Mr. Speaker, there is no question that there has been some confusion as to whether or not unexpected expenses and so on can come out of the budget. I gather from the parliamentary secretary's answer that any type of contingency can be covered off in the current budget.
I would ask the hon. member for Victoria not to worry himself too much about this aspect of the bill because the bill is nothing more than a pre-election ploy. It is done for a purpose, as the government has done in many other bills, such as Bill C-37, the do not call registry. We had no rules or regulations but the public was concerned about unsolicited calls so the Liberals put together a shoestring bill and left it to the CRTC to manage the workings of it, without regard to cost, so that they could direct their attention to the segment of the population that was interested in that type of legislation. An election is looming, which is why they would do that and why they have a surplus.
The surplus in the last number of years has been embarrassingly large and they know the public is upset, especially those members of the public who are running the treadmill attempting to stay alive, trying to make their mortgage, car and loan payments and are barely able to stay ahead, when the government is accumulating surpluses that have never been surpassed in the past, year after year. It has the audacity to call the bill itself an unanticipated surpluses act, when the surpluses have been anticipated year by year and are even larger than anticipated.
The legislation reads:
Recognizing that it is in the public interest to predetermine how annual unanticipated surpluses, if any, are to be applied among competing priorities...
It is not the public interest so much that the government has in mind. It is its own interest and in preserving its own political hide, and attempting to sow seeds toward what will be an imminent election that causes this bill to come forward.
The bill talks about applying, in a balanced way, the surpluses to spending priorities, to the deficit and to tax relief. Remarkably, it says “surpluses, if any”, so the government has reserved to itself the right to ensure that there is no surplus by tabling legislation that will eat the surplus, which really is not unanticipated, which it anticipates and knows well in advance of closing its books.
Insofar as tax relief is concerned, it is also remarkable that the government indicates that will happen as long as the increases are considered to be fiscally sustainable. Who decides that? The Minister of Finance decides that, the same Minister of Finance who tabled the budget in this House and said that he would entertain only technical changes to his budget. When it became apparent that the government might fall, the same minister and his officers prepared to enter into the one page NDP $2.5 billion budget bill to spend what was already in the surplus in order to preserve its own hide and stay alive because at that time it was not prepared to face the electorate.
What the government has done in this legislation, as it has done in other legislation, is it has built in contingencies and conditions that would make it appear as if it is doing something when in fact it is not, or has reserved for itself the option not to do it. In fact, it is an addiction to spending that must be cured, and the only way that addiction can be cured is by voting that particular party out of office and cleaning house. So addicted is it to spending that it has said in this legislation that the surplus would only be determined after some specific spending priorities were put into their budget.
In fact, in the spending area, the note I have says that as well, the extent to which one-third of the unanticipated surplus is allocated to spending every year would depend upon the spending priorities identified by the government. Therefore if it chose to spend in advance, it could. As the parliamentary secretary said, if there were a disaster or if there were some other aspect that required spending, the government could spend the money on that.
What would that do? That would simply eliminate the surplus. The government reserves unto itself the right to spend and says that if it has not misspent and there is some money left, it still wants to reserve unto itself the right to spend one-third.
At present it is required that the surpluses be applied to pay down the debt. Something which the hon. member from Victoria indicated and which makes good sense is that any family with a debt would try to focus all of its efforts on paying down its debt. That is the way it is now. What has the government done with this new legislation and the humongous surplus instead of giving it back to the public? It has decided to put only a portion of it toward the debt, a portion of it toward tax reduction and only if the minister decides that it is sustainable, and more spending.
When talking about spending, we have to wonder if the spending priority of the government is what it should be when we look at the NDP budget bill. As I read the legislation, subclauses 2(1) and 2(2) indicate that the whole bill is subject to clause 4 which means that the bill is subject to the spending of $2.5 billion that was agreed to in the NDP budget bill. Even into the future, not only has the government reserved the right to ensure there is no surplus, but the bill would only apply in 2005-06 and 2006-07 after the NDP budget and spending was put in place.
I found it remarkable that the leader of the New Democratic Party would say he was surprised that they did not receive that money immediately following the passage of the bill. I would instruct the leader of the New Democratic Party that any legislation tabled by the government needs to be read very carefully. There was no requirement in that bill to spend the money immediately after its passage; it was in time and it was conditional. The government has learned how to make things conditional, reserving unto itself the right to spend or not spend. Optically the Liberals want to create an illusion to satisfy public opinion, to try to bolster their opportunities in an election.
