Mr. Speaker, I am honoured, as leader of Her Majesty's official opposition, to rise today and lead the Liberal Party of Canada in responding to the Speech from the Throne to open the second session of the 39th Parliament of Canada.
I would like to begin by congratulating the Governor General for the elegance with which she delivered the Speech from the Throne. Unfortunately, my congratulations will almost have to stop there. The meagre Speech from the Throne delivered yesterday is so vague, so full of holes and raises so many concerns that it warrants little praise.
Yet, somehow, in thinking about this a lot, I may find something relatively positive to say about the speech. It is not as bad as the one we would have heard from the Conservative Party if it had been a majority government.
As the Prime Minister's most trusted political adviser, Professor Tom Flanagan, recently described, if the Conservatives form a majority government, rural economies would be threatened by a fatal assault on supply management and the Canadian Wheat Board. Health care would be subject to an agenda of Conservative “radical reform”. One may imagine what that means.
The work of our police officers and the safety of our citizens would be threatened by the absolute dismantling of the gun registry and our environment would be neglected by those who believe that, to quote Mr. Flanagan's incredibly irresponsible statement, “global warming may threaten the planet, but it actually improves the weather in Canada”.
Canadians can count on the Liberal Party. The Conservative Party will never form a majority.
The throne speech we heard yesterday, with all of its weaknesses, has to be assessed in light of the fact that Canadians do not want another election right now. They want Parliament to do its job.
Three general elections in three and a half years, not to mention the provincial elections held recently or to be held shortly, would be too much in the eyes of Canadians.
The Prime Minister and his government may be increasingly frustrated by an opposition that prevents them from implementing their ultra-Conservative program; but we, the official opposition, are determined to make Parliament work. That is what Canadians want.
Let us look at the more positive aspects of the Speech from the Throne. It is encouraging to see that the government intends to expand the scope of the Action Plan for Official Languages, which linguistic minorities are in the bad habit of calling the Dion plan. We hope the government will keep this promise and table a robust plan that it will not have to call the Dion plan II.
But why stop there? Why not revive the court challenges program that has done so much to protect minority rights? And why not reinstate the bilingual requirement for officers of the Canadian Forces?
We are pleased to see that the government has finally decided to offer an official apology to the victims of the Indian residential schools. This does not in any way discharge the government of its obligation to right the terrible wrongs caused by its rejection of the Kelowna Accord, which delayed urgently needed measures in education, health and infrastructure, and by its refusal to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We are also pleased with the government's interest in Canada's North and we support its intention to set up a world-class research station there. However, we would like to know the location of the site, the budget and the deadlines for achieving this plan.
It was high time for the government to keep its promise of mapping the Arctic seabed. It made that promise 18 months ago. We would like to know how the government intends to respect the crucial 2013 deadline to show that the continental shelf falls within Canadian territory, which our country is required to do since it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The government also talked about expanding aerial surveillance in the North, but then why not deploy fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, as the previous Liberal government planned to do?
One may also ask why the government makes no mention of the building of small craft harbours in the Arctic, when such a measure could create jobs and increase trade and tourism in northern Canada.
And why not take a collaborative diplomatic approach to assert our interests with the Arctic Council, the only international organization of circumpolar countries, which can deal with major Arctic issues, and within which Canada must still play a leadership role?
Finally, to conclude on the North, how can one talk about the North without talking about enhancing the quality of life of its inhabitants, the quality of life of the Inuit people and services that are provided to them, particularly at a time when global warming has such a profound effect on their way of life?
In another positive point in the Speech from the Throne, we were pleased to learn that the government was committed to supporting our veterans. However, the throne speech does not contain any provision to enhance the quality of life of active members of our armed forces and their families, particularly to help them overcome the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that often follow their deployment overseas.
We take note of the government's intention to modernize the Canadian armed forces. However, we have some concerns about the way that it wants to do so. Will the government continue with its troubling reliance on contracting without tender? Contracts of $30 billion have already been awarded in this manner.
It is good to learn that the government has decided to make a commitment toward Haiti, but it remains vague on the exact nature of this commitment. Is it financial aid for basic health care? Is it funds for reforestation? We still do not know.
Of course we applaud the decision to grant Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi honorary Canadian citizenship. This is an idea that we fully support and that our colleague from the Yukon has been promoting for months.
Let me now turn my attention to the more problematic sections of the speech, starting with the absurd expression that the Prime Minister keeps repeating. Let me tell the Prime Minister that when he argues that “Canada is back” he diminishes the fine tradition of Canadian peacekeeping and international leadership that long preceded the Conservative government's election to office.
And for that, Canadians must wonder where the Prime Minister was back when Canada obtained an international treaty banning landmines; when Canada was a main architect of the International Criminal Court; when Canadian armed forces airplanes were the only ones operating an airlift in and out of Kigali during the Rwanda genocide; when our soldiers fought to protect Bosnia's civilian population; or when Canada hosted the world in Montreal and rallied it around the Kyoto protocol.
