Madam Speaker, it always gives me pleasure to rise in the House and speak to various legislation.
I listened to the hon. parliamentary secretary with some concern about some of the things he was saying. I know he tried to paint as positive a picture as he could about the government's financial record and its ability over the last decade, because the Liberals have to take responsibility for everything that we are seeing today.
One thing I took exception to and which I have seen over the years that I have been here is the way the Liberals forecast numbers. One of my hon. colleagues tried to address the case of the tax rate and the Prime Minister having his company registered overseas, but especially with regard to the surplus. The parliamentary secretary talked a lot about the surplus and how there have been repeated surpluses and how it has been good for the country.
I take exception to the fact that the surplus has never been reported to Canadians in an open and honest way. That is of a great deal of concern for me. When we look at the first 10 months of the fiscal year the surplus was pegged at about $5.5 billion. Then, all of a sudden, as the budget promises started to be put in place over the last few months leading up to the introduction of the budget, that surplus was whittled down to about $1.9 billion. This tells me that the type of government the Liberals try to portray themselves as, as a prudent, fiscal government, is far from that fact.
The fact that the Liberals have not been honest with the surplus numbers really begs the question that there are some huge missed opportunities in this particular budget, especially when it comes to tax relief and investing in certain areas that I think are priorities for Canadians. That is something the parliamentary secretary failed to address.
I have talked specifically about missed opportunities and about trying to trust the government's numbers. This is a huge problem in this place, but also for all Canadians. I can give examples of some of the numbers that we have seen.
I will start with when this Parliament began not too long ago and the Prime Minister was answering questions for the first time in the House. We had asked over and over again in the House how much money had been given to the Prime Minister's shipping companies over the course of his being in this place when it came to government grants from different departments.
The initial number from the government was $137,000 in answer to a question by my colleague from Edmonton Southwest. We had to do a further study on that. We had to put a question on the Order Paper. We had to look in other ways to try to access information because the numbers were not right when they came from the government. We learned later that the number in fact was $161 million.
How can the federal government put out numbers like that? How can we trust any of the numbers the government puts out when it comes to the budget or the surplus? That is an incredible gaping hole when it comes to accountability.
There is another example of mismanagement by the government when it comes to numbers. I think everyone now knows the frustration level is at an all-time high when it comes to the gun registry. We must remember what the government said that program would cost Canadians. The Liberals said it would cost $2 million.
The Auditor General has said that it is actually well over $1 billion in the management of that program. In fact, it is even going higher and by the end of this year it could be up to $1.5 billion and approaching close to $2 billion.
How can Canadians trust the government in any of its numbers when we continue to see this sort of abuse in the way that the Liberals report numbers and the way they manage Canadians' money? Those are two examples.
The final example that we know of is the one that has been in the news and which we are trying to get to the bottom of, if the government decides to allow us to get to the bottom of it because we are all expecting an election. We do not know whether we will find who in fact was responsible when it came to the sponsorship program and the money that was lost there.
The Auditor General again appeared in front of the public accounts committee yesterday saying that there is $250 million for which there is no accountability. Some of it was spent on things that really were very questionable in the way those contracts were awarded, and that $100 million of that money just disappeared when it came to ad companies, especially in Quebec. It is astounding.
On that particular problem we have heard so many different numbers from the government. It was not so long ago that the minister in charge of the public accounts said that in fact the Auditor General was wrong, and that the amount was only about $13 million. Where did he get that number from? He pulled that number right out of the air. He did not know what he was talking about.
That is another example of things we have seen where it makes it difficult for Canadians and especially for us on this side of the House to take the government seriously when it comes to its numbers. What sort of respect do the Liberals have for Canadians when they think they can abuse them in that way, especially with regard to their hard-earned tax dollars?
The hon. member talked so greatly about the budget implementation act and encouraged all members to support it, but how can he expect us to support it? I have news for him. Many of us on this side of the House have difficulty supporting the government in any way, including the implementation of the budget, given the fact that we have seen such abuse when it comes to the way the Liberals deal with taxpayers.
I want to talk specifically about a few areas that were huge missed opportunities in the budget specifically as they pertain to my riding of Edmonton--Strathcona, but also some bigger themes that have been of real concern to Canadians from coast to coast.
As the Conservative Party critic for revenue, I have been very active in trying to push for fairness and equality for taxpayers in this country. I have put forward some policy in my party and some legislation in the House to try to create the office of taxpayer protection.
