Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House today to speak in reply to the Speech from the Throne.
First, as this is my first opportunity to speak in the House since the last election, I would like to thank the constituents of South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale for returning me with a renewed vote of confidence as their member of Parliament. It is truly my privilege and honour to serve them for a third time and I will work hard to keep their trust, in this Parliament.
The Speech from the Throne sets out the government's objectives for this Parliament, with the primary emphasis on the global financial situation. Without a doubt, the developed world's economy has to be the primary focus of Parliament and our government at this time.
Canadians elected us because we tackled the problems facing families and businesses in these times of economic uncertainty. The Speech from the Throne describes the crucial measures we are taking to keep our economy moving and to support the hopes and dreams of our families and communities.
The Speech from the Throne laid out five key elements of our government's approach to addressing the global financial situation: to ensure sound budgeting by further scrutinizing spending; secure jobs for our communities by encouraging skilled trades and support workers facing transition; reform the global financial system in co-operation with our allies and trading partners; make government more effective by reducing red tape, simplifying the procurement process and improving the management of federal institutions; and expand investment and trade by seeking out new foreign trade agreements and removing barriers to internal trade investment and labour mobility.
While I do not have the time to address all five of these in detail, I want to elaborate on a few of them and highlight what the government has already done to protect the financial security of Canadians.
To start, it is important to note that Canada leads the G8 in economic performance. The reason Canada is leading the G8 is because of our government's commitment to lower taxes, a balanced budget and our aggressive paydown of the national debt. We have paid down $37 billion of the national debt in just the last two years. While other nations have been engaged in deficit spending, Canada has been spending within its means and delivering nearly $200 billion in tax relief to Canadians, including nearly a 30% cut in the GST. This prudent approach to our nation's finances has allowed all Canadians to benefit, even during these uncertain economic times. Not only are taxes lower, but unemployment is at historic lows, as are interest rates, and inflation is under control.
Canada remains a great place in the world to invest.
It is clear that some sectors of the economy are facing real challenges right now. The automobile, forestry and aerospace industries have been particularly hard hit. Our government recognizes that and is making strategic investments in these industries to help them adapt to future needs.
My province of British Columbia hosts a huge forestry sector. As the B.C. MP, I have been very pleased by the actions our government has taken to support the industry in the last few years.
Since coming to office, our government reached an agreement with the United States over the softwood lumber trade. That ensured B.C. foresters and lumber mill workers stable, predictable access to the U.S. market for at least seven years.
In response to the pine beetle epidemic ravaging the forests of B.C.'s interior, our government delivered $200 million in aid to support workers in communities in transition in B.C.'s interior. We have also delivered assistance and support to workers transitioning to the skilled trades. Already our government has invested $100 million a year in apprenticeship incentive grants to encourage more young Canadians to pursue skilled trades careers.
As well, we have provided a total of $200 million a year in tax credits, that is up to $2,000 per placement, to encourage employers to hire apprentices.
We have also committed $3 billion over six years for new labour market agreements with the provinces to assist those who do not currently qualify for training under the employment insurance program.
We must help workers get the training they need to build the new economy and ensure the prosperity of all Canadians. Our government saw what British Columbia needed, and it took and is taking measures to meet those needs. For example, in the throne speech, the government focused on the importance of enhancing trade opportunities.
Whether it is the just concluded free trade agreement with Colombia or the negotiations toward a free trade agreement with Europe or Korea, the government is determined to ensure that Canadian companies have access to markets right around the world.
Again, as a British Columbia MP, I am pleased because Canada's increased focus on markets in Asia, including Korea, China and India, is of particular benefit to my province. West coast ports will benefit from the increased trade with Asian and Pacific Rim nations. Our government has recognized the potential created by increased trade across the Pacific and has invested over $1 billion in the Asia Pacific Gateway initiative to grow and modernize our west coast ports. It has been estimated that the expansion of our west coast ports will lead to nearly 50,000 new jobs within a decade.
Of course, our government is investing in more than just port infrastructure. Our Building Canada fund will invest $33 billion in new infrastructure, such as highways, bridges and public transit, over the next seven years. This new infrastructure is critically needed in the rapidly expanding communities of the lower Fraser Valley, including the communities of my riding. The fact is that traffic congestion and resulting pollution has become a major problem in the Lower Mainland.
Outdated infrastructure is leading to gridlock and even increased traffic accidents and deaths. Until now, our transportation infrastructure has not kept up with the incredible growth our region is experiencing. The Building Canada fund will help to reduce congestion, increase safety and, ultimately, protect our environment.
British Columbians are also concerned about crime.
Property crime rates in our communities are among the highest in the country, and, like other Canadian communities, B.C. communities find the increase in violent youth crime particularly worrisome.
As we stated in the throne speech, Canadians have to feel safe at home and in their communities, which means that we have to crack down on violent crime, including gun crime.
Our government continues to take action focused on eliminating the smuggling of guns by increasing penalties for gun crimes. Our focus will be on the criminal misuse of firearms, not on criminalizing the millions of law-abiding Canadians who own firearms.
Our reforms to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will ensure that sentences better reflect the seriousness of the crime.
As co-chairman of our party's task force on safer streets and healthy communities some years past, I could not help but be struck by the universal comment from Canadians that the existing youth criminal justice legislation does not provide a sufficient deterrent to those youth who would consider serious violent offences.
