Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to enter into the debate on Bill C-284 on behalf of the New Democratic Party caucus and on behalf of the critic for post-secondary education, the member for Victoria, who was unable to be with us today due to surgery, but I am proud to represent her views. I will begin by recognizing and paying tribute to the admirable work she has done on behalf of post-secondary education on a regular basis since she came to Ottawa to represent the riding of Victoria, B.C.
I also would like to recognize the efforts of the member for Halifax West and his stubborn determination to see this issue through, in spite of some very adversarial treatment, I am told, at the committee stage.
Mr. Speaker, I think you would agree with me that the way this bill was dealt with at committee was not in keeping with what we would consider honourable parliamentary practice. It was reported back to the House with all clauses deleted. Can you imagine?
The job of committees is to add to, complement and improve bills that are put in their charges. As members know, when a bill leaves the House it is in the hands of the committee to do with as it will. The dominant members of that committee, the Conservatives and the Bloc in this case, eliminated every clause of the bill. How is that improving the bill? How is that a sincere and genuine attempt to add to this important issue?
If I were the member for Halifax West, I would be some peeved if my efforts had been dealt with in such a cavalier fashion. It is not the way we are supposed to do business around here.
What we are faced with today is a motion by the member for Halifax West and, I believe, the member for Mississauga South who are trying to reintroduce the same clauses that were deleted, one by one, in a very cavalier and heavy-handed fashion at the committee.
If one were in favour of the original bill, as was my colleague from Victoria and the NDP caucus, we support this effort on the part of our Liberal Party colleagues to reintroduce those same clauses in this very worthwhile initiative to provide access grants to more post-secondary education students, to not only reinstate the policy that was put in place in August 2005, which gave tuition to students from low income families in the amount of $3,000 in their first year of post-secondary education, but actually to augment that and to give that same level of grants to students from low income families for every year of their first university degree, if I understand the bill correctly.
Even though I know my colleague from Victoria was careful to point out that this would not fill the gap in post-secondary funding, it is the first idea that we have seen to take any meaningful steps toward improving legitimate access and bringing down the overwhelming, crippling debt load that too many post-secondary students are carrying today.
Naturally, we would support this bill as one step, hopefully, in a multi-faceted approach to expanding access to post-secondary education. Again, it confuses me as to why the Conservatives would treat us in such a way.
Let me expand again on some of the difficulties that I have with the process here. If the Conservatives had the votes to defeat the bill in the House at some stage, why would they take this back door approach to undermine and to scuttle this bill at committee by deleting every clause? I would put it to the House that the only reason they would take that avenue of recourse is that they are ashamed and embarrassed to stand in the House of Commons and vote against such a worthwhile and fair initiative to help students.
In the days and months preceding an inevitable federal election, the Conservatives do not want to be standing in their places, sitting on a multi-billion dollar surplus, I might add, and, in such a miserly way, deny the students of the poorest of poor families the ability to achieve post-secondary education. That is the only reason.
The Conservatives must have looked it up in the anarchist handbook that they use at committees on how to sabotage and undermine the activities of committees. They must have looked at page 32 of that anarchist handbook and decided that if all else failed, they would buy off the Bloc, delete every clause, clause by clause, and then report back to the House with a blank piece of paper. That is a pretty dirty trick. I believe it undermines the integrity of the House and the integrity of committee work generally.
I heard a wise man say once that education is the greatest social equalizer that we have. Post-secondary education in this country is the only reliable means to go from poverty to middle class and beyond in a single generation.
This bill specifically targets lowest income families. If I understand the point made by my colleague from Halifax West, to be eligible for this, total family income must be lower than $36,000, which is a very low threshold. A family whose total family income is well below the national average of $36,000 needs assistance if their children are going to get into post-secondary institutions. If students have to rely totally on loans, and this is one thing I find fault with the previous Liberal government, the burden of tuition has gone up such a degree that they will be carrying a debt the size of a small mortgage by the time they graduate.
Every year that the Liberals were in power, the average student debt rose by $1,000 per year. In other words, if the average debt was $15,000 at the start of the Liberal tenure, by the end of it a student was carrying $28,000 in debt. At the same time, transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education through the CHST were slashed in 1995 from $20 billion a year down to $11 billion a year, leaving the burden once again on the provinces and then on students.
I am proud to say that in my own home province of Manitoba, since the NDP formed government in 1999, there has been a tuition freeze every year. This is the ninth or tenth year in row that tuition has been frozen. Manitoba now has the second lowest tuition in the country, and access has never been greater.
Nobody can deny that there is a direct correlation to tuition fees and the degree of participation in post-secondary education. If one needs any graphic empirical evidence, they can look at the great socialist province of Manitoba where everyone virtually can achieve post-secondary education, or money at least will not be a barrier.
While I am critical of the Liberals' approach to post-secondary education in the time they had the opportunity to make it more accessible, I cannot help but recognize and applaud the efforts of the member for Halifax West to do something for Canadian students who are staggering under this crippling debt load.
I find it very regrettable that the debate today is on the motion from my colleague from Halifax West to reintroduce the clauses that were eliminated and deleted from his bill at committee stage. A legitimate amendment at committee stage adds to, compliments, or changes the character of a clause. It does not simply delete everything from the title on down. That is dirty pool by anybody's standards and shows again how vulnerable the Conservatives and the Bloc would be if they had to stand up in the House and vote against such a laudable notion as accessible post-secondary education in the days and weeks leading up to a federal election, especially when they are sitting on a record budget surplus, the likes of which we have never seen before.
If those members cannot find a couple of shekels to help post-secondary education and to help students access post-secondary education, then they can explain that to the general public during the next federal election.