Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my contribution to this debate by thanking the voters in my riding of Toronto Centre for giving me the privilege of once again representing them in this our national Parliament. It is their support that has allowed me to continue over 12 years in my political career and today to stand before members in this House as leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition. It is an honour for me to act in that capacity to respond formally to the government's Speech from the Throne.
Before I do so perhaps I could offer one other set of thanks. All members of this House know how difficult political life is. We would not be here without the support of our spouses and our partners. I want to pay particular recognition today to my spouse of 42 years, who is here with us in the House today, and to my two children, Katherine and Patrick.
I remember when I was in Europe some years ago and a European politician, or it may have been a judge, said that the great advantage in North America is that important people go home at night and they say to their wives all the things they have done during the day and their wives say to them, “That's nice, dear. Now, could you take out the garbage”. Colleagues, it is our wives, our spouses and partners who often do those daily tasks for us because we are so often retained here. I want to thank my wife and my children, and perhaps in so doing I can share with all colleagues in the House this sentiment. I will hesitate to get into the exchange the Prime Minister had with his spouse during question period on other elements of family life.
However, I would certainly like to take this opportunity to commend the Prime Minister for two things. I would like to thank him, first, for his courteous words about my own appointment in this position, but I too would like to commend him. The Prime Minister mounted a spirited and professional campaign. We congratulate him and his party for their success in the election. Second, I would like to commend the Prime Minister for his recent trip to our Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.
I have had the opportunity of visiting Afghanistan several times, once in fact when I was 20 years old, but most recently as the foreign affairs minister and subsequently as defence minister. I know that to understand this troubled country one has to see it on the ground and meet its people and its leaders. To understand the extraordinary contribution that our troops are making under challenging conditions there, one has to meet with them, talk with them and listen to them. To understand how much this is appreciated by the Afghan people trying to rebuild their lives after years of war and devastation, one must hear from them.
The Prime Minister took the time to do this and I know it was deeply appreciated by the men and women of our Canadian Forces as an important expression of support for their work and their mission; a support that our party firmly endorses.
That said, colleagues may recall that in his 2004 Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, the then Leader of the Opposition stated, perhaps rather tongue-in-cheek, “I said yesterday that the Prime Minister was so excited about his government's agenda that his first act was to leave the country”. Now the Prime Minister has done very much the same thing.
While I freely admit it was an important thing to do, it may also be a revealing illustration of how his former rhetoric and his present acts may often differ, sometimes in ways commendable and sometimes in ways much less so.
Before I comment on the Government’s Speech from the Throne, I would like to make a few remarks about our Party’s approach to this minority Parliament. Historically, Canadians have not had a lot of experience with minority parliaments but as a participant, like many of you, certainly recent experience has been instructive, and has sometimes involved intense hours.
Electing a minority is an expression of the desire of Canadians for moderation and compromise. The fact that no party received an absolute majority not only means that the Conservatives lack a mandate to govern in isolation from the other parties, it denies the Opposition parties to some degree the luxury of opposing just for opposition’s sake. The bottom line is that the public expects all parties to make parliament work with a degree of co-operation, respect and even collaboration. As Liberals, we will abide by these principles.
For the government, this means consulting and striking compromises with the opposition parties, in an effort to forge a governing program that can command the support of the House and the Canadian public. In Hansard we find the principle perfectly expressed by a former leader of the opposition:
It is the government’s obligation to craft a working majority to advance its agenda by taking into account the policies and priorities expressed by the three opposition parties in the House.
Yes, Mr. Speaker, these are the words of the Prime Minister himself less than two years ago. And members will recall that when the Liberals formed the minority government we did seek to work in ways that our agenda would command a majority in the House.
So, it’s understandable that we, the Opposition, are disappointed that the Prime Minister has begun by ignoring his own philosophy of minority government. Because even though the Prime Minister consulted with the three Opposition leaders, it is difficult—at least for us—to find any traces of such discussions in the Speech from the Throne.
The leader of the NDP remarked yesterday that his conversations with the Prime Minister were fruitful with regards to child care. This position is understandable, in light of his decision to bring down the Liberal government before we had the opportunity to implement such an important program. For our part, we are not as optimistic about the promise made in yesterday’s Throne Speech.
