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House of Commons Hansard #117 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was federal.

Topics

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6:10 p.m.

Liberal

Bryon Wilfert Liberal Oak Ridges, ON

Madam Speaker, it again goes back to the fact that on the infrastructure programs on a per capita basis moneys are allotted to the provinces based on population. Again we have situations where they are municipally driven. The Kicking Horse Pass is a good example, with $62.5 million to improve the bridge there.

The fact is that moneys are invested. They are invested in communities across the country because they are municipally driven. Again, the difficulty I have with the Alliance motion is the fact that on faith it makes assumptions about the provinces. What about the issue of where the provinces are in terms of their gas revenues? We do not see any issue there with regard to moneys being matched. We do not see anything in terms of that because what has happened is that in some cases the provinces, and I will only use Ontario because that is the one I know, have cut back. It has cut back the municipalities. It has continually cut back.

If it were not for the federal government there would be no infrastructure program. If it were not for the government we would not have the kinds of projects across the country that have benefited British Columbia. That is what is important. Without the program, without the vision, which sat dormant, as I said, for nine years under the Conservative government, we would be in worse shape today than ever, and it is because of the decision of the Prime Minister that we went ahead. I keep hearing about the member for LaSalle—Émard. The fact is that the member for LaSalle—Émard and the current Minister of Finance have continued to support this national infrastructure program and that is where--

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6:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

There is no time left, but I will permit the hon. member a minute to give a response.

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6:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

John M. Cummins Canadian Alliance Delta—South Richmond, BC

Madam Speaker, the issue being debated here is the amount of money the government is spending on roads. The fact of the matter is, as I stated before, that 99% of federal transfers to provinces for road and highway development was spent east of Ontario. Nothing is coming west. That is the issue here. There are huge moneys taken out of British Columbia every year on federal excise taxes on gas. There are huge moneys taken out of British Columbia every year on taxes on the harbour, on Vancouver Port, on Surrey Fraser docks and on the federal airport. These are federally mandated facilities. Huge revenues accrue to the federal government for those facilities and virtually nothing comes back in infrastructure support. That is simply wrong.

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6:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Rajotte Canadian Alliance Edmonton Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure today to speak to the motion introduced by the Canadian Alliance. At the outset I do want to compliment my colleague, the member for Port Moody—Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam, for his work on this issue. He has certainly been a leader in this area. That is why we in the caucus affectionately call him “James the Greater”.

Interestingly, I am also partly responsible for this file as I am the industry critic. The government has actually deemed it necessary to place infrastructure within the industry portfolio, where it is administered by the regional development agencies, frankly something I as the industry critic question since it is once removed from Transport Canada, the decision making body where it should be. Second, these agencies do not have a good record in terms of fiscal accountability and transparency and frankly have a history of wasting taxpayers' money, but that is another debate for another day.

The Canadian Alliance does believe that government has a role to play in funding Canada's infrastructure. We have always believed that. We remain steadfast to that principle. We do, however, believe that responsibility for infrastructure lies primarily with the provinces and the municipalities, those levels of government that are closer to the people and closer to the decisions on infrastructure that have to be made.

The Canadian Alliance would therefore reduce federal gasoline taxes conditional on an agreement with the provinces that they would use this tax room to fund infrastructure in provincial and municipal jurisdictions. We would also continue and expand upon investments in border infrastructure and other areas of primary federal responsibility, for instance in the Detroit-Windsor area where a lot of needs for infrastructure need to be addressed.

I want to present some facts here. Each year Ottawa collects approximately $4.5 billion in gasoline taxes, yet the research that we and other agencies such as the Canadian Automobile Association and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have done shows that only 5% or less than 5% of the total excise tax on gasoline is returned to Canadians in the form of federal highway funding. This is simply unacceptable. It is a practice that the government must stop if it is going to address infrastructure needs.

In comparison, and this addresses some of the comments made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, just over 75% of the money provincial governments collect from fuel taxes is spent on roads. For example, the Province of Nova Scotia collects approximately $215 million annually from fuel taxes and its annual budget for highways is $180 million, 83% of their fuel tax budget. The federal government collects approximately $130 million in road fuel taxes a year in Nova Scotia, but under the current funding arrangement only 4% of that amount is reinvested in Nova Scotia.

