Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in the House and today is no exception. We are talking about the reinstatement of legislation that resulted from the prorogation of the House back in November. It is interesting to go back to where the ball went into motion to where we are today.
The House was scheduled to take its adjournment for one week on November 8 prior to Remembrance Day and we were scheduled to return on November 18. The weekend after Remembrance Day was the Liberal leadership convention. Unlike the rest of us who occasionally take a weekend to elect a new leader then come back to work the following Monday, the new administration took a little over two months to return.
The previous House leader had indicated that the House would come back on January 12. Almost immediately the new leader of the Liberal Party said that the Liberals would not be ready at that time because there was a throne speech to write and work had to begin on a budget, et cetera. It was not December 12 nor was it January 12 when we came back. The House came back on February 2 to hear the Speech from the Throne.
The idea that this is a new government and that it is putting a new stamp on everything is difficult to reconcile. We are faced with, with closure today for the 80th something time, the reintroduction of legislation that technically died on the Order Paper, but is being revived and brought back without any changes. That is the problem the government has in its early going. It is trying to portray itself as something new and something different, but it keeps getting caught up in the same old situation.
One thing the new Prime Minister has talked about is the democratic deficit and his concern about it. He claims to want to engage parliamentarians in that. Not only do we see closure being introduced here today to get these bills through, we also saw an example outside the House at two o'clock this afternoon. Rather than come into the House and explain to elected members of Parliament how the government would respond to the serious report of the Auditor General, which was made public earlier today, the Prime Minister chose to hold an impromptu scrum just outside the doors and deal with the media. He then came in here later to respond to questions from the acting leader of the official opposition and all opposition parties. We do not see very much new or exciting in all of this.
The member for Toronto--Danforth spoke earlier this afternoon. He looked in our direction and said that we should be concerned about this because there were some bills on the list of 28, which were before us in the reinstatement motion, that the New Democratic Party would want. I agree, there are some. However, as my colleague for Windsor--St. Clair said very eloquently yesterday, we are not prepared to abdicate our responsibility and give a blank cheque to the government to introduce the whole list.
I would have thought that a government that was interested in addressing the democratic deficit might have sat down with the House leaders to talk about which specific bills they might want addressed and those the government might want addressed. I agree with the tenor of other speakers who have preceded me in the debate. A lot of work has gone into legislation in terms of standing committees and the like. That would have been one way to address the matter of democratic deficit rather than have the government House leader say that this would be way it would be handled, and introduce the 28 bills. We are not sure, but some of bills have already been introduced and many others perhaps will not be introduced. We simply do not know. We are being asked to sign a blank cheque.
As a look at the 28 bills, the prize in all this undoubtedly is Bill C-49, the electoral boundaries bill, that would give the government the ability to move up the election after April 1.
As the House knows, under the rules when redistribution takes place there has to be a full year after the redistribution process is completed before a general election can be held. That would have put the election not earlier than the middle of August of this year. However, the Chief Electoral Officer wrote to the government last summer and said that if there were quick agreement on this by all parties and we put a bill through the legislature, his office could ensure that the country would be ready for a general election after April 1.
That legislation did not get through. It got through the House of Commons and it went to the Senate where it was one of about 18 bills that was left in the Senate. That was the largest number of bills not dealt with by the Senate since 1867, since the very first Senate was appointed.
I do not know whether that was a failure of the then House leader in the Senate or whether the senators simply were tired. Maybe the Liberal senators wanted to go to the convention in Toronto and did not want to come back to deal with them. Who knows. It is one of the great mysteries of the unelected Senate. That is why this party favours a thorough house cleaning in the way we deal with that. We need to abolish the unelected Senate and find a much better way to elect senators or have proportional representation. If we want to talk about the democratic deficit and the appointed Senate, that is not a very good beginning.
That is the situation. We have difficulty with the government wanting to portray itself as being brand new, but seemingly unable to escape its past. The Liberals want to portray themselves as a government seeking a first mandate when really I think Canadians see them as a government about to embark on wanting a fourth mandate, from their first election back in 1993.
Several people ahead of me have spoken about the situation in rural Canada. I want to speak for a few moments about that as well. In the throne speech, which was delivered on Monday of last week, it stated:
The Government is dedicated to Canada’s farm economy and to taking the steps necessary to safeguard access to international markets and to ensure that farmers are not left to bear alone the consequences of circumstances beyond their control.
