Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in the debate about the budget, which I anticipate will be delivered in the next few weeks by my colleague, the Minister of Finance.
We find ourselves in something of a unique situation in Canada. Since 1997-98, Canadians have seen the government balance its budget seven times in a row. It is a record that is unparalleled in our history and the envy of the G-7, the OECD and pretty well all other nations in the world.
By exercising fiscal discipline, we have been able to reduce the national debt by the sum of $61 billion. I do not know how familiar members are with The Fiscal Monitor , but we were at $501 billion when the budget was introduced and apparently in the month of October we dipped down to $492 billion. It has probably been a long time since we have been under $500 billion in debt.
We are passing those benefits on. By paying down the debt we save enormous amounts in interest costs and on an annual basis we have saved something in the order of about $3 billion, which is freed up to do things other than just simply pay interest on the debt. This money is now available for things such as health care, education, research and a variety of other interests of members as they have spoken in the House over the course of the last day.
Our debt reduction efforts have supported policies that have boosted Canada's productivity, supported new research and innovations, and have combined to produce a strong and resilient economy. Indeed, the events of 2003, which saw the economy battered by such things as SARS, BSE and an unprecedented rapid rise in the Canadian dollar, and yet we still made it through the entire year of 2003 with the economy showing a modest amount of growth, which is a testimony to the resiliency of the economy and of our citizens.
The figures from Statistics Canada show that the Canadian economy grew by something in the order of 2.7% in the first quarter, strengthened to 3.9% in the second quarter and by 3.2% in the third quarter. At the same time, business and consumer confidence remains high, thanks to the low interest rates and an inflation rate that remains in a 1% to 3% target range. We have kind of a happy situation with low interest rates, a fairly robust dollar, which has pluses and minuses to it, and we have an inflation rate that is well within the acceptable range of 1% to 3%.
Therefore we naturally see some stronger business and consumer confidence and that has resulted in higher employment. Currently the unemployment rate stands at 7%, which is at its lowest point since May 2001, and during the year 2004 the economy created 228,000 jobs, the majority of them being full time positions.
Our robust economy and our fiscal discipline have allowed us to address some of the key priorities that Canadians have mentioned to us. In the year 2000, we implemented a five year tax reduction plan worth about $100 billion. An absolute reduction in the government's revenue is about $100 billion, which is quite significant. That tax relief largely went to low and middle income Canadians. It gave us something of a corporate tax advantage vis-à-vis our main competition in the United States.
We have reduced employment insurance premiums for 11 consecutive years. We have gone from highs of approximately $3.20 down to a current rate of $1.96. Our income tax thresholds have been reduced from 29% down to 26%; 26% down to 23%; 17% down to 16%. We have brought the base threshold to a flat rate of just a touch over $8,000. Corporate tax rates have declined from 28% to 21%. All of these thresholds have been moved up over the course of time and Canadians are enjoying those benefits and those benefits, in turn, are being poured back into the economy.
In the period of time 1997 to 2003, our standard of living increased 2.7% on an annualized basis, the best of the G-7, better than the U.K., better than the U.S., better than France, better than Italy, et cetera.
We have done a number of things and, I would argue, we have done them right on this side of the House.
We have also committed to a new framework for equalization and territorial financing which will see transfers from the federal government to the provincial and territorial governments increased by $33 billion for the next 10 years. This will help ensure that all Canadians, regardless of where they live, have access to comparable levels of service.
During the election campaign and in the Speech from the Throne, the number one priority of Canadians is the publicly funded health care system. In September the Prime Minister and the leaders of the provinces and territories reached a landmark agreement that will see an additional $44 billion in funding over the next 10 years to help with the increased costs of health care, particularly as our aging population will be making more demands on it.
After sitting on the finance committee over the past few months and participating in a number of round tables with the minister, the demographic realities of our nation where we have an aging population is clearly a foremost concern of many Canadians and will, in large part, drive the fiscal capacities of our nation, of our economy and the government in terms of addressing that issue. We therefore will have some limitations going forward because of our aging population.
