Mr. Speaker, when I first looked at the bill and thought about taking part in this debate, I was somewhat hesitant. I am no economist, but this morning has persuaded me that I am in good company in that regard.
I would like to agree with the hon. Minister of Finance on his list of economic successes of the last 12 years. This is one of the most remarkable performances by any economy anywhere in the world and certainly every member in the House has reason to be proud of it. Every Canadian taxpayer has reason to be proud of it.
We have done well and the reason is, of course, that we had a Prime Minister who supported the Minister of Finance of the day and the other cabinet ministers who were required to cut their departmental activities, personnel and budgets. It was not easy. It meant that Canadians also did not receive what they had sometimes been receiving before and sometimes provinces did not receive what they had been receiving before.
I would simply remind people that we never cut any program to provinces any more than we cut federal programs. We always made sure we maintained that balance. In fact, the balance was tipped, so that we had to do more than they had to do, but it was necessary. It was necessary because of the economic circumstances we faced at that time. From today's debate and comments from the opposition parties, it appears that the memory of the battle we fought to get our finances in shape has been forgotten.
While I congratulate the minister and his predecessor, now the Prime Minister, and indeed John Manley, the former finance minister between them, and while we can all take pride in what has taken place, that does not necessarily mean that the bill the minister has produced is therefore automatic and obvious, and should be accepted by the House without questioning some of its provisions.
Indeed, I was almost persuaded by the minister's speech, but when he turned to the member for Medicine Hat, the chief financial critic of the official opposition, and said that the member for Medicine Hat said almost exactly what is in his bill, that is when I had serious doubts about whether the minister might have gotten the bill right, giving credit for its authorship or at least its paternity to another member of the House. I think we have to look at it quite closely.
What does it do? I have a copy of the bill and it has been explained. It is essentially to split any unanticipated surplus three ways. One-third is for tax relief, tax cuts. One-third is for spending programs related to the previous budget or, as the minister mentioned today, that I thought was an interesting comment and I checked the bill to find out whether it is there, anything he might like to bring into the House and put forward as he might identify. It could be a statement tabled in the House of Commons by the Minister of Finance. In other words, it might indeed not even be in the budget presentation. Then of course one-third is for the reduction of the national debt, which currently stands I believe at approximately $505 billion.
I would like to re-emphasize to the members of the opposition, on a per capita basis, on the basis of actual ability to generate revenue, the federal government has about twice the debt or accumulated deficit in that $505 billion figure that the provinces have in theirs. That is to be born in mind when we talk about transfers from the federal government to the provinces or transfers from the federal government elsewhere. The fact is we have double the debt burden, double the problem of interest rates to be paid, and double the problem that the other levels of government may have.
We have then the proposal put forward by the minister. I was a little uncertain, and I hope the minister or the parliamentary secretary in summing up this bill will explain this, whether or not the minister was actually saying that the government was going to wait until the end of the fiscal year, March 31, and then if there is a surplus, it would bring in a proposal for expenditure and that would be confirmed, I think he said, in September when the books for the year are finally closed.
I am not sure whether he can bring in any expenditure proposal for an anticipated surplus before March 31. I would like that explained because this would be quite an interesting variation, if in fact what I thought I heard turns out to be the case. I checked the bill in the hour I have had since the minister spoke, but I have not been able to determine that myself from the bill.
The proposal is to make this in fact law. Why I have concerns and why I raise them at this time is this. As pointed out by the previous speaker, we have had a substantial paydown of the national debt, which is a good thing. She seems to think that when the debt is paid down, it sort of disappears, it is gone, it is money that cannot be spent and it is gone forever. That is not so. In fact, it simply gives us borrowing power, so that in the future, if we want, we can spend the same amount of money again and still not exceed our debt level. I think everybody understands that who has ever had a credit card and found difficulty paying it at the end of the month.
If we pay down, we have the opportunity of course of doing it again, so it does not just disappear. If we pay down the debt, we are doing good things for Canadians. It gives them flexibility, so that if there may be some change of circumstances, that flexibility, that cushion, is available to them. So let us get away from this idea that paying down the debt is somehow money that disappears, is gone, is useless, and somehow is to the detriment of Canadians. It is very much in their interest to pay down the debt.
What has happened in the past seven years is that we have had these unanticipated surpluses which is a good thing and it is in everybody's interest. That should be understood. All three finance ministers who made these decisions made the right decisions to use that money for debt retirement and debt reduction. We should continue to ensure that this is high on our agenda.
I do not really like the word surplus, although it is used and it is even used in the bill, because it refers to something that is extra and in excess, something that is not really fundamental. In this so-called surplus, every dollar that comes in, in other words a dollar not spent or transferred to someone, immediately goes to ensuring that the debt goes down.
That keeps interest rates low in this country. That allows the private sector to have a bigger capital pool at lower interest rates for its expansion than would otherwise be the case, so it is not a bad thing. It is a good thing and I hope the point that I am trying to make is well understood by Canadians and in fact by others in this House who have spoken or who may be speaking in this particular debate.
