Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to join the debate today on the government's second budget released on March 19. On behalf of the constituents of Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, I would like to offer a few opinions.
First, I would like to point out that among the various instruments that governments have to tell voters, tell the public what it is they are about, what it is they plan to do for a country, the two main instruments are throne speeches, which we see typically every two years, and budgets, which we see every year usually in February or March.
In the span of 100 years, we would see 100 budgets from different governments. That underlines how important budgets are. Not only do they set a course, or they are supposed to set a course, but they are also supposed to provide the government's vision for the months and years ahead. They are supposed to tell Canadians how the current government of the day wishes to continue building the nation.
Quite frankly, as important as budgets are, I believe the government has missed a very serious opportunity to add its piece to the grand and important puzzle which is the building of this nation. I am not going to say that it lacks an agenda but indeed, it lacks a vision.
What I find most interesting in the budget is what the budget does to fulfill what I consider to be the hidden agenda of the government, which is to actually weaken the central government of this country. In so doing, it limits the capacity of the central government to create programs of national concern, whether they are in the economic domain, the social domain or the environmental domain. When one weakens the central government's ability to lead, to draw in the provinces and territories on national initiatives, one in fact weakens Canada.
There have been numerous surveys over the years which have indicated over and over again that of all levels of government, the public trusts most the federal government, its national government. The public sees in its national government the best tools, the best ability, the strength to keep our country together for all citizens from coast to coast to coast, regardless of where they live, whether they live in rural areas like my area in northern Ontario or in urban areas like downtown Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and so on. Fundamentally Canadians are generous. They want to share this nation with each other and with those who come from foreign shores to join us and to live in Canada. That generosity means that Canadians want, as much as is reasonable, that programs and initiatives be for everybody.
Let me give an example of the government's attempts to weaken the central government. I have to reach back to last year's budget. This budget is a continuation, in my view, of that central theme of a hidden agenda to weaken a central government. There was an announcement last year, and we were expecting to hear more about it but for some hidden reason we did not hear part two, but last year there was an announcement that the government would cut the GST by 1% and eventually by another 1%. This was against the advice of virtually every economist in the country. We have to trust our professionals. They said that giving away between $5 billion and $6 billion on a 1% GST cut would only weaken forever the central government, because we cannot get that percentage back.
Think back to governments that tried to increase taxes. We cannot get that percentage back. That $5.5 billion that was lost in the first 1% GST cut is $5.5 billion that is not available for the government to invest in health care, in municipal infrastructure, in the Kelowna accord which, incidentally, would have cost about $5 billion. One year of that 1% GST cut would have funded the Kelowna accord. We are talking about 1% every year ongoing, every year indefinitely.
It is interesting that the government in this budget did not mention what was going to happen to the second 1%. It may be that the government finally listened to the advice it received last year, or it just felt that it would prefer to do that in a majority government.
I do not think Canadians are going to be easily fooled. Frankly, I do not recall meeting any constituents in my large riding who said, “Wow, that 1% GST cut really was a great benefit to me and my family”. In fact, the opposite is the case. When I asked them, virtually every one of them said that they did not notice that 1%. I pointed out that a wealthy person who bought a $100,000 boat would receive $1,000 in GST relief and that wealthy person would notice it. My constituents replied, “Of course they would notice it, but I am an average Canadian and I am not buying a $100,000 boat”.
In fact, the average Canadian family would have to consume taxable goods for years and years to achieve that $1,000 in GST relief that the wealthy person would enjoy when buying that expensive boat. To me, what the budget really does is it promotes further the hidden agenda.
Let me speak to some of the concerns in northern Ontario in my riding. I will start with forestry and I will continue with concerns for my aboriginal constituents and aboriginal Canadians from coast to coast.
In the forestry sector, communities such as White River, Smooth Rock Falls, Chapleau, Espanola, Nairn, Opasatika, Hearst, Kapuskasing, and the list is far too long, are experiencing tremendous layoffs and cutbacks. Much of the layoffs and cutbacks are in the softwood sector. There are key industries that have suffered in the pulp and paper sector in my area as well.
There is no mention in the budget of what should be done to deal with a sector of our economy which is extremely significant not only in direct jobs and what it does for our single resource communities, but the incredible spinoffs as well. A tremendous price is being paid by families in these communities and the communities themselves as well. Those communities see the loss of their capacity to keep their schools open and in fact, to maintain their basic infrastructure because people have to leave those communities if they can.
At the very least I would call on the government to bring together all stakeholders, community leaders, unions and companies, all those who have a stake in the forestry sector. The government should bring them together in a national forestry summit so that our best minds and our best efforts can be focused on that one issue to see if something can be done for the long term of this country.
Quite frankly, when we consider what the softwood lumber deal has done to communities in my riding, I looked for measures in this budget that would have assisted them. The day before the agreement went into effect, the import tax in the U.S. was some 10 point something per cent, roughly 10.5%, but the day after the agreement was signed, it shot up to something like 15% because the U.S. import tariff was replaced by an export tax.
It will take me a long time to understand how that is good for our industry. I understand it is the Canadian government that has had to advance the duties from the U.S. back to Canadian companies, because the U.S. actually has not repaid those funds, to the best of my knowledge.
I will move on to my aboriginal constituents on Manitoulin Island and on the north shore of Lake Huron and the Chapleau and Wawa areas and up at Constance Lake near Hearst.
When the aboriginal leadership in my region and all Canadians saw their premiers, the prime minister and the senior aboriginal leadership of this country sign the Kelowna accord in November 2005, they saw the parties come together to sign a historic agreement. Funding for that agreement was put in place immediately thereafter. The money was booked, as our then finance minister confirmed and has confirmed numerous times.