The other issue that came up in the finance committee hearings had to do with accountability and transparency. Canadians want to know where their money is going. They do not much care which level of government delivers the service. They certainly want to know how they are doing, whether the service is efficient and how they compare to other provinces and territories. I think there will be enormous pressure on the part of this level of government and other levels of government to be transparent and accountable for the enormous amounts of money that we are putting into health care.
We have, I would argue, come a long way since the days of being an economic basket case in 1995 to being one of the best performers in the G-7 in the year 2005. We have gone from chronic deficits to budget surpluses. At one point we were described by the Wall Street Journal as “an honourary member of the third world”. The Economist magazine now describes us as “Canada cool”. Strange that we should be Canada cool when we are in fact running those kinds of surpluses but the whole notion of a well run government running surpluses has become somewhat cool.
As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, Canada is now at a crossroads. Despite all that we have achieved over the past several years we still have quite a number of challenges. There are those who say that our approach is not working and that Canada must change its direction if we are to succeed. There are those who argue that our salvation lies in massive tax cuts and the privatization of social services, which is to say that tax cuts are the way to nirvana.
We had some examples of that, particularly in Ontario, where we had eight years of Conservative rule and that was, frankly, its philosophy, that somehow or another the economy and all services could be provided by the simpleminded application of tax cuts. However we are, in Ontario, having to dig ourselves out from that particular ideology.
As well, there are those in Canada who say that we can only succeed if we massively increase government spending and eliminate our commitment to debt reduction, which would increase our likelihood of returning to deficit financing.
So we have the right-wing solution of tax-cutting our way to nirvana and the left-wing solution, which is essentially embracing programs just for the sake of embracing programs.
As we debate what should be contained in the next federal budget, the questions that we must ask are simple. Will we abandon the approach that has brought us these many benefits over the past seven years? Will we reduce our commitment to supporting our social programs in order to implement the kind of massive tax reductions that some critics are endorsing? Or, will we follow the lead of those who call for massive social spending while eliminating our commitment to reducing our debt load for the benefit of both present and future generations? Frankly, the debate in committee was largely around those two competing ideologies.
Our response, to put a fairly simple point on it, is no. We have taken a balanced approach and we will continue to take a balanced approach to the nation's finances, emphasizing the need to exercise fiscal discipline in all of our spending decisions. We will continue to support Canadian priorities such as health care, education and the environment. We will continue to work with the provinces and territories to look for ways in which we can work together to improve the quality of life for our citizens. We will maintain our commitment to setting aside a contingency reserve and exercising economic prudence, year after year. Each year that this money is not needed will be applied to reduce our debt levels.
At this time it would be useful to look at our country's current fiscal situation as outlined by the Minister of Finance in the November economic update. It kind of looks like a “U”. For this fiscal year ending 2004-05, we had a fairly good year. We had some moneys available which we can apply to certain priorities. Going forward in the next two fiscal years, we dip down to the bottom of the “U”. Going forward over the next three or four years, the fiscal situation improves for the government.
In the most recent fiscal year, 2003-04, the federal government had total revenues of about $186 billion. Of this total, about $84 billion, or less than half of that total, comes from personal tax revenue. The remainder comes from a composition of corporate revenues, excise tax, GST, employment insurance premiums and other taxes.
I would just mention in passing that if in fact we are looking at it as an economist looks at it, the argument is that we do not have the right tax mix. We are overloaded on personal income tax and we should actually move the revenue generation to the consumption side. There is a lot of difficulty in doing that and hon. members can appreciate the reasons.