We are currently struggling with the whole issue of tourism in Canada, particularly with the SARS crisis. The better part of tourism and trade takes place via roads. Roughly 90% of all trips between Canada and the U.S. are made by car.

Trade is also an issue. Approximately 65% of Canada's trade with the U.S. relies on trucking, particularly in areas such as Windsor and Detroit. Almost every province, in their submissions to the recent Canada Transportation Act review, cited the importance of border crossings as an integral part of a seamless transportation system and an important part of increasing trade and productivity.

The decline of highway capital expenditure in Canada has been identified as contributing to the Canadian productivity slowdown and the differential between our productivity levels and the productivity levels in the United States. Several western cities have experienced or are experiencing booms in industry and population. Road, sewer and water infrastructure are essential in both stabilizing and sustaining such growth. I can comment on my own riding. In the southern and western parts of the riding, phenomenal growth is occurring. Obviously that puts more demands on the basic infrastructure needs.

I must say that I was quite heartened by the example set by the member for LaSalle—Émard and I was hoping for the Liberal response today to follow it, because he has done one of his flip-flops. Now he has come around and endorsed the Canadian Alliance position. I want to quote from his recent speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. He said:

We simply must change the way cities receive at least some of their funding. If access to a portion of the gasoline tax ends up being the preferred mechanism of municipal leaders, the federal government will be at the table with the provinces offering to vacate tax room.

It sounds rather familiar, does it not? It sounds like the former minister of finance has flip-flopped again and endorsed another Alliance position.

The former finance minister is not alone in his support of the Canadian Alliance. The member for Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia stated in the House on December 18, 1994:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to urge the government to give serious consideration to increasing support to our national highway system. Currently of the $5 billion collected as federal fuel tax, only about 10% of the revenue is invested in the Canadian highway system. This is simply not enough.

The Canadian Alliance has consistently supported a policy of investment in infrastructure. We believe in the concept of providing tax room to the provinces in order to upgrade urban infrastructure and provincial highways.

Infrastructure spending was a major plank of the Liberals' original red book campaign in 1993 in which they pledged to create jobs with the $2 billion infrastructure fund. It was and continues to be an invasion of provincial jurisdiction using the federal spending power.

If I can comment on my own province, it was used, frankly, to upgrade luxury boxes at hockey arenas instead of addressing the basic road and sewer needs that Alberta and other provinces desperately needed.

An agreement with the provinces to free up tax room would enable us to reduce our reliance on federal bureaucrats to deliver the current infrastructure program. The funds would instead be directly allocated to the provinces.

I hope all members of the House recognize that the current system is not working, that the percentage of the amount of the fuel tax collected currently by the federal government is far too low. It is unacceptable and needs to be changed and addressed.

Second, this viable alternative put forward by the Canadian Alliance in our motion today by the member from Port Moody is also endorsed by the member for LaSalle—Émard. I have yet to hear a member from the government side explain how the policy position put forward by the former finance minister differs from the Canadian Alliance motion put forward today. In fact they cannot do so.

The current finance minister, in a leadership debate on Saturday, had a very strong policy disagreement with the former finance minister. The former finance minister has changed his position and has now agreed with our position. When he votes on this issue I assume he will be supporting the motion if he follows through on the policy position he has put forward.

I wonder how the other Liberal members will vote based on the fact that a vast majority of them actually support the member.

I hope all members of the House will address the infrastructure needs of the municipalities and communities across Canada, which seek stable infrastructure funding so they can address their needs, by endorsing the motion put forward by the Canadian Alliance today.

SupplyGovernment Orders

6:20 p.m.

Oak Ridges Ontario

Liberal

Bryon Wilfert LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance

Madam Speaker, the hon. member wants to hear a Liberal on this side address that issue so I will address it head on.

I will quote from the speech by the former minister of finance at the FCM. I want the member to tell me how this is the same as the Canadian Alliance. He said:

Many cities have suggested that having access to a portion of the revenues generated by the gas tax would be of significant help in making their budgets more reliable and predictable.