For some reason the Conservative government has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the validity of that agreement. As recently as last week the government voted at third reading not to support the private member's bill of my colleague the member for LaSalle—Émard, which further calls upon the government to honour the Kelowna accord.
Our aboriginal Canadians, our first nations leadership, have been severely disappointed by what they have seen from the government when it comes to measures to understand and appreciate the great heritage, the great history, the great culture that our first nations bring to this country. They are disappointed that as a nation we have still not adequately dealt with the needs of our first nations communities and people when it comes to education, health, water, and those supports that are necessary to live in a modern society. After all, it is our aboriginal youth we will count on considerably in the years ahead as the labour shortage in this country continues to increase.
I recall before the last election that our then leader and prime minister, the member for LaSalle--Émard, made a commitment to students to pay up to $3,000 per year toward tuition fees. That was a significant offer to Canadian families. Then the election came along and we can debate whether that should have happened. However, I look at this budget and there is nothing for undergraduate students. There is a bit of money for post-grads and that is great, but it only assists about 4,000 students.
I go back to my comment about the hidden agenda and the fact that this budget has no vision. There is no overarching view of what the future of this country will be like. It is a hodgepodge of small measures designed to attract individual demographic groups within the larger society. I do not begrudge that there are certain small measures that are important to some people in the budget, and that is great for them, but even they would agree that the government should have a vision with its budget. It should have an overarching idea of where the country is going.
When we were in office great progress was being made with respect to research and development and post-secondary education. We were making sure that our best minds could do research and network with the best minds around the world. It seems that we are now taking backward steps. We must take care of the fundamentals of education. If I could speak to each of my colleagues here one on one, I doubt anyone would disagree that education is the basis of all that we do not only in our personal lives, but as a nation.
I was very disappointed to see the lack of any grand vision when it came to education and productivity for this nation. We are competing in a world that is advancing rapidly. It is our duty to make sure every day that not only individual Canadians but our nation together keeps up and demonstrates the leadership that Canada has become known for around the world.
There are about 55 small communities in my large riding of 110,000 square kilometres. The leadership of these small communities, mayors, reeves, chiefs, are all struggling to maintain the basic infrastructure of their communities.
I know the budget mentioned a short term commitment to share the gas tax with municipalities, unlike the leader of my own party who said that commitment will be an indefinite commitment. Some off my colleagues who have been here since 1993 will remember that when the previous Liberal government brought out a municipal-provincial-federal infrastructure program there was tremendous resistance from the then Reform Party and later Alliance Party. In fact, MPs from those parties would not even participate in local ceremonies to launch infrastructure projects. They were dead set against infrastructure.
I know the Conservative Party is the current metamorphosis of the original Reform and Alliance Parties, but the genes of the Reform and Alliance Parties are still present and we still see a lack of real commitment to local governments.
When the Liberal government was first elected in 1993, one of the first commitments we made was to help local governments improve roads, sewer and water systems and so on because we understood that there was an infrastructure deficit in the country at the local level and that the federal government had to take its share.
It is not only local infrastructure. Where is the grand vision when it comes to those nation building projects that Canada needs to address? If there is one that stands out among others, it is the whole issue of climate change. If there is a national project, indeed, an international project, that requires our very best efforts, it is climate change.
I am very pleased that my colleagues in this party and the opposition parties have been able to craft a renewed Bill C-30 which I believe will move the standards quite considerably when it comes to Canada's responsibilities in the world with respect to climate change.
I will now talk about northern Ontario in general. Northern Ontario, like other regional rural parts of the country, is experiencing a population loss. It is not difficult to explain. Families are not as big as they used to be. Our population growth, and happily so, is made up of fine new Canadians who come from all parts of the world to our country. At the same time, it is important to remember that it is from the rural areas from which Canada was first built. If we forget where we came from, we will soon forget where we are going.
It is very important that the present government and any future government, whether it is my party or another, take measures to ensure the strength and vitality of rural Canada, whether it is through immigration measures or supporting programs like FedNor. As much as the government might say one thing about FedNor, one thing we know for sure is that there was a cut in the total funding for FedNor.
FedNor, by the way, for those who are not aware, is the federal economic development agency for northern Ontario, an agency which we were very happy, through the years 1993 to 2006, to support and to in fact increase and grow the funding and supports for.
FedNor needs to be further supported. We need to increase the funding for FedNor, as we need to do for the other regional economic development programs in the Atlantic, west Quebec and so on. I referred to the genetic predisposition against municipal infrastructure support from the federal government. That also exists when it comes to economic development. If anyone has old copies of the Reform and Alliance platform documents, it is explicit that they do not support regional economic development programs.
One cannot change one's genes. Some may try but they cannot do it. Either the government owns up to what it really believes about economic development or it can keep trying to fool the country for another little while.
I will conclude by saying that I still have constituents in my riding, some of the older ones, who refer to the Diefenbaker times and the fact that it has usually been Conservative governments that have put us into deficit.
When we came to office in 1993, we had to deal with a huge $42 billion deficit and, with the help of Canadians, that deficit was slain which put the country in the enviable position of having surpluses that could then be invested in health care, infrastructure, education and so on.
My constituents may not for the most part really think tax cuts are the most important thing that we should be doing. I am not against appropriate tax cuts targeted to the poor and middle income Canadians but these shotgun blast tax cuts, like we have with the GST, do not really do anything positive. With that kind of an attitude and the $10 billion in new spending in the last budget, which one of my colleagues mentioned, I am really worried that we will be going back into deficits. It will only take some kind of calamity to cause that unfortunate time to reappear. It would not be any surprise to see this happen under--