Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor.
Given the strong fiscal record that the Conservatives inherited from the former Liberal government, it is surprising that the first Conservative budget lacks any substantive and real vision for Canada.
Never in the history of our country has any new government inherited such an excellent fiscal position that could have allowed the Conservatives to offer some very positive initiatives. It took our government three years to clear up the Mulroney Conservative deficit spending of $42 billion, followed by eight consecutive surplus budgets with a projection of at least three to five more to come under a Liberal government.
Let me first address some of the alleged tax cuts. Chortling over the reduction of the lowest personal income tax rate from 16% to 15.5% provided comic relief if it was not so serious when one realizes that the 2005 personal tax rate was 15%, and the 15.5% proposed for 2006 tax year will actually be higher. Some tax relief. The reality is that next year Canadians will be paying more.
When experienced economists panned the 1% cut to the GST, the Conservatives plowed ahead with their political bribe. Let us acknowledge that compared to other nations the GST is not that oppressively high. As a consumption tax its reduction will assist higher income citizens to buy more big ticket items while only marginally benefiting lower and middle income earners. Further, for pensioners on an indexed income, there will be little if any benefit because, according to the Bank of Canada, it will lower the rate of increase of the consumer price index by 0.6%. This impacts recipients of old age security and the Canada pension plan, seniors who can least afford it, and in fact they deserve more. Cutting the GST may mildly stimulate an economy that really does not need it. What trade-offs is the government actually making?
In my riding, health care remains the number one priority. Unfortunately, the budget confirms that it does not fall within the Conservatives' five priorities. Yes, there was the patient wait times guarantee, but where is the new money? We are still looking for it. What they have done is to rely on the funding of the Liberal 10-year, $41 billion health accord that created a $5.5 billion wait times reduction fund. The Liberals were on the mark, were they not?
Canadians across the country will soon appreciate that it was the Liberal government that worked with the provinces and territories to establish benchmarks for medically acceptable wait times, to set reductions for key medical procedures, to integrate foreign trained medical professionals, and to supplement shortages within the Canadian medical field. A stronger, better health care system is a priority for Canadians that the Conservative government continues to overlook.
All of our agricultural sectors are under financial stress and we all know it. What is essential is that in order to get our best value for our money, we must ensure that farmers in the most need will get the money now as we head into the planting season. They need a cheque to take to the bank now.
The Conservative budget commits no emergency funding for spring planting. In the last campaign the Liberals acknowledged that improvements were needed to the Canadian agricultural income stabilization plan, CAIS. The Conservatives pledged to scrap it.
It is most interesting to note that the Conservatives will now turn to CAIS to distribute the money the federal budget has designated for our farmers. Will the new government ensure that the distribution of money under CAIS will address the inequities in farm and rural communities across Canada? We have yet to hear the answer.
The government says it is providing $1.5 billion, but that money will go to inventory evaluation and reforming CAIS, not to producers who are in dire need of immediate financing.
The farmers need $1.6 billion over and above the existing program. Compare the Conservative approach to the Liberal government that provided $1.8 billion in emergency funding in 2005 which was over and above more than $206 million provided in the Liberal budget for Canadian producers. Canadians in the agricultural sector will soon appreciate that a Liberal government was a good government and they will want it back.
The tender fruit farmers and grape growers in my region of Niagara were disappointed that their request for assistance for a replant program to assist the industry went unheard. I will continue to lobby for this well thought out and doable initiative to assist Niagara farm communities.
Post-secondary education for our students and research and development for the institutions they attend are the building blocks upon which Canada and Canadians will compete in the highly competitive global economy. Welland riding is home to Brock University and Niagara College. How do they fare? On this the Conservative budget gets a failing grade, the results of which will be felt in the years to come. Yes, there was a pledge of $1 billion in much needed university infrastructure, but it is not new money at all. It was money committed by the former Liberal government under last year's Bill C-48.
Where is the money for research and development that until now has thrust Canadian universities and colleges into the forefront of the knowledge based, technology driven, skills intensive and highly competitive global economy? The lack of such funding will relegate us to the backwater of mediocrity in the G-7.