Perhaps this would be a good time for me to read an article by Roy MacGregor. It was written in anticipation of the visit some days ago of Condoleezza Rice, the United States secretary of state. He said in his note to her:
You are arriving at a time when there is much talk of tax breaks in the air. That is because there may be an election soon. Or there may not be. Or there may be, too. No one knows.
No one knows for sure but there is something in the air. I am a farm boy from the prairies. I can tell when rain is coming because I can smell rain in the air and I can smell an election coming. That is why we are debating this legislation that is dressed up and painted to make it look like it is something when in fact it is nothing. Lawyers have spent time drafting this legislation to make it appear that we are getting something substantial when in fact we are getting very little, depending on the whims of the government of the day which has reserved unto itself the right to spend and has reserved unto itself the right to have discretion. In real terms it could amount to nothing.
Roy MacGregor went on to say that Ottawa, the capital, collects far more taxes than necessary. That is the truth. Ask those Canadians who work 10 hours or 12 hours a day, five or six days a week, just to feed their families. They are paying taxes, lots of taxes, in the thousands. Where are those taxes going? To the government, and where are we getting the surpluses?
Regarding the goods and services tax, the government made a promise in the red book. I heard it with my own ears from the then prime minister who said that the GST would be cancelled but he did not do it. The Liberals are happy to have it now and they allow it to accumulate. Where else are the resources coming for the surpluses? There are the high energy and gasoline prices. Consumers are paying more and more money and the government is watching. The government is becoming embarrassed by the surplus that is accumulating without it doing anything. The Liberals have done a good job trying to spend it, and misspend it on the sponsorship scandal, on the Dingwall affair, on $500,000 severance packages, on André Ouellet spending $1 million without receipts, and on having departments that are not operating frugally or efficiently.
The Liberals are embarrassed. They have done all of that and they still have a big pile of money left, so they say we have to have some legislation.
Roy MacGregor went on to say in his column:
Ottawa...collects far more taxes than necessary and then, every three months or so, announces an enormous surplus, which millions of Canadians take to mean the government has turned a profit and is cause for celebration.
It is no cause for celebration that despite mismanagement, despite misspending, despite program goodies being given up for an election, still has a big pile of money left as a surplus. What is that telling us? The government is not running a good operation and is not turning a good bottom line. It is charging people too much money and thinking it is its own, or it is taking it from the provinces or municipalities.
Roy MacGregor went on to say that the government “then takes some of this 'profit' and gives it back to the people as a minor tax break”, maybe at the discretion of the minister. It is like taking a lot of money out of my wallet, giving 20% of it to the government and telling me I should feel good about it. That type of attitude needs to change.
It would be one thing if the government used some of that money for appropriate spending, but look at what is happening in government and the situation that farmers in my province are facing. One must ask how the government has had humongous surpluses for a number of years and a crisis has developed in the Prairies and the Liberals are not doing anything about it. Farmers have been trying to get the ear and attention of the government about what is happening on the Prairies and they have been ignored. The NDP that engineered the $2.5 billion budget did not even mention the word agriculture.
I asked a question in the House of the Minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board as to why the government would set such low initial prices when our farmers cannot afford to pay their input costs. They cannot afford to pay them and need additional funds at this critical time, extra cash flow. What has the government done? It has ensured that initial prices are about 60% to 64% of what they actually expect them to be. The government is playing big daddy to the farmers, holding back money in the thousands of dollars when the farmers need it, but the government does not care.
The minister had the audacity to say in the House that he has known about this for a number of weeks, that he is looking at it and thinking about it. That is what is happening in the CAIS program. He is looking at it and studying it. That one simple example shows a government that is out of touch with a segment of its people when it has huge surpluses and it is mismanaging and misspending.
In fact, the price for feed barley has been set so low in my constituency that after deducting the costs of taking the feed barley from the elevator to port, it nets the farmers 18¢ or 19¢ a bushel and it costs them almost that much to deliver it. It is an embarrassment that the government would even allow that kind of circumstance to come to be without addressing it immediately. It has not done it. I challenge the government to do it now, to raise that price so at least the farmers can put some extra dollars in their pockets as opposed to losing it totally in transportation by paying it in handling costs.