I have seen countless abuses when it comes to the Canada revenue agency and its dealings with honest, hardworking taxpayers. Many times when it decides to audit people, it usually goes after hardworking Canadians who really pose no risk when it comes to paying their taxes. It is amazing. About 40% of Canadians are maybe trying to avoid paying their taxes and are left out of the mix and CRA does not go after them.
We have been trying to put forward some legislation that will increase accountability when it comes to how the tax department deals with Canadians and how the government spends their money.
I mentioned briefly a missed opportunity in the budget. There is another number that I failed to mention initially. The Liberals talked about the tax package that they introduced of about $100 million that was to be given to Canadians over five years. The parliamentary secretary said that we are in the last year of that package. Again those numbers are not accurate.
If we asked average Canadians if they had seen some of those tax reductions on their paycheques, if they had actually saved more money at the end of the day, most of them would say that they have been paying more. If the government did reduce some level of taxes, we would find increases in many other areas. In the end, Canadians unfortunately are worse off than they were before.
Over the time that the government has been in office, taxes have actually risen. We have seen about 38 variations of taxes. Some would call them user fees. These have been increased over the years that the government has been in power.
One of the ones that comes to mind is the air security tax. That tax has been a direct hit to our travel and transportation industry. The government could have reduced that tax completely. We and others have encouraged the government to reduce that tax, and it has been reduced slightly over the last couple of budgets. When that is factored in, it sure hits Canadians at the end of the day.
We have talked endlessly about fuel taxes. We had a motion in the House last year and the current Prime Minister voted for it. The current Prime Minister endorsed the plan to give a portion of the fuel taxes back to municipalities, back to Canadians. The government collects quite a significant amount of money when it comes to fuel taxes.
In the budget we see marginal investments for infrastructure, yet the Liberals are touting it as a huge plan for the cities. If we look at how much the current government collects in fuel taxes and the fact that the Prime Minister and his government endorsed a plan to give a portion of the fuel taxes back to the municipalities, it is a complete failure. This issue has not been addressed in the budget.
When it comes to infrastructure we know that the government has reduced the municipal GST rebate. The parliamentary secretary spoke about that. Of course the municipalities will say that is a good start and a move in the right direction because it will give a portion of the money that the cities need to invest in their infrastructure.
When I am in Edmonton I see some of the challenges in infrastructure and think of the many more investments that could have been made with the money collected from the fuel taxes. I know that Canadians are really not happy when it comes to the government on that particular front.
There was another area that unfortunately was completely absent in the budget. I hear about it from people in Edmonton—Strathcona, a large group of Canadians. The parliamentary secretary talked about labour participation and the challenges we are going to have when it comes to the aging population. That is a particular group that was completely left out of the budget.
I am distraught when I hear the seniors in my riding who call me on a regular basis to say it is so difficult for them to make ends meet. They are on fixed incomes but all their costs are going up when it comes to medication, transportation, health costs obviously, and rent in some their housing arrangements. Their pensions are not even indexed to inflation. They have huge challenges when it comes to trying to maintain their own standard of living. The government has continuously ignored seniors, and if not, we have seen at times the government attempting to claw back some of the benefits for seniors which is incredible. It is one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Seniors are the ones we owe the most to when it comes to thanking them for building the great country we have, yet it is that type of disrespect they receive from the government.
It is a huge concern for me in looking at the surplus numbers and what the government could have done to address some of the concerns for seniors. The fact that I am hearing from many seniors on a regular basis is something we should be concerned about. We should be doing something more for them. We on this side of the House have proposed policy to address some of the concerns for seniors. We just do not understand why the government has chosen to ignore them.
The parliamentary secretary also spoke about education. There were some efforts in the budget to increase the ability for students to access more money through the student loans program. There are still some fundamental problems with the loans program in the way that we approach education. I am very concerned about that.
The University of Alberta is in my riding. I hear from a lot of students as well as the administration in that university on some of the challenges they have. I get many calls from students who are being forced into default because of the lack of flexibility in the student loans program.
I also get calls from students, even in the case of the budget, where the government has increased potential limits under the student loans program but it still has not addressed the issue of the parental contribution amounts. Some students unfortunately do not get support from their parents when they go to school. They do it on their own and I admire and respect that.
Unfortunately, in trying to adjust the amounts of loans one can actually apply for, the government still has not addressed the issue of parental contribution. That leaves some students in the same place they were before and they cannot access the funds they need for their education. I would encourage the government to review that.
Our party has put forward a policy. We would like to see that particular element of the Canada student loans program eliminated so that students could be judged on what sort of program they want to take and not have it based on the portion of contribution their parents should make to their education. I hope that is something the government will address.