I must give the Prime Minister a friendly warning that when the leader of the NDP takes credit for the government's actions, as he did during the last Parliament, he is looking to topple the government. The Prime Minister should watch his back.
We willingly recognize that the government does not always need our support for its survival.That being said, we will commend and support the government when they put forward sensible policies that we judge to be good for the country. There are clearly elements of the Conservative election platform and the throne speech that are worthy of support -- and we will give it.
But we will vigorously oppose this government if it acts unilaterally to put forward legislation or adopts radical policies for which it lacks a mandate-- policies that do not reflect the balance Canadians voted for when they determined the composition of this House of Commons.
Many of us in the House have heard many throne speeches. For myself, I have observed that most of these throne speeches, particularly inaugural efforts, consist of lists of commitments from the government. They seldom capture the imagination of the public but they do reveal certain fundamental traits of their authors. One only has to look at the Conservative tax plan, one of the central pillars of both the Prime Minister's campaign and the throne speech, to see their limited vision and the simplistic approach of the government.
The government has made much of its proposed 1% tax cut to the GST. The Liberal Party recognizes that taxes can and should be reduced, but we believe this should be done in ways consistent with good economics and in the best interests of Canadians.
A little over five years ago a Liberal government brought in the largest tax cut in Canadian history, a combined $100 billion tax cut for individual Canadians and businesses that reduced federal personal income taxes by 21% on average and 27% for families with children. We removed about one million low income Canadians from the tax rolls. We significantly improved the tax system for students, persons with disabilities, charities and others.
Our balanced tax cut was a balanced tax agenda. It was economically and socially progressive. It was a tax cut agenda to propel Canada forward in the global competitive information age. It was a tax cut agenda designed to stimulate investment and savings to make the Canadian economy more productive and competitive.
Liberals remain steadfast in their belief that Canadians need continuing tax relief. That is why in November we advanced another major income tax cut that had similar objectives to our previous initiatives, providing a further $25 billion in tax relief over five years with most of the benefit going to Canadians with low and modest incomes.
The throne speech presents the Conservative economic agenda. It consists of only one element, a cut in the GST, and so far government spokespeople have indicated that this will be financed by increasing personal income taxes, in a way nullifying our previous measures.
In our view, this tax cut does not advance the economic interests of Canadians. It is a tax cut for the sake of a tax cut. It is a tax cut to keep a poorly thought out election promise. It is a tax cut with no economic or social purpose underlying it, a point that has been made universally by Canadian economic analysts. It was well summed up by my colleague the member from Markham when he said, “If ever there was an anti-growth tax policy, the Conservatives have clearly stumbled into it”.
It does nothing to encourage Canadians in businesses to invest in skills training and productivity enhancing equipment. It does nothing to induce savings to make the economy more productive, all of which any economist would tell us should be the central objective of any tax cut. I freely admit to being surprised that it comes from the Prime Minister who is an economist by training.
The freshly minted finance minister must be squirming in his seat as he reflects on this as he poured scorn on such a tax cut when he was in the Ontario government. I quote from the Minister of Finance of Ontario. I did not get this from the Toronto Star so he can relax. It comes from Hansard of the Ontario legislature. It states:
All you get is a short-term hit, quite frankly...It has no long-term positive gain for the economy.
What a different song we heard sung in question period here today colleagues.
The finance minister will now know that his current department emphatically agrees with what he said then. It has concluded that a GST tax cut is the least effective tax cut and that income tax relief is three times as effective at increasing the well-being and prosperity of all Canadians. The finance minister's original instinct was dead right and the direction from his current boss is dead wrong.
This GST tax cut is also small from the point of view of consumers. Canadians will barely notice it. If it has any effect at all on the economy, it will be to stimulate more consumption at a time when every economist in the country agrees that what the economy needs is more investment in savings, not more stimulus. At worse, the Conservatives have underestimated by hundreds of millions of dollars its cost to the treasury and quite frankly, to the businesses that will have to implement it.
The intention of the government to cancel the income tax cuts that the Liberal government put in place is even worse economics. Those tax cuts are progressive and they are needed to move this country forward. They made Canada more productive.