There was also an issue in my constituency about farmers having own use permits to allow them to save a few thousand dollars to eke out an existence. The government did not take any steps to extend the deadline beyond September 30 to allow them to acquire own use permits at considerable savings. Where are the government's priorities? Where is it going?
Let me indicate to the House how dire the situation is. I do not know what our farmers have to do to get the ear of the government. How drastic must the situation get? Must it get as bad as what we witnessed the other day with the first nations before the House turns its ear to it? The problem is severe.
I received a letter from a constituent recently with respect to the state of agriculture. She said, “Dealing with the government in areas of income tax, GST and CAIS has become extremely frustrating. I have had to deal with the death of a close family member, watched sibling family members struggle through farm bankruptcy and near farm bankruptcy and had to deal with some health crisis. I informed CAIS personnel that I may as well just go home and shoot myself. Then I proceeded to leave work and go home to do just that. Were it not for my husband and daughter, I would not be writing this letter”.
In fact, there were at least two suicides in my consistency. Most people have loans for machinery, for cattle, for land, for operating. The letter went on to say, “For two years we lost our crop to hail and frost and now when we finally have grown one, we have to pile it on the ground while the fuel bill reaches $15,000 and we can't sell it”.
And the government is embarrassed about sitting on surpluses when these kinds of conditions are happening. The Liberals had the opportunity to address the energy crisis and fuel bills on the farm. Fuel bills and fertilizer bills are getting very near to or exceeding the cost of the low commodity prices and the Liberals have done nothing. In the energy bill, they have tried to address a very narrow segment of the population, and again have forgotten my constituents. My constituent asked, “What are we supposed to do?” They cannot sell the grain. She said, “I love my family but this farming is killing me. I do all the things my mother did to raise a family, plus hold down a full time job, and when I look at my bank account today, I have $91 to buy groceries until the end of the month”.
The government is sitting on billions of dollars, doing nothing and then, because it was embarrassed, is pretending to divide it up for more spending, tax cuts potentially, just to save itself some embarrassment. It is not being done to help people because this problem has existed for a long time.
My constituent went on to say, “We are doing our best to keep the farm going. It sometimes becomes overwhelming trying to keep straight all the deadlines and rules for all the government programs which include income tax, payroll, GST, NISA wind-down, CAIS, Saskatchewan crop insurance, hail insurance, feeder calf set aside, TISP, Canadian farm income plan, business risk management, Saskatchewan farm fuel program and Canadian Wheat Board permits to name a few” not to mention the own use permits. The government has administered and regulated and made bookwork such a difficult thing for farmers that most of them are almost prepared to give up in desperation. She went on to say, “while trying to expand your operation, hold down a full time job, watching our bottom lines shrink away and our costs go up”.
This is what is happening in the midst of plenty. I fail to understand how the government could put a few billion dollars into the CAIS program, half of which is eaten up in administration, half of which never reaches the farm gate, causing farmers to operate with very little. How can the Liberals justify that?
A farmer from my area gave me some figures. He said wheat at 25 bushels an acre at $2 cost him $50 an acre. His chemicals cost $22 and fertilizer costs $26 for a total of $48 on two items and he has $2 left to cover fuel and operating expenses, not to mention the opportunity to feed his family. He and his wife are both working off farm. His brother is working off farm. They are doing whatever they can and are struggling to get by. They think it is galling to see the misspending and the waste that happens and the government cannot help an entire industry that is about to go down in Saskatchewan.
The government is doing nothing about it. The Liberals are not looking forward. They are not looking at any kind of a program that will preserve farmers in their hour of need. Instead, the Liberals are quibbling about whether they can frame the bill to show them as being magnanimous in dealing with the surplus by dividing it in thirds. If they were really doing that, at least that would be of some satisfaction. But they built in the opportunity for them to do their own thing, like they always have, to continue gouging and taxing on the backs of ordinary people who are attempting to make a living. The Liberals want to continue to get their surpluses and spend the money in government departments with waste and mismanagement, as common people on the ground have a hard time making a living. How can that be in this country?
Why has the government not addressed this situation and the economic impact in my home constituency? Instead, the government introduces a trifling bill such as this just to save its face and have an election gimmick. This is hard for my constituents and my constituency to take.