Removing the tax on scholarships is helpful to the minority of students who receive such awards, although few students pay income tax in any event.
What about the vast majority of talented and smart young men and women who do not win scholarships? Where is the relief for them? There was the expansion of the Canada student loans program which may be advantageous for some. However, the reality is that these students will still fall further into debt, a debt that must be repaid.
Then there is the $500 book credit that translates into 60 or 80 real dollars when most students must spend $1,000 to $1,500 on books annually. Compare this with the Liberal plan to provide 50% of tuition costs of a student's first and final year of a four year program to a maximum of $6,000. Those are real dollars addressing real needs for our university students.
The Prime Minister has revealed plans to slash $1 billion a year for the next two years on unidentified programs. What vital programs for rural communities will be slashed? Regional development agencies such as Ventures Niagara and the South Niagara Community Futures Development Corporation were shut out of this budget. Regional development agencies such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, ACOA, Community Economic Development Québec, CEDQ, the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, FedNor, and Western Economic Diversification, WED, have done much to help small towns and rural areas. Are we to believe that the Conservatives have turned their backs on this important part of the economic and social fabric of our country? Do they no longer fit into a Conservative Ottawa? The budget tells the tale. It looks too much like yes.
Let me turn to the subject of early learning and child care and the cancellation of the agreements signed by the Liberal government with the provinces in favour of a taxable $1,200 payment to parents of preschool children. Twelve hundred dollars looks and sounds good but what it amounts to is a few dollars a day after taxes. That is more fluff and smoke and mirrors. It does not go anywhere near the daily cost of child care of $35 to $40 a day in my riding.
This is not a child care strategy nor a solution. It does little to help children in care and nothing to help those who cannot find affordable child care at this time. The government suggested this program will provide choice. Where is the choice if there are no places to care for one's child?
The Liberal program was not just about child care. It was about better care and development. It was not just the creation of spaces, but on giving our young children an intellectual boost, a head start which in the long run would help these children develop in primary school, secondary school, and at college and university. Not only would it help themselves but our country in an increasingly competitive world. This is not fantasy; this is reality, and it is what the Conservatives have turned their backs. on.
Many have suggested that the Conservative government has introduced a pro-pollution budget by slashing support for the environment.
Indeed, the Conservative budget has all but gutted every cent the previous Liberal government committed toward the protection of Canada's environment. This budget represents a 93% cut to environmental funding and a complete disaster for future generations.
It also represents a 100% cut in funding for climate change ensuring that Canada will be unable to meet its Kyoto commitments. With no money for Great Lakes cleanup, renewable energy, energy retrofits, energy efficient programs, brownfield cleanup or green innovation, the Conservative government is undoing the progress we have made. The citizens of the Niagara region are sensitive to these issues and will remember at election time.
I offer the foregoing comments in a critical but constructive way. I also wish to acknowledge some quasi-positive features of the budget. Although designed to court the favour of designated groups, most are really only veneer deep.
The $1,000 Canada employment credit recognizes the expenses related to employment responsibilities such as uniforms. It really does cost to work and a credit provides some relief, perhaps the cost of one pair of work boots.
The apprenticeship job creation tax credit will encourage individuals to enter the trades and the $500 deduction for the cost of tools will help them as well. Again, a credit provides some relief.
Reduction of the permanent resident application fee by 50% will assist our newest citizens to continue their integration into Canadian society.
The $500 tax credit to cover registration fees for children's sport programs will strike a chord with hockey and soccer parents, but what about the parents who cannot afford to put their children into sports programs? What about children who are attracted to other forms of recreation, such as music, dancing or drama? Are their parents not worthy of assistance as well? This credit will translate into between $60 and $80 a year, perhaps enough to buy a pair of skates or soccer shoes.
Do we see a pattern here? Most of these items are tax credits, tax credits, tax credits which look good on the outside but will reflect considerably less when people file their income tax returns on April 30 next. Smoke and mirrors and fluff. Do not worry. The taxpayers will catch on soon enough.