Yes, we all work together. We made progress. That is a very important thing.
Then there are other things, such as debt reduction. The Canadian Alliance would have us believe that they are the ones who invented debt reduction as some sort of good thing that governments ought to be doing.
I can tell the House that prior to 1997 for three years running I ran an opinion poll at the fall fairs in my riding in central Ontario. I had four jars and people would be given four beans, each one representing $1 billion. I would ask them if they were the finance minister how they would spend a $4 billion surplus. They had a choice of GST reduction, increased social spending, personal income tax cuts or debt reduction. For three years running the people who put the beans in the jars chose, first and foremost, debt reduction. About 45% of the opinion poll chose debt reduction as their number one priority. I presented those results every year to the finance minister and I told him that this was what people were saying.
It is no surprise to me to see in this economic statement that not only have we reduced the debt already by some $18.7 billion, but in this statement we are also undertaking to reduce the debt by another $10 billion.
The previous speaker really amused me. I can be amused occasionally in the House by some of the statements coming from the other side, Madam Speaker. The member complained that the government had no plan for debt reduction. What is amusing about that is of course any time when we have unspent surplus, the debt is reduced. That is all we have to do. We have to limit spending, control our spending, and automatically the debt is reduced. We have a government that is not only able to reinvest in the economy, reinvest in Canadians, but also has a sufficient surplus to bring down the debt by another $10 billion. The members on the other side ought to be applauding that.
Unfortunately, the House is adversarial and it needs to be adversarial. That is only right and proper. Sometimes I really do think that praise from the other side is warranted when the finance minister really does what is in the interests of all Canadians. The leader of the Canadian Alliance is always demanding forgiveness from this side, but I would suggest that what he really ought to do is stand in the House and give praise and congratulations where it is due. I realize that may be a bit too much to expect.
Another point just in passing. There are two other areas in the economic statement that reflect pressure coming from this side and to some degree from the other side and that is the rebate on fuel costs. It is quite scary, Madam Speaker, when we see what is happening with regard to fuel costs and how Canadians are worried. Quite rightly, on the other side there has been pressure to somehow relieve the burden, particularly on low income home owners facing substantial hikes in fuel costs. That concern is being acted on by this side.
We see in the economic statement that the finance minister is listening. That is an important point in the life of this parliament. The finance minister not only listens to the backbenchers here, but he also listens to the opposition when they do carry valid arguments and valid concerns. We are all concerned about what is going to happen to Canadians with the high cost of home heating fuel and the finance minister has replied.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that the finance minister provided for an increase in the educational tax credit for students. This is a very small thing in some respects, but a very large thing in others. There is absolutely no doubt that the investment for tomorrow is the investment of this government and this parliament in young people. I am very pleased that the economic statement reflects that.
I think that is actually precisely the point in many respects because what does make us different on this side and what makes us so different from the philosophy that we see, particularly from the Canadian Alliance, is that we believe as Liberals, and I think I can speak for the majority of us, that the role of the government is to provide services and encouragement in the country. Our role is to increase the equality of opportunity of all Canadians. That is a proper use of government money.
I deplore what I see in Ontario with the Harris government. I am uncomfortable with what I see in Alberta with the Alberta government. I am extremely uncomfortable with what I hear from the Canadian Alliance with this whole idea that you should retreat from government spending.
That is not the point. What you really need to do with government spending is when you do invest in the country, when you do invest in social services, when you do invest in helicopters or whatever it is the government is buying, you must invest well.
The important thing is to make sure that spending is as efficient as possible. That brings me to the more recent debate over the last few days about the auditor general's report and indeed the information commissioner's report about the need to reform the Access to Information Act.
A key point that the auditor general said which is so important is that even though there are all kinds of problems in effectiveness of spending and mismanagement in HRDC, he said there was no evidence of malfeasance. He said there was no evidence that any bureaucrat profited by any of the inefficiencies or mistakes that were made.
What is so important about that? That means that our job as a government, as politicians, is to build on the honesty of our bureaucrats. We have to give them the tools to more efficiently manage.
I believe one of them is to modernize the privacy legislation and the access to information legislation. I have to say in the context of a point of privilege that the Speaker ruled on today that there were problems that led to the government making an incorrect decision with respect to its opportunity to support reforms to the access to information bill that was proposed in my Private Members' Bill C-206.
I do not fault the government. I do fault messages that were received by the government, but that is another story. I do not dispute the Speaker's ruling, but I do stress it is important to all of us here to reform this kind of legislation so that the bureaucrats in HRDC and every other government department can operate with a better degree of transparency. When you have transparency, you have accountability. This is where we are headed with respect to HRDC and with respect to every government department.
You will recall that the member for Mississauga West, again a member on this side, chaired a committee in 1995 on grants and contributions. What she and the members who supported her did was they came out with a number of recommendations on how to improve the way government handled grants and contributions.
It was an excellent report and the government did act on it. The problem in a modern society and a huge government department spending billions of dollars is that we have to modernize. The member for Mississauga West in the report called on the government to implement better controls, to be more targeted in what organizations should receive money.
One of the most interesting suggestions in that particular report was that governments should always choose contributions rather than grants because the system of contributions requires accountability and performance review whereas grants tend to go out with no accountability whatsoever.
I must tell you that some departments reacted very strongly to the report, at least as far as I can gather. Industry Canada and foreign affairs both implemented a number of reforms of the way they put out grants and contributions. I know this because I have all kinds of representations from organizations that were suddenly being asked, in 1995-1996, to give better explanations and better accounting of how they were going to use the money. Many of these organizations ceased to get support from both Industry Canada and Foreign Affairs because they could not live up to this.
We made progress at that time. That progress came from the backbench. We really have to take the next step. I look to the other side to set aside partisan politics and work together on improving the way our bureaucracy operates, always allowing for the fact of wanting to do a good job, wanting to do the best job.
We should harness the Internet. We should put as much government online as possible so that when that middle level manager in any government department is considering a contract, considering making a contribution or executing some kind of program involving grants and contributions, we can see en route who it is that is receiving the money, what they are proposing, how the government is checking that it is actually delivering the services that it proposes.
That can all go on the Internet. This is crucial because this is what will make Canada more efficient than any other country in the world. In fact there is a race between Canada and the United States to implement this kind of bureaucratic efficiency because not only does it make more efficient government but it is a model for corporations. To come back to the original point, that is why, with some urgency, government has to review and modernize the Access to Information Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act.
I take a great deal of satisfaction in realizing and learning that even though my private member's bill to reform the Access to Information Act failed, the government has since undertaken a major co-operative endeavour between the justice department and treasury board to examine the whole issue of how to make government more open. I believe the government is going to report in the fall of next year.
I would prefer an open process that would have resulted had my private member's bill gone through and it had gone through committee stage debate. Nevertheless, this is a clear indication that this government is very much on the right track.
Finally, we must bear in mind that all government is like a huge vessel. I hate to think of it, but it is like the Titanic . We do not want it to hit an iceberg. We want it to continue to sail. If we are going to make sure that the ship of states sails on successfully, we have to make sure that it has the modern tools of transparency and accountability in order to achieve that target.
Madam Speaker, on this side of the House I can assure you that we already have the heart.