If access to a portion of the gas tax ends up being the preferred mechanism of municipal leaders, the federal government will be at the table with the provinces offering to vacate gas tax room, provided that:

--which is what they are leaving out--

--the provinces create a way for municipal governments to reap the resulting revenue; and the provinces agree that those funds will be truly incremental to cities; and the full amount that we vacate from the gas tax flows to cities in a way that lets them model that revenue stream five years or ten years down the road.

Clearly, that is not what is in the Canadian Alliance position.

The difficulty I have with the Canadian Alliance members' position is that not only have they just come to the realization that there are infrastructure needs in Canada, but I am surprised to hear that they think the member for LaSalle—Émard, who has had nothing to do with this debate, endorses their position.

Let us look at another fallacy. The hon. member across the way suggests that Alberta is not getting its fair share. In this current program, $508 million will go into infrastructure programs across the province of Alberta, ranging from roads, sewers, tourism, recreation facilities, et cetera. These are all municipally generated. They are not imposed by the Government of Canada, Heaven forbid. It is the cities and the member's own city.

I might point out his own situation. The member may have forgotten this, but under the strategic infrastructure program, the ring roads in both Calgary and Edmonton will be getting $150 million. Who asked for those ring roads? It was not the federal government. The member should check with the mayors in Edmonton and in Calgary. The fact is this is what is being proposed. We thought it would be good, the Alberta government thought it would be good and we proposed it.

Let us get rid of the myth that we embrace the notion where we will just turn over a portion of the federal gas tax to the provinces and they will be really good and do the right thing by the cities. If they had done the right thing by the cities in the first place, we would not have needed a national infrastructure program because they would have taken care of the needs in their own provinces as under the Constitution.

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6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Rajotte Canadian Alliance Edmonton Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, I am so surprised by those questions and comments from such an intelligent member on the other side of the House that I am not sure where to start, but I will try.

First, with respect to the member for LaSalle—Émard, the fact is that he endorses this policy initiative proposed by Canadian Alliance. At the end of the quote that the former minister of finance put forward are conditions where he can walk away from his policy position later and say that he did not get complete agreement with the provinces on these 10 items of detail, therefore it will not work. That is what it is. However the quote reads:

If access to a portion of the gasoline tax ends up being the preferred mechanism of municipal leaders, the federal government will be at the table with the province offering to vacate tax room...

That is substantially the same as the motion put forward by the Canadian Alliance today.

The basic principle is the following. If we want to fund infrastructure across Canada, we can do it in a couple of ways. We can do it with the government coming along every year and deciding it will spend $100 million this year, $2 billion next year and zero the year after. It will look at all the projects and decide politically which ones are the best, but it will decide about the first infrastructure. There may be some real needs with Anthony Henday Drive in Edmonton, but the government actually thinks money is needed for luxury sky boxes at the Skyreach Centre because that is a determination it makes politically, which is an absolutely wrong decision. That is one way we can do this, which is a completely unacceptable way.

The second way, which is a better way, is for the federal government, which has a taxing power, to provide a stable source of revenue for the provinces and municipalities so that they can address their infrastructure needs which they know best.

The people of Edmonton and the surrounding communities know their infrastructures best, whether it is 23rd Avenue or Anthony Henday Drive, better than the federal government any day of the week, and those are the ones who deserve a stable source of funding, which is what this motion is trying to achieve.

SupplyGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

If the House will indulge the Chair, may I recommend, because there is only three minutes left for debate, that we take two questions for the hon. member. Is there agreement?

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6:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

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6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Liberal Yukon, YT

Madam Speaker, I would just like the member, with whom I debate all the time in the industry committee, to tell me that he believes it is better to transfer the money to the province of Quebec for the municipalities than for us to give it directly in the agreements we have now.

In the previous decade, time and time again the Government of Quebec downloaded items on to the municipalities so that their water, sewer and roads fell below standards. It stopped that and actually asked the municipalities to put up money instead of getting grants from the province. In 2000 it stopped taking money from the municipalities but it stopped paying its grants in lieu on utilities of about $400 million. So it was $386 million over three years and then $400 million thereafter.

If this is the type of treatment the municipalities would get from the province, why would we transfer the money to the province then to the municipality and not directly to the municipalities through the infrastructure program, which is what we are doing right now?