I do not like the word surplus. Let us call it automatic debt reduction, or even better, let us look at that word debt and recognize what it is and which the bill itself explains. The bill talks about this as an “accumulated deficit”.
The bill talks about the accumulated deficit. That is what is important. They speak about debt as if it were something very different, something we do not need to worry about. But the deficit, that is really important. A lot has been said over the last 12 or 13 years about the word “deficit”, but not much about the word “debt”.
I think that really is important to stress and underline. The fact is, as is pointed out in clause 5 of the bill, that it is “accumulated deficit”, and that is what we should continue to pay down. It is just as bad for us as a deficit in a current year. It is just as damaging to our overall accounts, our overall ability to handle the national accounts or, indeed, for the private sector.
That is how we should be regarding this. It is not something apart, something that happened in the past that we can forget about. We are responsible for debts run up in the past, just as every Canadian homeowner understands a mortgage and understands the importance of paying it down.
Coming back to the bill specifically, it only gives one-third of any so-called surplus, any unanticipated surplus, to debt reduction. I am not sure if we can determine at this time in advance that this is the split that makes the most sense for next year, the year following or the year following that.
Setting in legislation that this is exactly how it will be broken down forgets certain things. What does it forget? It forgets that interest rates may rise. We have had two interest rate increases in the last two months. The Governor of the Bank of Canada spoke to the Senate Standing Committee on National Finance yesterday. It is clear that in his mind there is a possibility that at some time in the future, under certain circumstances, yet more increases could take place. We have this issue, where it may be very important to pay down the debt at a greater rate.
On the other hand, at some time in the future we may have a hurricane on the coast of Nova Scotia, with devastation. We may have another ice storm, with devastation. We may have a tornado on the Prairies, with devastation. We may have an economic problem such as mad cow. We may have a problem with softwood lumber. At that time suddenly we will realize that we need more federal help, federal assistance and federal expenditure. That is a time when we may want to look at this so-called surplus or excess and determine that this year is the appropriate place to put it.
It is no good then saying that we passed legislation two, three or four years before and we are restricted to only using a third of it to help the farmers, a third of it to help the lumber industry or a third of it to help the people who have had their houses destroyed by weather and climate problems. This legislation takes away that flexibility.
On the issue of tax cuts, there are times when tax cuts are vital. There are times when the economy is slowing, we want to use the tool of taxation to increase economic activity in the private sector and tax cuts make a lot of sense, and we want big tax cuts. Yet in this particular bill, only one-third will go to tax cuts, because of course the bill divides it up in this firm way of 33 1/3% for each one of these three areas. It may be that we will have different circumstances in the future which will require an adjustment of that type.
People can easily say that it can be done under the normal course of events, that we would allocate the money before the surplus was determined so it would not affect the surplus. That is wrong, because as the minister said today, the books close on March 31, and it is between then and September that we will be analyzing what to do with the surplus. What happens if we have one of those conditions that occur in that period of summer and fall? If that is the case, we seem to be handcuffed with this legislation.
I wonder if the minister or his parliamentary secretary would like to offer me some enlightening, convincing, and comforting responses to this concern that I have expressed.
It is clear that in the discussion we have had in the House--I almost feel like mentioning that there is no NDP member present, but I will not--people have assumed that we are going to have good times and they are going to continue. The minister talked about anticipation, and I think he used the term from now until 2010, but things go wrong. We have had unanticipated and better than expected times. Equally, we could have less than expected economic conditions, less than booming tax revenues and more than low unemployment.
We could have a change in economic circumstances, and let us face it, we are so dependent on the American market and we are now becoming so dependent on a secondary economy to the American market, the Chinese economy, which is dependent on its $180 billion surplus to the United States. We are getting so dependent on that kind of economy that conditions elsewhere could cause us trouble.
Let us look at the American deficits, the phenomenal deficits of a neo-conservative government, the model for the Conservative Party of Canada, which does not know how to run the economy and is having major concerns with enormous deficits, ballooning deficits and a declining dollar.
That is the Americans' choice. If they want Reaganomics or neo-conservative economics, that is their choice. We are not that kind of people. We see that there may be trouble in that kind of economic approach and we know that it could have reverberations in Canada, when 85% of our exports go to the United States.
Sure, we are going great guns now, but to a certain degree it is based on American deficit financing. When that stops or we get a major economic problem in the United States, wow, we are going to have to watch it because we will not have the same good economic circumstances that we have now.
It is no good pointing the finger at the Americans. I am trying not to do that. It is no good to say simply that they are wrong and we are right. It is not that. We are dependent on that economy and we are benefiting from what they are doing, but it is not sustainable. It cannot continue. When the changes come, we are going to have reverberations on our revenue side here in Canada. That is why I do not think we can assume that things are going to forever be so great.
It is similar to the China market, based on resource exports, on coal, the coking coal for iron and steel, and based on other exports. We hope our lumber exports in the future will increase as well. We have a substantial resource based export market and it may not--