Mr. Speaker, once again I congratulate you on your re-election to the chair.
On behalf of the New Democratic Party caucus, I salute the appointment of the hon. member for Elmwood—Transcona as Deputy Speaker of the House. It is the first time that a New Democrat has held such a position and I can think of no better and no more respected parliamentarian for the job.
We extend our congratulations to the right hon. member for Calgary Southwest as he takes his seat as Prime Minister in this place.
We would also like to congratulate the member for Toronto Centre on his re-election and appointment as leader of the official opposition.
Congratulations also to the leader of the Bloc Québécois, who is returning to this House as the member for Laurier--Sainte-Marie.
On behalf of all New Democrats, I wish good luck to all members elected in this last election.
As I begin my address today, I wish to thank the people of Toronto—Danforth for once again entrusting me to serve as their representative in Parliament. I am deeply honoured.
I am doubly honoured today because I am privileged to lead this larger and stronger caucus of New Democrats. We take up our seats to get down to work on behalf of the working people of this country. This is above all else the place where great things have been achieved, and it is the place where great things can be achieved still.
Sadly, for 12 years the capacity to reach higher and move forward has been wasted. While government coffers have grown fatter, investment in people has grown leaner. While ordinary families are working harder to make ends meet, the federal government offers less in return for hard-earned tax dollars. While federal governments promised great things to the people of Canada, they only delivered great disappointments.
That is why on January 23 Canadians voted for change. That is why they voted for New Democrats to balance that change.
The history of this place has taught us that minority parliaments function best when there is consultation, cooperation and compromise. Today I am cautiously optimistic to see that the lessons of history have not been lost on the new government, as they were on the last.
Yesterday's throne speech indicated at least some measure of flexibility. We saw a glimmer of this possibility when Her Excellency announced that the government would issue into Parliament a long overdue apology to all those who were forced to pay the Chinese head tax.
New Democrats call on the government to include both redress for head tax payers as well as to extend the apology to include all those who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act. This is a step in the right direction, but there is so much more to be done.
However, the NDP is disappointed by the omission of some very important issues, such as a clear commitment regarding the poverty of first nations, employment insurance reform, investing in our cities and communities, funding for post-secondary education and skills training, a strategy for the north, and legislation to prevent floor-crossing while holding office.
However, despite this disappointment we are encouraged by the government's acknowledgement that it does not have a majority. In the days and the weeks that follow we will be turning a critical eye to the actual substance of those issues, both absent and so briefly touched upon in yesterday's speech.
I remind members of the House that some of our greatest achievements are the result of minority parliaments, minority parliaments in which the government of the day worked with New Democrats to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Canadians. Canada's flag, old age pensions, public health care and a social program that was the envy of the world were all created in minority parliaments of the past.
Too many problems face Canada today to be satisfied with limiting the ambition of this Parliament. That is why New Democrats will use every tool available to work with Parliament to deliver what we are calling the working families first agenda. With ordinary families working harder than ever to make ends meet, they deserve action on the issues they face each and every day. We are failing our parents and our grandparents, the people who built this country, because too many of them cannot get the basic care they need.
That is why New Democrats will fight in this Parliament to enact the principles in the NDP's seniors' charter, so that seniors can have access to good quality, long term care, so that seniors and people with disabilities can get the home care that they need and so that no senior is ever forced to choose between buying medicine that they need or buying groceries as happens far too often today. Seniors have waited long enough.
In 1993 Canadians were promised a national child care program, but for 12 years, despite majority governments and budget surpluses, that promise was not kept. It is the will of Canadians and a majority of the House to at long last build a truly pan-Canadian child care program. We call on the government to build upon the current agreements. Working together we can achieve more for child care in the next 12 months than the previous government achieved in 12 years.
Our young people also need help to prepare them for the workforce. In last spring's budget the NDP forced the government of the time to reinvest in transfer payments for post-secondary education and reduce the burden of student debt. The Liberals had preferred a major corporate tax cut about which they never told anyone. However, we must go further than this now because mortgages are for houses, not for education. We also have to invest in skills training to meet the needs of employers and to compete in the global economy. Our children and youth have waited long enough.