The government's continued ambiguity on the mission in Afghanistan is also disconcerting. The government is being deliberately ambiguous about the length of the mission in Kandahar. In fact, it does not want to mention the word Kandahar. Nor does it mention the words “combat mission”. It refuses to call the Canadian mission in Kandahar what it is: a counter-insurgency combat mission in which our troops are required to proactively seek out and engage the Taliban.
The Prime Minister now wants Canadians to believe that this combat mission is a training mission. It is not. If the government wants to transform it into a training mission after February 2009, that could be an acceptable option, one that we have advocated for since last February and one that the blue ribbon panel on Afghanistan has been instructed to consider.
Still, the government should immediately notify NATO and the government of Afghanistan that our combat mission in Kandahar will end in February 2009. By refusing to do so, the government makes it more difficult to replace our troops and to prepare a new Canadian mission.
There is another question on Afghanistan. Why has the government asked the Manley panel to look at four options while the throne speech already chooses one of the four options: accelerated training of the Afghan army and police? Perhaps the Prime Minister should inform the panel that its work is done.
The mission in Afghanistan is an important one, but we cannot remain silent, as the throne speech does, on our other responsibilities around the world. Why has the Prime Minister turned his back on Africa? And what does the government intend to do in Darfur?
Beyond these international issues, we also have important domestic challenges to address. I would like to discuss the important issue of our federation, which has recently been affected by the Prime Minister's breach of trust with so many provinces.
The throne speech states that “the constitutional jurisdiction of each order of government should be respected”, but the Prime Minister should start by respecting premiers. It is inconceivable that after 19 months in office the Prime Minister of Canada has refused to call a first ministers meeting with the premiers. This is not open federalism. It is simply “my door is closed” federalism.
Hence, the Prime Minister wants to go ahead with his unilateral reform of the Senate despite the fact that many provinces have expressed serious disagreement with his proposals.
Now he is announcing that he will introduce legislation to formally limit the federal spending power. The Prime Minister should understand, however, that he must convene the premiers to discuss this most important issue. Otherwise, he would simply be guilty of more closed-door federalism.
Could I humbly suggest that the Prime Minister consult me on the issue of the federal spending power just as he consulted me before introducing the motion on the Quebec nation within Canada?
When he does, I will tell him that the federal spending power as he described it in the throne speech falls short of the present limits to that power that I myself, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Chrétien, introduced in the throne speech of 1996. More importantly, the proposed limits fall short of the social union agreement of which I was the architect.
To continue with my exercise in humility, I will add that no federal politician placed greater limits on the federal spending power than I did, but I did so without reducing its usefulness.
Let us hope that the Prime Minister's objective conforms with the spirit of the social union framework agreement; that is, to use the federal spending power as a tool both for social progress and for partnership between the governments of our great federation.
In Canada federal spending power has been instrumental in building the Canada-wide social programs that all Canadians value, such as medicare. It has been essential in promoting equality of opportunity for all Canadians, helping to ensure access to social programs and services to Canadians wherever they are in Canada.
The social union framework agreement, SUFA, recently helped to successfully negotiate the early learning and child care agreements with the provinces and territories. These agreements have, sadly, been cancelled by the Conservatives, depriving millions of children and families of billions of dollars in funding to improve their early childhood development opportunities.
We Liberals will make sure that the initiatives of the Conservative government do not in any way diminish the value of the federal spending power as a tool to promote social progress for Canadians and good partnerships between governments. We will not allow the Prime Minister to build a federalism of firewalls.
Let me also remind the government that today in Canada more than half a million of our senior citizens live in poverty. The men and women who built this country deserve better.
Today in Canada, more than one million children live in poverty. We cannot waste a generation. All of our children deserve to share in the bounty of our nation.
A plan to fight poverty is urgent and, let me tell everyone, it will be at the heart of our Liberal agenda.
Earlier, I mentioned our health care plan, which is the result of a wise use of the federal spending power. In the throne speech, the government congratulates itself—not really honestly, I might add—for the progress it made in shortening wait times. Unfortunately, we do not see any such progress. In fact, according to a recent report by the Fraser Institute, the average wait time for surgery in Canada now stands at 18.3 weeks, the longest it has ever been.
Now, I come to the economy. The Conservative government inherited an unprecedented economic dynamism thanks to the efforts of Canadians and to a decade of sound financial management by the previous Liberal government. The economy has not been in such good shape since Confederation. This is the longest growth period in decades. We have the highest growth rate of all G-8 countries with major job creation, balanced budgets, a trade surplus and a reduction of our national debt. Our country is the only one to have succeeded in putting its pension plan on a solid footing for the long term.