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6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Rajotte Canadian Alliance Edmonton Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, that is a very good question because it highlights a policy difference between this party and the centralist Liberals who think Ottawa knows best on everything.

The facts have shown that the provinces put a higher proportion of their fuel taxes into infrastructure than the federal government has done over the last umpteen years.

I will stand with any province in this country, whether it is Quebec, Alberta, B.C. or Ontario, that they know the infrastructure needs of their own province, their own communities and their own municipalities better than any federal government that has ever existed in the history of this country. That is my position.

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6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Grant McNally Canadian Alliance Dewdney—Alouette, BC

Madam Speaker, I just want to make a brief comment and ask my colleague to comment on it.

Does he not agree with me that the Liberals are just sucking dollars out of Canadians' pockets through this gas tax and then not reinvesting it into the infrastructure?

In my communities of Maple Ridge, Mission, Agassiz and Harrison Hot Spring there is a great need for those infrastructure dollars to remain with the province so there can be long term stable funding for infrastructure programs.

Does the hon. member not agree with me that this government just uses these gas taxes to line its coffers and dole out more cash to its political pals in order to buy votes?

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6:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Rajotte Canadian Alliance Edmonton Southwest, AB

Madam Speaker, my colleague is absolutely right. When we look at it, the federal excise tax raises about $4.7 billion and the government spends about $100 million or so in infrastructure. If we look at the percentage, 2.5%, according to the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, of the amount that the federal government collects in gasoline taxes was invested into roads. If we add in the GST, it is 1.7%. That is completely unacceptable and a practice that has to be stopped.

The provinces, municipalities and communities need stable funding through a motion. I implore members on all sides of the House to adopt the Canadian Alliance motion and provide those communities with the funding that they need.

SupplyGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

It being 6:30 p.m., it is my duty to interrupt the proceedings and put forthwith all questions necessary to dispose of the business of supply now before the House.

The question is on the main motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

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6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

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6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

No.

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6:30 p.m.

The Speaker

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

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6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

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6:30 p.m.

The Speaker

All those opposed will please say nay.

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6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

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6:30 p.m.

The Speaker

In my opinion the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen:

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6:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

Pursuant to order made on Wednesday, June 11, the recorded division stands deferred until 8 p.m.

Main Estimates 2003-04Government Orders

June 12th, 2003 / 6:30 p.m.

Westmount—Ville-Marie Québec

Liberal

Lucienne Robillard LiberalPresident of the Treasury Board

moved:

That Vote 25, in the amount of $266,201,000, under TRANSPORT—Department--Payments to VIA Rail Canada Inc., in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004, less the amount voted in Interim Supply, be restored.

Main Estimates 2003-04Government Orders

6:30 p.m.

Hull—Aylmer Québec

Liberal

Marcel Proulx LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to stand in this House today to speak to VIA Rail's funding requirements for the next fiscal year. As colleagues know, the Standing Committee on Transport took the decision to reduce VIA Rail's funding request by $9 million based on concerns that VIA Rail could not, in the committee's view, explain why it needed more money than last year.

As well, as many of our colleagues are aware, the Minister of Transport came before the Standing Committee on Transport this past Monday afternoon to discuss the impact of the proposed reductions and to address the concerns of the committee members. There was much in that speech that I would like to reiterate tonight, as I think it is important that all our colleagues have the benefit of that information.

In addition, the Minister of Transport recently tabled in the House of Commons two reports that speak to VIA's operating performance and financial requirements for the next five years. I refer specifically to VIA Rail's annual report for 2002 and the summary of VIA Rail's corporate plan for 2003-07.

VIA's corporate plan summary and its annual report contains information that addresses the standing committee's concerns and demonstrates that VIA is accountable to Canadian taxpayers.

Moving people and goods efficiently, safely, securely and in an environmentally respectful way is vital to our economy. As Canada's national passenger rail service, VIA Rail has an important role to play providing safe, high quality, efficient passenger service to Canadians. Moving people out of their cars and onto trains is one solution to the problem of congestion which we see each and every day in and around our cities and on our major highways. Not only is congestion a personal frustration but it also slows down our business.

