eventually eliminated the federal deficit, as we said we would do. These public servants have now received pay increases averaging 2% to 3% after years of being frozen. Not a 26% increase.
Public servants, who are so often criticized, know that their sacrifices have made a huge difference. They know that the Government of Canada balanced the books. They know that the cost of borrowing in Canada is far lower today than it has been for years. It is even lower than in the United States. They know that inflation has been virtually wiped out. They know that we have put the recession far behind us. They know that Canada creates jobs at a healthier clip than most of the European democracies.
When the government received its second majority in June 1997, it made a contract with the people. That is what the principle of responsibility is all about. It contracted to devote half of the budget surpluses to debt reduction and tax relief and half to pressing social needs like child poverty, health care, education and investments in research for our collective long term benefit. That was the principal mandate on which we were elected. As a responsible government we must fulfill that mandate. That is responsible government in its traditional form.
There is also responsible government in the sense of acting responsibly for the future. What certain corporate leaders seem to be suggesting is that we should ignore everything else and give them a tax break. I suppose the Minister of Finance could have acted differently. He could have borrowed to pay for tax cuts. However, the Minister of Finance said “No, we will not do that. We will provide tax relief the responsible way after we have eliminated the deficit”. That is exactly what we have done.
That still leaves us with a $580 billion debt in Canada, a debt which was built up during the lifetime of every adult alive in the country, a debt which costs Canadian taxpayers in excess of $40 billion annually in interest charges. The only responsible course of action is to continue to take chunks of any budgetary surplus and pay off some of that debt, as we said we would do.
We must reduce the debt. We have no right to pass that debt untouched to our grandchildren. To do so would be to exercise greed today at the expense of our kids tomorrow. As citizens and as parliamentarians we cannot wash our hands of our responsibility in this matter. I do not often agree with columnist Andrew Coyne of the National Post who said of the growing call for irresponsible tax cuts, “I suppose we ought to be ashamed of ourselves”.
Debt reduction is structural and its benefits permanent. People who became wealthy over the last 30 years as the country accumulated debt ought to understand that reality.
On team Canada missions abroad, business leaders rightly talk about Canadian values. They talk about safe streets, our health care, our ability to sustain linguistic duality, our ethnic diversity, our public infrastructure, our transportation and communications systems, our commitment to the elderly, our commitment to human rights, our commitment to fairness. They point out that Canada is not a polarized society with unseemly disparities of wealth or incomes. They point out that this is why Canada is a safe place to invest. They are right when they say that abroad. I would just like to hear them say it more often at home.
To talk of Canada and the United States strictly in terms of tax rates is to imply that our nations, our values, our cultures are otherwise interchangeable. I would suggest that if people really believe that, they should try to get elected to parliament on that platform. If the president of BCNI really believes that, he should try to get elected on that platform.
This government has balanced fiscal prudence and the upgrading of social programs at the same time. We have balanced debt reduction with tax relief. The tax relief has gone for the most part to the people in our country with the least money who needed it more. If someone thinks that people with the most money should be the first ones to get tax cuts, let them run for parliament on that platform.
As the governor of the Bank of Canada indicated a few days ago, Canada is on the right course and tax differences with the United States are not the cause of Canada's problems. If someone thinks that the governor of the Bank of Canada is wrong, let them run for parliament on that platform.
Responsible government means representing all the citizens who live in Canada. Responsible government also means protecting the interest of Canadians who have yet to attain the age where they too can participate in the election of their government. Responsible government means balancing the interest of taxpayers with the interest of the common good. For all of us that is what the 1999 budget achieves.