Over the past 19 months, the Conservative government has been content with just riding on this strong economy without having any plans or convincing scheme to enhance our economy's potential. That is what I call being near-sighted. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that there will be no end to the current growth. The fact is that this government has done more harm than good in terms of Canada's international competitiveness. It is about to allocate $12 billion per year to cut the GST by two points, a measure that will not allow Canadians to bring more money home, does nothing to combat poverty and does not make our economy more competitive in any way.
The Conservatives' interest deductibility proposal is a frontal attack on the competitiveness of Canadian companies and has been denounced as the worst tax policy in 35 years. It will cost Canadian companies billions and will serve mainly to enrich foreign governments. The Prime Minister has not listened to common sense, but it is not too late for him to do so.
It is not the time to make such mistakes. The parity of our currency with the U.S. dollar, the uncertainty of the U.S. market, the high cost of energy, and the new powerhouses of India and China are all putting pressure on our economy and on the exporters and manufacturers that generate the jobs upon which we depend to maintain our high standard of living. Nearly 80,000 workers have lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector this year alone.
To maintain these jobs, and to enhance this standard of living well into the future, we must find ways to improve the innovation, competiveness and productivity of our businesses and workers.
The throne speech mentions infrastructure. It mentions post-secondary education. It mentions science and technology. It mentions the manufacturing, forestry, fisheries, mining, resources, tourism and agriculture sectors. But a mention is no substitute for a plan. We hope that the fall economic and fiscal update will provide clarity on how the government will improve Canada's competitiveness.
The throne speech promises tax cuts, but the government actually raised income tax rates in the lowest bracket from 15% to 15.5%. This decision costs Canadians over a billion dollars every year.
On international trade, the government did not explain why it closed consulates in key markets such as St. Petersburg, Osaka and Milan.
The government went to lengths to hide the flawed softwood lumber agreement, an agreement that cost the Canadian industry at least $1 billion, which is being put in the hands of those now using the money to sue our companies.
On the matter of criminal justice and security for Canadians, the government laments that much of its legislation did not pass. What the government always fails to mention is that for months it systematically refused Liberal offers to fast track the majority of its legislation. Of the six bills the government wants to reintroduce as part of the tackling violent crime bill, we already support five.
It is the government that obstructed the passage of these bills, causing them to die on the order paper at prorogation, and it did so to the detriment of the security of Canadians. Hopefully the government will be more cooperative in the coming session. We urge the government to stop playing politics with the Criminal Code and to stop putting partisan politics ahead of the safety of Canadians.
Further, with respect to the tackling violent crime bill, we obviously want to see exactly what the legislation will say. We could support it if includes measures that would make Canadians safer. We Liberals are tough on crime and we are tough on the causes of crime.
As for the Anti-terrorism Act, the government has not indicated what changes we can expect. We hope that this time it will be informed by the 100 recommendations made by the House and the Senate in their recent reports and that it will not renew its attempts to play politics with such an important issue.
This brings me to the most disappointing aspect of the Speech from the Throne: extremely weak environmental protection measures.
Once again, the government missed an opportunity to meet the challenge of fighting global warming, the most serious environmental threat facing humanity today.
In this Speech from the Throne, the government said that Canada's greenhouse gas emissions could not be reduced to the level required under the Kyoto protocol for the first phase of implementation, that is between 2008 and 2012. One thing is sure, with this government's so-called plan, greenhouse gas emissions are bound to continue increasing in Canada.
Let me outline the damages the Prime Minister and his government have caused to Canada.
All I need to do is sum up the Sierra Club of Canada's Kyoto report card for 2007. It explains that last year the Conservatives cut over $5 billion worth of investment in environment and climate change programs. The Sierra Club said:
Federal programs were slashed, and the importance of addressing global warming was downplayed.
An entire year was lost.
The Sierra Club goes on to say:
--Canada had a plan for reaching its Kyoto targets. This plan, Project Green...had provided a foundation for action upon which new Conservative initiatives could have been built.... Instead of improving Project Green, the new government shredded it along with its programs and its institutions, in March 2006.
This is what the government has been doing to Canada. It has spent all of 2007 trying to reannounce the programs it scrapped in 2006, changing their names and their logos with less money, less commitment, no coherence and incompetence in implementation.
This is what the Conservatives have done to Canada. Now look at what they have done to the world.
Let me again quote the Sierra Club:
The current government also inherited the presidency of the International Climate negotiations, which had been led by former environment minister [the Leader of the Opposition]. The Canadian government’s efforts at the international climate change conference in Montreal won Canada international praise.
Under the new Conservative government, Canada quickly went from hero to zero. At an international conference in Bonn, Canada attempted to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol.
It is what the Prime Minister means when he says that Canada is back.