Passenger rail also gives Canadians a convenient and economical choice—whether travelling for business or pleasure.

And, for many Canadians in northern and remote parts of the country, rail provides an invaluable lifeline, especially where no other transportation options are available.

The Government of Canada is dedicated to passenger rail and its revitalization—not only as a viable transportation option that is central to our identity as Canadians, but also as one that makes good economic and environmental sense.

A strong passenger rail system also contributes to building stronger communities. Passenger rail provides a vital link for the movement of people, encouraging business development and growth. VIA Rail connects some 450 communities with services that run across the country.

The Standing Committee on Transport was concerned that VIA could not explain why it needed more funding for the current year than for last year. The Main Estimates identify $266.2 million for 2003-04, compared to $255.7 million for 2002-03. The government provides funding for VIA Rail in the form of an operating subsidy and a capital budget.

VIA's operating subsidy has been fixed since 2000 at $171 million per year and, as such, VIA cannot request more than $171 million for its operational requirements. Further, VIA cannot transfer funding from its capital budget to cover operating requirements without government approval.

I will speak more about VIA's capital budget in a few moments. Before doing so, I think it is important for us to review VIA's operating performance over the last year and compare this performance to a decade ago before VIA underwent major rationalization.

More Canadians are using the train today than ever before. In 2002, VIA Rail carried 116,000 more passengers than in 2001 and over half a million more passengers than in 1990. As a result of this growth and improved yields per customer, VIA's passenger revenues grew by $17 million to reach $270 million in 2002. In fact, revenues have grown steadily over the past decade enabling VIA to steadily improve the cost-effectiveness of its services.

VIA's total operating funding requirement is now 63% lower than in 1990. It was as a result of this demonstrated growth and improved cost effectiveness that government decided in 2000 to fix VIA Rail's operating subsidy at $171 million per year for 10 years compared to $410 million in 1990.

VIA's cost recovery ratio now stands at 64.5% for the entire network, including the regional and remote services. This is an increase of 123% since 1990. Similarly, government funding per passenger mile has been reduced from 45.6¢ in 1990 to 15.8¢ in 2002.

In January 1998 the Standing Committee on Transport reviewed passenger rail service in Canada. At that time, the committee carried out public consultations and made 11 recommendations in its report, “The Renaissance of Passenger Rail in Canada”, in June 1998. The committee's report stated unanimously that the status quo was not acceptable.

The report concluded that government support, particularly in explicit long term policy commitment, was required to provide for a sustainable system of passenger rail in Canada.

The committee's first recommendation stated, and I quote:

That the government define and commit to long-term support, not less than 10 years, for passenger rail objectives in Canada, including the route network, level of service and long-term stable funding to allow stakeholders to recapitalize rolling stock and infrastructure and enhance passenger rail services.

Further, the committee's fourth recommendation stated:

That the government commit to stable funding for passenger rail in the amount of $170 million annually.

The government tabled its response in October 1998, broadly agreeing with the report's findings. The government committed to revitalize passenger rail operations in Canada by providing long term financial support for passenger rail, protecting truly remote passenger rail services and better defining access arrangements for passenger rail in the absence of an agreement with rail infrastructure owners.

To this end, in addition to stabilizing VIA's annual operating subsidy at $171 million, as recommended by the committee, the government announced in April 2000 that it would provide VIA with an additional $401.9 million in capital funding over the next five years to allow the company to address urgent capital requirements related to rolling stock, infrastructure, health and safety, and to provide for modest growth in services.

These funds are being invested in new locomotives, in new Renaissance cars for additional capacity, in the installation of waste retention tanks on existing fleet, in track upgrades and in the refurbishment of passenger stations. The government and VIA are continuing to implement this initiative.

VIA has already made improvements as a result of this funding. The company began operating 21 new high-speed locomotives in December 2001. It purchased 139 new passenger cars some of which are already in operation on the corridor. It has completed the refurbishment of several stations across the country, including Prince George, Thompson, Kitchener, Brantford, Toronto, Oshawa, and so on and new stations in London and west Ottawa.

The corridor fleet has been fitted with waste retention systems. And VIA has completely refurbished the existing Rail Diesel Cars that are used on the regional and remote services on Vancouver Island and in northern Ontario.

