Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time today with the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
I am delighted to participate in this debate today, both as the NDP critic for seniors and pensions, but more importantly, as the member of Parliament for Hamilton Mountain.
During the last two weeks that the House was not sitting, I spent every day talking to people at their doors and in my community office, meeting with groups and attending community functions. Everywhere the message was the same. People are increasingly recognizing the existence of a prosperity gap in Canada. They do not feel that they are benefiting from the economic growth they keep hearing about, and they are right. The numbers back them up.
Not only is there a growing gap between the rich and the poor, there is also an alarming erosion of economic security for middle class Canadians. I stood in the House yesterday, before the budget was tabled, and relayed what ordinary Hamiltonians told me that their priorities were for achieving some fairness. Now that we have the budget in hand, I would like to evaluate it in that context.
Did the budget close the prosperity gap for people on Hamilton Mountain who are working hard and playing by the rules but who are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet? Let us look at each of the items I raised yesterday in turn.
I spoke about the desire among my constituents to see some significant property tax relief through federal investments in urban infrastructure. In a community where our aging infrastructure is leading to regular flooding, poorly maintained roads and constant struggles to expand public transit while keeping fares down, Hamiltonians had hoped for a serious investment in our city. Ratepayers cannot afford to shoulder the additional burden of these essential investments solely on their property taxes.
These are precisely the hard-working families that the government says that it wants to support, but instead of making the infrastructure investments that would relieve our local tax burden, the infrastructure spending that the budget actually entails is money that will flow to the provinces, not directly to the municipalities, and it must be spent on public-private partnerships.
For anyone not familiar with the significance of the P3 stipulation, let me just remind them of Highway 407 where a public asset was turned into a toll road to satisfy the voracious revenue appetite of the private sector. That arrangement is costing Hamiltonians dearly and the last thing we need are more such infrastructure investments that end up costing us over and over again.
On public transit, the budget is virtually silent. There is absolutely no new dedicated money for transit. In short, the most basic needs of our municipality have gone unmet.
Second, I called yesterday for a manufacturing sector strategy. Hamilton has lost thousands of decent paying jobs as a result of restructuring and plant closures. Not only is the budget silent on strategic investments to Canada's industrial heartland, but it ignores the plight of displaced workers as well.
This budget offers no support to older and laid off workers. It is silent on employment insurance. It fails to protect the wages and pensions of workers in cases of commercial bankruptcies. To add insult to injury, it keeps in place almost $9 billion in corporate tax cuts over the next four years. Clearly, this budget was written more for those at the boardroom table than for hard-working families around the kitchen table.
Equally galling is the fact that this budget fails to address the needs of transient workers. We have significant labour shortages in parts of our country with decent paying jobs beckoning workers from other regions but this budget does nothing to remove the barriers to accessing those jobs.
This is particularly true for workers in the building trades who often go to job sites for a limited amount of time until a project is complete. The building trades have been lobbying for over 30 years to be able to deduct their accommodation and meal expenses from their income taxes when they work at a job site that is more than 80 kilometres away from their homes. They and I had hoped that this issue would be addressed in this budget.
I have a private member's bill, Bill C-390, on the floor of this House that would do precisely that. I had indicated to the Minister of Finance that I would be happy to see progress on this issue regardless of whether it was through the passage of my bill or through a government initiative. In the end, the government sat on its hands. Again, it could not help but add insult to injury by increasing the meal allowance for long haul truckers from 50% to 80%.
All the building trades have asked for is a little bit of fairness. The government's inaction comes as a slap in the face.
The third issue my constituents raised with me was the gouging that has been happening at the pumps. For people who require a vehicle to get to and from work each and every day, nothing has had a more direct inflationary impact on their household budgets than the price of gasoline.
Where is the federal watchdog to ensure that hard-working families are not being hosed? Where is the relief? Instead, ordinary Canadians learned yesterday that they do not rate. Instead of helping them make ends meet, the government continued its billion dollar subsidies to the oil and gas industries for the next three years, with a complete phase-out not even in the picture until five years after that.
Again, the rich are getting richer while hard-working Canadians are struggling to make ends meet. The budget did nothing to close the prosperity gap.