If we look at the spending side in the most recent fiscal year, it totalled about $177 billion. This is 2003-04, where the numbers are actually locked in. We ran a surplus there for $9.1 billion. That money was used to reduce the debt and that was the choice to make then. Despite the progress we have made in reducing debt levels in recent years, public debt charges still eat an enormous amount of money. They represent the fees and the costs of running the debt, and that was about $36 billion last year. That is almost 20% of the government's revenues.
It is the largest single expenditure made by the government in the most recent fiscal year, outstripping amounts that we pay for seniors, for the unemployed and even for national defence. Clearly, it is in the best interests of all Canadians to continue to get that debt down to a reasonable level.
As the government stated last November, the private sector economic forecasters predicted that Canada will remain in a surplus position over the next several years based on current projections. Even so, the commitments we have made to provide increased funding for equalization and territorial formula financing, coupled with additional moneys for health care, will mean that the government will be facing a tighter fiscal squeeze in the short term than it has in previous years. After taking all these measures into account, we still must set aside $3 billion annually for contingency reserve, an additional amount for economic prudence. This is simply good sense.
As the events in 2003 showed us, unforeseen economic shock can have significant consequences for the whole country. Our contingency reserve and our economic prudence provide us with a financial cushion to help absorb those shocks and offer assistance to those affected by these problems. As always, if one is not necessarily needed, then we will apply it to reduce Canada's debt.
After taking the contingency reserve and economic prudence into account, private sector forecasters have predicted that we will have $5.9 billion left over at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year. However, in 2005-06, when the impact of our additional fiscal commitments are taken into consideration, the $44 billion for health care, the $33 billion for equalization and a variety of claims on the cities/communities agenda, the child care agenda, et cetera, the surplus is projected to drop next year and should be about $500 million. When I say surplus, I am saying the contingency money is there, the prudence money is there, and it is $500 million on top of those two amounts.
In 2006-07 the surplus increases to about $900 million, in 2007-08 $3.2 billion, in 2008-09 $7.5 billion, and in 2009-10 $11.5 billion. As I said, it is a bit of “U”. We are not doing too badly this year. We will dip down and then we will have an increase going forward over the next five years, starting fairly modestly in the next two budget years. If indeed these numbers hold and we are successful, we will run 13 consecutive years of budgetary surplus between 1997 and the year 2010.
If we want to contrast to what is happening in the United States, the deficit there this year will be about $427 billion. As a comparison, $427 billion U.S. is probably slightly less than half of our entire economy. We run an economy here of $1.1 trillion Canadian. You can do the math in your head fairly quickly, Mr. Speaker, as I know you are capable of doing, but roughly half of our economy would be represented by the U.S. deficit. Another comparison would be that the revenues for the Government of Canada are roughly $200 million Canadian, so the budget deficit alone would be over two times the entire revenues of the Government of Canada.
There are other issues with the United States, particularly the current account deficits, which are at a worrisome level. It is projected that the United States will remain in deficit until the year 2012. We are tied necessarily to the North American economy and any projections that we make for our own economy are going to be affected by how the United States performs. We have well respected economists saying the dollar is going to be 80¢ and other well respected economists saying the dollar is going to be 90¢. It makes it very difficult to project forward.
We also have the unknown of higher oil prices and how that will affect us. Certainly, for consumers it is not going to affect them positively. It will probably be a negative impact. On the other hand, we are a net exporter of oil and we do well in terms of exporting our oil at higher prices. The result is clearly mixed for Canada.
In general, the government's economic and fiscal situation is favourable, but we still have the risks that I have outlined and probably some risks that we do not anticipate, which call for the need for prudence. We need to make choices that will favour productivity, competitiveness and sustainability.
We will hopefully reap the benefits of our $100 billion tax cuts. I think we are already doing that. We certainly are reaping the benefits on a direct basis of the $61 billion pay down in national debt. We certainly have the benefits that flow from $200 billion in social and economic priorities brought in by the government since 1997-98.
We have choices to make. We are in a happy situation to be able to make choices. I hope that with the assistance of colleagues we will make the wisest ones.