I understand that I am quickly running out of time. However, I would like to say that for 2003, VIA has also planned track infrastructure improvements of $7.6 million.

This provides a brief outline of the impact of a reduction in the amount VIA is asking for.

As members of the House will see from the Corporate Plan, VIA has to plan its expenditures over rolling periods of five years. Like other companies, VIA needs certainty that the requested funds will be available when needed to cover its contractual commitments.

In conclusion, the restoration of the funding requirements requested in the main estimates will help ensure that the investments announced in 2000 will continue to bear fruit for the benefit of Canadians across the country.

Main Estimates 2003-04Government Orders

6:40 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jim Gouk Canadian Alliance Kootenay—Boundary—Okanagan, BC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the request for the restoration of the money that the all party transport committee saw fit to reduce VIA Rail by.

I heard the hon. parliamentary secretary start off tonight by saying that he was proud to rise on this. Frankly, I find that very difficult to believe. The parliamentary secretary is a decent sort of person. I actually feel a great deal of sympathy for him. He is in a very tough role. He has to support the minister even though the minister is totally out to lunch on this issue.

I would like to raise two points tonight, one of them being VIA's funding, just to clarify some of the things that the parliamentary secretary felt he had to say, and also the role of committees in scrutinizing estimates.

First, I just want to ensure that people are clear. What is at stake tonight is $9 million of VIA's budget. There is a misconception out there that somehow this actually affects its entire budget of $266 million. It is $9 million, or 2.9%, of its budget.

A hundred seventy million dollars a year is the annual amount of taxpayer money that the government gives to VIA Rail to operate in Canada. That is in addition to the $401.9 million the government committed to VIA Rail for capital expenditures in the year 2000.

The committee's job is to find out if it is justified in giving the money that the various agencies want.

VIA came before the Standing Committee on Transport and informed it that its ridership is up. The parliamentary secretary himself said that. VIA had more riders last year than it ever had before. How did that work out in its bottom line? Exactly like the parliamentary secretary said. Its revenues were up as well. As a result, its operating deficit was $154 million.

As we have already both agreed, VIA's subsidy for operating, which cannot be moved over into the capital expenditures, was $170 million which meant it had $16 million left over. Taxpayer money was given to VIA to operate at $170 million, but it only needed $154 million of that money. What did it do with the money? Did it return it? Did it actually save the taxpayer a small amount of money and give that money back? No, it did not. Somehow it managed to squish that over, play with the figures, fudge on it a bit, called it corporate profit that it was reinvesting, even though it lost $154 million, and blew that money on some other part of its operation.

That is one of the things the committee looked at when VIA came before it to explain why it was asking for this money.

What VIA is actually looking for is not only to get the $170 million again, which is $16 million more than it needed last year, but it wants another $10.5 million on top of that. That is absolutely unacceptable. VIA did not justify the increased funds and, frankly, neither did the minister.

What did VIA do? There was one project I know it undertook last year. Perhaps that is where a chunk of this money went.

VIA Rail went out and hired a PR firm by the name of Hill and Knowlton. It sent this PR firm out to British Columbia to lobby communities to request the minister to have VIA Rail expand its service to operate on what is known as the southern route from Calgary to Vancouver. What is interesting is there already is a train that operates on that, run by the private sector, formerly run by VIA Rail. This private sector company bought it from VIA Rail.

Therefore VIA Rail wants to have these communities, which it paid this company to go out and lobby, say that they wanted VIA to come back and operate on the same track a private sector company operated, the private company that purchased the business from VIA Rail in the first place. To be kind, that is pretty tacky. Perhaps that is where a bit of the money has gone.

The private rail company that we are talking about in British Columbia is called the Rocky Mountaineer. The minister, when he came before the committee, said that in the past VIA Rail did not compete with the Rocky Mountaineer because the Rocky Mountaineer was a tourism service and VIA Rail was a passenger service. Rocky carries tourists and VIA carries passengers who have to go from point to point.

While the minister was discoursing on a separate part of some of the conversation with members at committee, he said that VIA's ridership might be down in this coming year. He explained why. He said because of SARS and other problems there were less tourists coming to Canada, and of course less tourists meant less riders on VIA Rail.