On Friday Canadians heard the horrific report about realized net farm income in 2003 and that it was a negative amount of money, $13 million, the lowest ever recorded since the country began keeping records back in the 1920s, and certainly lower than what we saw during the depression. If we subtracted what federal, provincial and territorial governments have put into assisting farmers over the last year, the negative is almost $5 billion. It is absolutely incredible.
As the president of the National Farmers Union, Stewart Wells, said, “This is the most spectacular and damaging market failure in the history of Canadian agriculture”. A large part of that was caused by the one cow that was affected in Alberta on May 20. Just when we thought we would get out of that and the U.S. market would reopen to live cattle, probably about this time, then we had the Christmas eve disaster where the cow in Washington State was identified. Quickly thereafter we found out that it had a Canadian connection to it.
BSE is a large part of it but not all of it. We have had drought. We have had low commodity prices. These are the sorts of things that people in my area want to talk about. They would much rather be talking about what the government is going to do and how it will go forward to address the issue.
As the member for Red Deer said very well a few moments ago, this is a crisis of incredible proportions and most people are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. There is a real fear that if this drags on much longer, many of the small producers, cow-calf operators, backgrounders and the like, will not be able to continue to exist with the prices falling to the levels that they have sunk to.
As the NFU notes, the government over the last couple of decades has taken away hog marketing agencies. In the 1990s it cut the Crow benefit, which was extremely important. Farmers in western Canada recognize the loss of that more with every passing day.
The government has ended the two price wheat system, deregulated grain handling and transportation, presided over the destruction of many co-operatives and tied its own hands with trade and investment agreements. At the same time, the transnational corporations have merged to the point where only a handful are left controlling each and every link in the agrifood chain.
These corporate and government policies collectively have pushed family farms and farmers to the edge of the cliff. It appears, by the numbers we saw last week, that in 2003 many of the farmers simply fell over that cliff. In fact, the numbers are so bad that the government, which normally does a two year forecast, its Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food is not able or prepared to come out with numbers now. Of course up until May 20, although we had the drought and low grain prices, we did not have BSE. I think the last half of 2003 would have been very bad compared to the first half, so we can imagine as we go forward into a new calendar year how much worse it is going to be.
As we heard last week in the so-called take note debate on BSE, I do not think anyone realistically expects our borders to reopen until after the November presidential election in the United States.
As a young farmer from the Mossbank area told me on the phone last night, as difficult as this was for him to say, he felt that the time had come for us to consider whether we should be closing our borders to American cattle coming north on the eastern seaboard if they are not prepared to take our animals. He tells me that the boxed beef, which has been allowed since the end of August of last year, has slowed to a trickle as the Americans deal with their exporting countries that have closed their borders as a result of the Washington State case.
We, the government, all of us, have an obligation to do one of two things. Either we have to subsidize or support our farmers, although they are not looking for subsidies except to continue to keep their operations alive, or we need to perhaps close the border to the American industry and start shipping cattle from western Canada into Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. We could move cattle and begin to firm up some prices in the process.
It is good that the Prime Minister spoke with the president about the BSE issue, and about softwood, but it is extremely important that we deal with the BSE issue because farmers are on the edge in terms of knowing where to go.
The big news today of course is the report of the Auditor General. I want to read into the record something that was said in 1993:
Nine years of Conservative government have brought our political process into disrepute. A Liberal government will restore public trust and confidence in government.
That quote is from “Creating Opportunity: The Liberal Plan for Canada”. It goes on to state:
If government is to play a positive role in society, as it must, honesty and integrity in our political institutions must be restored.
A Liberal government will take a series of initiatives to restore confidence in the institutions of government. Open government will be the watchword of the Liberal program.
We have a long way to go to live up to those lofty expectations. The findings from the Auditor General, findings that have been available, by the way, to the government since November, even though they were just made public today, indicate that the Liberals hid the objectives of the sponsorship program from Parliament. The Auditor General was unable to find answers to key questions. The report goes on and on.
Those are the kinds of things that Canadians want Parliament to deal with. They do not necessarily want to go back and grapple with many of the bills from the past.
As I look at what the government is doing and how it is going about doing it, it seems to me that it is very much like the dog that caught the car, and now that he caught it he is not sure what to do with it. It is similar to Robert Redford in The Candidate : What do I do now? I think this is the question and these are the problems that the government will have as we head into March and, undoubtedly, the election in April, thanks to the proposed changes that will come back as a result of the reinstatement of bills.