We have not dealt with the biggest problem that students are facing and that is being able to pay down and manage their debt. We are seeing tuition fees across the country rise at incredible rates, especially in professional designations.
Even though the government has addressed the issue of trying to access funds, it still has not addressed the issue of trying to reduce the overall debt for students when it comes to their education. They are graduating nowadays with some of the largest amounts of debt in the western world. That is something we need to address. We must work with the provinces to try to reduce that overall cost so that students can have a fair start once they get through their education.
There is nothing in the budget or any commitment from the government on that. If anything, we saw over the last number of years, especially when the current Prime Minister was finance minister, a $25 billion cut from the health and education transfers. This made it very difficult for the provinces to make up that difference in spending and unfortunately health care and education suffered. Now the Liberals are trying to say they are the great saviours of health care and education but when we look at the transfers, they are barely at the level they were at when the Liberals first took office.
Health care is a top priority for many Canadians. They would like to see effective commitments when it comes to funding but also the ability to work with the provinces to ensure that no one is left out of the public system, that no one is left out of the universal system. All Canadians must have good and equal access to a system that should work efficiently.
In the messages we have heard from the government over the last week, I would say that there is in fact a hidden agenda when it comes to health care. On the one hand, we heard that the minister is in favour of private services and that he is going to work with the provinces to allow that evolution of private services. Then, in the next couple of days after that, we heard another mixed message that in fact the government would never allow private services.
I would argue that under this Liberal government's watch we have seen the evolution of that two tier system becoming quite a bit more significant because of the government's lack of commitment in health care. We have seen more private services evolving all across the country. The government has not been able to stop this on its watch, if that is its goal, as in some of the messages we have heard.
I would say that we do not know clearly what the Liberals' position is. They have stated two distinct and separate messages over the last couple of weeks. It only begs the question: there must be some sort of hidden agenda. They are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Canadians before an election and then right after the election put forward a whole new set of policies when it comes to health care. I would argue that this is completely unacceptable. Canadians want to have a public system that works, is well funded and universal and gives accessibility to all Canadians regardless of their ability to pay.
That is what we on this side of the House stand for. We are going to continue to fight for that and to hold the Liberal government accountable. As much as the government has increased some of the funding, which was not even new money but the $2 billion promised prior to the tabling of the budget in the House, there really is not a commitment when it comes to a long term vision.
Again, concerning the 10 year plan the Prime Minister has spoken about, it would be nice to see what some of the arrangements under that 10 year plan are so that Canadians can actually see that and know what is coming down the pike, but I think it is not in the interests of the government to show that.
Prior to the change in this budget on the security side, I had been in charge of the portfolio of Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. As the House knows, customs has been moved out of revenue and put under the new department in charge of public security. This is a change that we had encouraged the government to pursue. We applaud that change. It was really unfortunate that our front line customs agents, who worked so hard and did such a great job, were never given the tools they needed to protect Canadians when it came to border security. It was only after September 11, 2001, that we saw a real effort to try to address some of the security concerns due the lack of attention from the government over the last number of years. Prior to 9/11, in the government's philosophy, the primary role of customs was that of tax collector, not border security. We in our party had a huge problem with that.
The government has now moved that under the public security banner. Now we have to address how well some of the security measures are working. I know the government was moving very slowly when it came to making sure that the resources were given to our customs agents in getting computer access to names of potentially high risk people trying to get into the country. When it comes to resources to actually protect agents and to deal with high risk situations at the border, we still have not see those sorts of commitments from the government. The government talks about $500 million for beefing up border security, yet in many of the ports of entry there still is not the proper type of equipment to make sure that Canadians are protected and, as I said, that our customs agents have the tools to do the job.
There is still a lot that needs to be addressed. The House has heard this theme from our side of the House over and over since we have had the chance to debate the budget implementation: This budget was a budget of missed opportunities. There were some great opportunities given the size of the surplus, as I have said, to address areas of tax relief and areas of debt reduction, but also to make investments in areas that Canadians feel are very important.
I did not have the opportunity to address the area of the military. Some of my colleagues will mostly likely do that in the future. I know that this is an area for which Canadians have said that even with the investment under this budget we have seen only enough money put forward to cover our operations in Afghanistan and now in Haiti. We have not seen the real long term funding that is required for the personnel of the armed forces to do their peacekeeping jobs or the jobs they are called on to do in a way so as to be able to protect themselves and deal with the challenges they face in some of the tougher areas of the world.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this today, but I think it will be very difficult for the official opposition to support the budget implementation bill at this stage.