What about those who are living at or near the poverty line? Yesterday's budget created the working income tax benefit, purportedly to help the lowest income earner. In fact, it does nothing to help those who are making the minimum wage. While serious initiatives to help the most vulnerable in our communities are always welcome, the government should have sent a resounding message that in a country as wealthy as Canada it is completely unacceptable that someone who is working 40 hours a week at minimum wage is still living below the poverty line.
In the absence of showing a willingness to move toward a living wage by setting the federal minimum wage at $10 immediately, the budget has done little to close the prosperity gap.
I also called yesterday for investments in post-secondary education. Again, the government would want hard-working Canadians to believe that it has moved aggressively on this file but let us take a closer look. These investments create scholarships for graduate students, but do nothing for those who are working on their first degree. These are precisely the students who are weighing whether they can afford to get the education they need to participate in the knowledge based economy against a potential average student debt of more than $24,000.
A budget that does not address student debt and student loans does nothing to enhance access to post-secondary education for children in modest and middle income families.
With respect to yet another key priority for residents on Hamilton Mountain, it is good to see that the government is at least taking baby steps forward with respect to the environment. However, it is obvious that the government has not spent a great deal of time thinking about this issue and is offering little more than the symbolic gesture that the Liberal leader gave Canadians when he named his dog Kyoto. There is no serious commitment in the budget to the Kyoto accord, to mandatory fuel efficiency standards or short, medium and long term targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The following is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the budget. The Conservatives are offering a $2,000 tax credit on the purchase of green cars, but sadly the vast majority of these vehicles are being built in Japan and in the United States. Indirectly they are subsidizing foreign car manufacturers. Instead what they should have been doing is investing in the environment and in Canadian jobs by supporting the production of green cars right here in Canada, but nowhere in the budget do we find an auto sector strategy.
Moreover, the carbon tax that is going to be imposed on vehicles that are not fuel efficient is going to impact the very middle class families that the government says it wants to help. Parents who are driving their kids to hockey, soccer and baseball games are buying the minivans. Neither the $310 child tax credit nor the $500 children's fitness tax credit will compensate for the up to $4,000 surtax on their minivans.
I have one last point on the environment. I was pleased to see the cleanup of Hamilton Harbour get at least a cursory mention in the budget, but an $11 million allocation for cleaning up contaminated sediment in Hamilton Harbour as well as the Niagara River, the Detroit River, St. Marys River, Thunder Bay, Peninsula Harbour, St. Clair River and Bay of Quinte is clearly wholly inadequate. The city of Hamilton alone had asked the federal government to contribute $30 million toward the cleanup of Randle Reef.
Equally inadequate is the government's investment in health care. While some new initiatives are being funded, the top of mind concerns of families in Hamilton are not being addressed. There is no mention in the budget of training and hiring new health care professionals to deal with the doctor shortage. There is no investment in pharmacare to help people with their drug costs. There is no investments in home care to allow seniors to live independently in their own homes longer and to take some of the burden off their children who all too often are becoming primary caregivers by default. There is no investment in long term care despite the fact that many acute care beds in our hospitals are tied up needlessly because chronic care beds are not available.
The seniors whose tax dollars built our health care system deserve to have it be there for them at a time in their lives when they need it most. The same is true with respect to their retirement income. The budget is a disgrace when it comes to its treatment of seniors. It brags about the fact that it allows seniors to work longer when in reality most seniors only continue to work because they cannot afford to retire. In Hamilton 25% of seniors live in poverty and 36% of single women over the age of 75 live in poverty, none of whom I might point out can benefit from pension splitting because they either never had or no longer have a partner or a spouse.
Announcing through the budget that seniors should now count themselves lucky because the government will allow them to be Wal-Mart greeters is hardly a strategy for allowing seniors to retire with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Seniors had hoped for increases to the OAS and GIS. They had hoped that the tax rate for the lowest income bracket would be dropped from 15.5% to 15%, where it was before the budget of the Conservatives of last year. They had hoped for new affordable housing and expanded public transit. They had hoped to reimbursed for all the full amount that the government shortchanged them as a result of Statistic Canada's mistake in calculating the consumer price index. None of these things were delivered in the budget.
By definition, seniors cannot wait forever. For a government that supported my seniors charter in June last year, it has shown itself contemptuous of both the will of the House and the very real needs of seniors.