I naturally seized on this because it kind of conflicted with what he had said in the past. I asked him if he was saying then that passengers who VIA Rail primarily carried were tourists. I said that I had always maintained that.

My position is who would ride on the train outside of the corridor? Outside of commuter rail, who will ride any distance on the rail simply to get from point A to point B? It is expensive, it takes a long time and a lot of it is carried on at night. For example, it costs more to go from Edmonton to Vancouver on the highly subsidized VIA Rail than it does the highly taxed airline. People can fly cheaper than if they take VIA Rail. VIA Rail takes 16 times as long, and contrary to what a lot of people think, it is not environmentally friendly. Commuter rail is, where there is high density movement of traffic. However to go from Edmonton to Vancouver by rail is less fuel efficient than flying on an airplane.

The minister acknowledged, yes, that very few people would actually get on the train to go any distance to get from point A to point B. He said that they did it for the rail experience. That begs this question. Why then do Canadian taxpayers have to subsidize a tourism experience?

Let us look in terms of the actual value of what VIA Rail provides. The minister said that even if VIA Rail went in the southern route, it would not be competition with the Rocky Mountaineer because Rocky Mountaineer was a high end tourist attraction. It provided a wonderful, fancy, high end product while VIA Rail provided a more straightforward service. Therefore it was completely different, appealing to a different set of clients and therefore not in competition.

VIA Rail from Vancouver to Edmonton goes 24 hours without stopping. An upper berth, the cheapest thing someone can get, costs $619.53. The Rocky Mountaineer is $729.00 but VIA Rail is so heavily subsidized. In fact I suggested to the minister that if Rocky Mountaineer got VIA Rail's subsidy, for the amount of passengers the Rocky Mountaineer carried, it could pay every passenger $1,700 to ride on its rail system.

I will move on rather quickly because there is a lot that needs to be said tonight.

The minister has moved to overturn the committee's recommendation to restore the $9 million.

Committees are charged with the responsibility of reviewing the spending requests of various government departments and agencies. What the minister is saying is that review is a waste of time. Unless the committee rubber stamps whatever the government wants, the government will simply overrule those recommendations.

First, it means the whole committee process is a waste of time and money. Second, it means there is no real scrutiny of the spending of taxpayer money. In fact the Liberal government in the past quite clearly suggested better scrutiny by MPs might have prevented the billion dollar overrun of the firearms registry.

The transport committee was simply doing its job. The minister's response has been essentially that he does not want us to do our jobs; he wants us to do what he tells us. The transport committee did not ignore its responsibility when it voted to support reducing VIA Rail's increased funding request. We stood up for those who elected us to come here and represent them. I hope other members of the House will not ignore their responsibilities and those who elected them when they vote on the restoration of funds tonight.

A vote against this motion is a vote in support of the committee review of estimates, and a vote of support for Canadians who look to us to ensure that all expenditures are necessary and appropriate. The additional $9 million for VIA Rail does not meet that test.

This is a chance for Parliament to say that we occasionally do some meaningful work in here and the government will not overturn what Canadians have sent us here to do.

Main Estimates 2003-04Government Orders

6:50 p.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure for me to speak to this aspect of supply. It has been all the more of a pleasure because in order to prepare my comments for this evening, I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the transport file.

Our usual transport critic is the member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, but he is busy tonight. He is attending a committee meeting and asked me to replace him here. I myself come from the Quebec City and Saguenay region; as such I can attest to how important it is for people who live in the regions, particularly in the Gaspé, the Lower St. Lawrence and also in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, to have efficient and viable train service.

First, I would like to congratulate VIA Rail management. When I was a member of the transport committee from 1993 to the late 1990s, I remember having listened to VIA Rail representatives in committee on several occasions.

Of course, we cannot forget that VIA Rail is a crown corporation, and that a large part of its budget is provided by taxpayers. As parliamentarians, we have the duty to ensure that the money paid out by the people we represent, through income tax and other taxes, is well spent.

I remember asking questions of the VIA Rail representatives on several occasions in committee. At that time, they were asking us to give them the money they needed to manage the business effectively and to give them some leeway. VIA Rail guaranteed that it would be able to make improvements to the quality of service thanks to more modern equipment that would allow it to be more reliable and punctual. By doing so, if it provided better service, it could attract more clients, which translates into higher revenues.