In a country as rich as Canada, first nations, Inuit and Métis people deserve better than third world living conditions and second-class treatment. It is an absolute national disgrace that 95% of aboriginal people live below the poverty line. Despite the disappointments of the throne speech, we must follow up on the important and long overdue work achieved at Kelowna and we must quickly deliver settlements for victims of Indian residential schools.
Canada's first peoples must no longer be denied the quality of life that most Canadians take for granted. This means proper housing, health care, basic infrastructure such as clean drinking water. Aboriginal people have waited long enough to be properly considered nation to nation.
Canada is headed towards an environmental disaster. Those living in Canada's north can see it and are experiencing it. Climate change has dramatically affected their lives. Sea levels are rising. Pack ice is melting. Our forests are in jeopardy.
Climate change and other factors that we could do much about are even threatening one of the last intact ecosystems on the planet, the great Canadian boreal forest.
This government has not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to take action.
Indeed, the federal government has the responsibility to end the cycle of press releases over policy by taking meaningful action to stop climate change. Canadians have waited long enough.
For 12 years, workers have been promised changes to employment insurance. The Liberal Party has let them down. Today, two-thirds of unemployed workers are not eligible for employment insurance. It is shameful.
We must be proactive with industrial strategies for this country that stop the hemorrhaging of good jobs. We must stand up for our sovereignty which means not backing down on issues like softwood lumber. For too long Canadians have been denied anti-strike breaking legislation. New Democrats will continue to fight to protect the basic rights of workers.
As millions of baby-boomers prepare to retire, pension protection has never been more important. In the last Parliament we won protection for workers wages. In this Parliament we will fight for the pension security that workers deserve. Working families have waited long enough.
The previous government called protecting health care the fight of its life. The problem was it did not throw a single punch, forgot about the issue and forgot about the fight.
Through you, Mr. Speaker, I put this to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Health. Work with us where their predecessors failed. The NDP also has an MP here in the House of Commons who ran a provincial health system. We call on the government to join with us to introduce new rules so that no federal transfers can be used to subsidize a profit-making private insurance system. We have to put patients ahead of profits. We must ensure that doctors and health care providers cannot work in both the private and the public systems at the same time and also ensure that these tough new rules, along with all the provisions of the Canada Health Act, are strictly monitored and enforced. Canadians have waited long enough.
Canada's electoral system predates the telephone. Our country has changed but our electoral system has not. We must take responsibility to reverse the trends of declining voter turnout and the lack of representation of women in Parliament. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that he likes the reforms that were embodied in Ed Broadbent's ethics package.
I call on the government today to begin the necessary reforms, because every vote must count.
Canadians have waited long enough.
I might add that I am very proud that our caucus has a historic high with 40% of our members in this Chamber being women.
I also want to speak about Quebec, where I come from.
For ten years now, the debate over Quebec's proper place has been split between those who want to leave and those who want the status quo.
The federal Liberal government treated Quebec with real arrogance and disdain. It tried to buy votes there with the scandalous sponsorship program. Quebeckers do not want to be bought. They want respect.
It is time now to speak of reconciliation. It is time to create the winning conditions for Canada in Quebec. It is time to draw people together to create a progressive society and for a more ethical, democratic and transparent government that listens to the people. It must re-establish dialogue and honour its promises and the agreements signed with governments.
I want to offer our support to the brave women and men in our peacekeeping forces and our civilian forces working with them. We mourn the loss of life. We welcome a full debate on Canada's role in Afghanistan, an effort the NDP has been calling for for many weeks.
As I close today there is one final issue I wish to touch upon. It is an issue that the hon. Ed Broadbent spoke of so eloquently during his last days in the House. He said:
[Members] should see what can be done in the future to restore to our politics in this nation a civilized tone of debate...However we may differ, we are all human and we all have the right to have our inner dignity respected, especially in debate in the House.
We have at this juncture in our history the means and the public desire to achieve great things for this country. History will judge us well if instead of partisan opportunism and games unfit for schoolyard bullies, such as we have seen in the past, we rise above those easy indulgences and truly pursue the good of the nation.
We can choose whether this place is a surrogate for the campaign trail or whether we treat the people's House with the dignity and respect that it deserves. Instead of self-serving opposition, let us instead offer principled proposition. Let us all approach the challenges of the nation with a spirit of goodwill and collective responsibility.