In contrast, in 2007, the official opposition proposed an enhanced climate change plan to conquer our industrial emissions, the carbon budget. When we launched this carbon budget in March 2007, the Pembina Institute said:
This is the strongest proposal for regulating industrial greenhouse gas pollution made by any political party in Canada.
--it sets the right targets and the right timelines....
The Climate Action Network said:
This is great. It's hard to ask for much more
It is important to recognize that the other two opposition parties agreed to include this regulatory plan in Bill C-30 on air quality and climate change.
On August 23, I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask him not to scrap Bill C-30 after proroguing the House. The Prime Minister did not even deign to reply. On reading the throne speech, we can see why.
The Conservatives will only bring forward the minor parts of the clean air and climate change act, the ones they allow their members to support. As a result, the regulatory framework to cut and bring down gas emissions is gone. The regulatory framework to improve air quality is gone. The autonomous emissions standards are gone. This is a step backwards in the face of a major global challenge.
What are we left with? We are left with a government plan that has been panned by all credible experts in Canada and abroad, a climate change plan that has been panned by all the experts, like the new Nobel Prize winner, Al Gore, who called the Prime Minister's plan “a complete and total fraud, designed to mislead the Canadian people”.
The Pembina Institute, that once rated Project Green, the Liberal plan killed by the Conservatives, would have delivered almost seven times more reduction than the government's current approach.
The Deutsche Bank said, “We think that the Canadian government has materially overstated the cost of complying with Kyoto. Under current policies, we would expect Canada's industrial gas emissions to continue rising over 2006-2020".
According to the C.D. Howe Institute, with the government plan, “overall emissions in Canada are unlikely to fall below current levels” until 2050 and beyond.
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said:
--targets set by your government are so easy to meet that oil companies could end up with a windfall of $400 million worth of easy credits.
Under the Conservative plan polluters do not pay; polluters get paid.
I could also quote the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which also harshly criticized the government's plan.
The throne speech states that national regulations to reduce emissions will be implemented this year. We do not know what the government is talking about, since its own regulations will not see the light before 2010 at the earliest. Does this mean that the government has changed its mind and will assign a monetary value to carbon in 2008?
Let us hope that the government understands that it must significantly strengthen all its initiatives to protect the environment and fight climate change.
Canadians can count on the official opposition to press the government to take action and be accountable. The government must understand that any deadline set for meeting our targets for the first phase of implementation of the Kyoto protocol, which ends in 2012, can be corrected during the second phase, after 2012. But to do that, we have to start today. That is why the government has to significantly toughen its measures to fight climate change.
The official opposition will cooperate fully with the government to help it reach real targets. Canada must remain a party to the Kyoto protocol, the only international accord to fight what is a global threat.
The official opposition certainly remains very critical of the throne speech but never before has a federal government fallen on the basis of a throne speech.
Canadians can count on the official opposition to do everything it can to make this Parliament work. To that end, we will propose amendments and we will not make the government fall on its throne speech, which would cause a third general election in four years, something Canadians have clearly shown they do not want.
The amendments we are putting forward would enable us to support the throne speech. If they are rejected, we will do as the NDP when it decided on October 16, 2006 to abstain on the vote on the softwood lumber agreement in order to avoid causing an election.
As another leader of the official opposition said some years ago, “I believe it's not in the national interest to have an election now. What has become apparent is that the Bloc Québécois and the NDP will grandstand on these things but it is up to us, our caucus, to decide whether the time has come to have an election. In our judgment and I think in Canadians' judgment it is not that time”.
Everybody will have guessed that this leader of the opposition, quoted on March 10, 2005, is our current Prime Minister when he was explaining his party's dissension to the 2005 budget.
I will now move an amendment that could even allow the official opposition to support the throne speech if it met with the approval of the House. I move:
That the motion be amended by adding the following:
and this House calls upon the government to recognize that any shortfall in meeting our 2012 Kyoto commitments would be a result of their decision to kill the previous government's innovative Project Green plan, followed by 18 months of inaction, and the government must replace its weak approach with real action to create the momentum required for Canada to catch-up in the second phase of Kyoto;
to announce now that the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar will end in February 2009 in order to facilitate a replacement, and begin discussions with NATO and the Government of Afghanistan on what non-combat role Canada can play afterwards to aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan;
to end 18 months of inaction in the fight against poverty in Canada by building on the good work of the previous Liberal government that funded such initiatives as the Canada Child Tax Benefit, affordable housing, literacy, the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI) and the Working Income Tax Benefit; and
to stop taking for granted the unprecedented strong economy and fiscal success inherited by this government from its predecessor and bring forward proposals to reduce corporate taxes and other measures that will improve the economy of Canada, especially in sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture, and lessen the impact of the government's egregious mistakes on income trusts and interest deductibility.