So, if we give VIA Rail the funding it needs, it will become more and more independent, or should I say less and less dependent on taxpayer dollars. That is the challenge.

I will be mentioning some people who do not necessarily share my political views, people who do not necessarily hold the same political opinions as the hon. members of the Bloc Quebecois. I will begin with someone who is currently the chairman of the board of VIA Rail, Mr. Jean Pelletier. As the lead administrator on the board of VIA Rail, Mr. Pelletier is responsible for seeing that the money entrusted to him by the taxpayers is well spent. He has to make decisions.

I will come back in a moment to the way he was treated by the Liberal members of the Standing Committee on Transportation. We know who Jean Pelletier is. We will not bury our heads in the sand; Jean Pelletier was once the current Prime Minister's chief of staff; he was appointed to his position by the Prime Minister. It is a political reward. I could go further with this, but I should mention the inappropriate way he was treated by the supporters of the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, a leadership candidate and an aspiring Prime Minister. I will come back to this.

I would also like to congratulate Mr. Marc LeFrançois, who is the CEO of VIA Rail. The fact that I mention this has nothing to do with the fact that he originally comes from my riding. He is a son of the Côte-de-Beaupré, from L'Ange-Gardien, in fact. Since 1993, he has been working with his team. I am not trying to say that it was he alone, in his office at VIA Rail headquarters in Montreal, who made these decisions. It was a collegial process, a team effort. Still, I am able, as someone who was Bloc Quebecois transportation critic for eight years, to appreciate what has been done at VIA Rail, and what will be done if the necessary funding is made available.

I do not want to overwhelm you with statistics, Mr. Speaker, but I do want to point out that in the last 12 years, VIA Rail has reduced its annual operating costs by $73.4 million, which is a 15% reduction. The company has increased its annual revenues by $128 million, an increase of 90%. It now makes twice as much revenue per train, at a lower cost. It offers service that has to be called excellent, much better than it ever was.

During this period, the government's annual contribution to operating expenses—I talked earlier about how the more funds were provided by users, the less taxpayers have to contribute—decreased by $256 million, or 65%. The company's revenue-expenditure ratio has improved by 123%.

The purpose of the vote we are discussing tonight is to provide additional funds to VIA Rail so it can fulfill its obligations and, among other things, provide services.

It is unfortunate that the Liberal members of the Standing Committee on Transport tried to draw inexistent conclusions. VIA Rail committed funds to renovating the Renaissance cars acquired from Bombardier Europe. This is necessary in order to respect Transport Canada's requirements with regard to washrooms, suspension and so forth. The cost of these renovations was higher than expected.

The Chair is indicating that I have only two minutes left, so I will try to conclude as fast as I can.

Some Liberal members are upset with Jean Pelletier and also about the rapid rail project along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. I can say that, for those of us in the Quebec City region, this is a priority. We want this high tech rapid rail service to stop in Quebec City. The region has expressed this wish on numerous occasions.

Sales increased by 10% in 2002. Therefore, according to the Liberal members, since VIA is making more money, it needs less from the government. The Minister of Transport came to tell the committee that he is asking cabinet for an additional capital investment for VIA of over $20 million. This money will be used to finish renovations on the 136 Renaissance cars purchased in Europe by Bombardier.

In conclusion, since I am getting the signal that I have only a minute left, I am asking my colleagues to promote a means of passenger transportation that is as economical as it is ecological. It is a shame that I do not have enough time because I could give lengthy illustrations on the ecological and environmental advantages. It is better to have rail transport than to have each individual use autoroutes 20 and 40 to go to Montreal in their individual vehicles given the greenhouse gas emissions.

We have to be consistent with our decision to ratify the Kyoto protocol. We have to make sure that VIA Rail, which has made improvements in its management, gets these supplementary budgets. I am not saying that everything is perfect because the world is not perfect. There is still room for improvement. Nonetheless, I want to make a case for VIA Rail to obtain these supplementary budgets so that it may provide railway cars that are worthy of the 21st century to the 30 million people who live in Canada.