The most common comment I heard was that our youth know they will get nothing more than a slap on the wrist. For some young people, the current Youth Criminal Justice Act does achieve its desired objectives. Some first-time minor offenders receive the stern and serious rebuke of the law, learn from it and do not go on to a life of crime. However, for other young offenders, the current lenient sentences for serious violent and repeat offences do not keep these young people from an adult criminal career.
We cannot simply stand, mouths agape, before this tragedy. We have to intervene to prevent potential repeat offenders from embarking on a life of crime.
We have to protect society from violent crimes and property crimes committed by young offenders.
We will continue to make the safety and security of Canadians our highest priority. We will continue to move forward with our tackling crime agenda.
As members know, British Columbians are always on the cutting edge when it comes to democratic reform. In modern times, we have often been the first province in our Confederation to consider reforms such as citizens' assemblies, recall, fixed election dates and the election of senators.
In the throne speech, our government has committed to pursuing the popular selection of senators and limiting the length of term of senators to eight years. We are proposing to reform this ineffective and unaccountable 19th century institution and make it more accountable and more effective as we move rapidly into the 21st century.
Our government has also committed to act to ensure the principle of representation by population in our lower House, the House of Commons.
British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, the three provinces with the fastest growth in recent years, will gain seats in this House to properly reflect their populations.
For far too long, some regions of the country have been under-represented in Parliament. The Lower Mainland, part of which I represent, is one of those regions. I would really like it to have more representation in this House.
I am confident that all members will want to support the legislation our government brings forward to ensure greater fairness in the seat distribution and uphold the principle of representation by population.
Speaking of fairness among the provinces there is another issue that our government will be addressing in this Parliament, as mentioned in the throne speech. We are committed to working with the provinces to further remove remaining barriers to interprovincial trade, investment and labour mobility. Working cooperatively with the premiers, we were able to make progress on the enforcement of the agreement on internal trade.
The agreement will be amended by this coming January to reach the goal of full labour mobility for all Canadians. This will result in the mutual recognition of occupational credentials between all the provinces and territories. Of course, when we speak of credentials, our government must also continue with its important initiative to recognize foreign credentials.
Our economy depends on having the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world. We recognize that more needs to be done to ensure that immigrants are able to use all the skills and knowledge they have acquired.
We launched the foreign credentials referral office in May 2007 in co-operation with the provinces and territories. The office helps those trained overseas who want to work in Canada to have their credentials assessed and recognized in Canada more quickly.
The ability of all workers, including foreign trained workers, to have their credentials recognized everywhere in Canada will lead to a stronger, more efficient economic union. In fact, strengthening our economic union is more important now than ever, given the current global economic uncertainty.
We do not have to look far to see the positive impact that labour mobility can have on a national economy. Our major trading partner, the United States, eliminated most barriers to trade and labour mobility many decades ago and has long experienced economic growth that has outstripped ours as a result.
Reducing barriers to internal trade is not the only way our government can give the economy a boost. As a former small businessman, I know that red tape also costs our economy and results in lost productivity. Time spent filling out forms, reporting to government to obtain various licences means time not spent serving customers, producing products and creating value for shareholders.
Our government is intent on streamlining the way it does business and is committed to reducing the administrative and paper burden on Canadian businesses. Our current goal is a 20% reduction in the paper burden, but we have already taken other actions to save businesses time and money.
For example, we have already eased the tax compliance burden on businesses by reducing record-keeping requirements for automobile expense deductions and taxable benefits. We have also launched the new BizPal service in many municipalities across Canada, including in Surrey and White Rock in my community. BizPal allows businesses to quickly obtain all the forms and licences they need to comply with the requirements of every level of government with an efficient visit to a single website.
The throne speech also outlined another way our government will give the economy a boost through the creation of a national securities regulator. In a time of global economic uncertainty, investors are looking for stability and security.
Foreign investment in Canada means jobs for Canadians and growth in the economy. While Canada is already an attractive investment destination, greater certainty is provided to potential international investors by a single national standard for securities regulation rather than numerous different provincial standards.
We will work with the provinces to put in place a common securities regulator. I note that financial institutions in Canada already benefit from the existence of a national financial institutions regulator. A common securities regulator will allow Canada to respond swiftly and efficiently to any developments in the financial sector and to speak with a common voice.
Some of the advantages of a common securities regulator would be reduced compliance costs for companies offering securities and improved enforcement. Canada's lack of a national securities regulator has been identified as an area for reform this year by both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Our government recognizes that lasting prosperity for Canadians comes through entrepreneurship and sheer hard work. Government does not create jobs, but government can help to create and support an economic environment in which those jobs will be created by the private sector.
Another way we are helping to support job creation in the private sector is by extending the benefits of maternity leave available to other workers, to self-employed business owners through the employment insurance program.
Facilitating child rearing for the self-employed allows entrepreneurs greater flexibility in pursuing their dreams. No longer will the self-employed have to consider giving up their business ventures in order to raise a family. Instead, they may keep their businesses going for the benefit of their families and the other workers they employ. I have already heard from many small business owners in my community who are very enthusiastic about our plan.
As well, the throne speech recommits our government to legislation that would provide better oversight of food, drugs and consumer products. The legislation would strengthen the power to recall products and increase penalties for violators. Our 2008 budget provided nearly $.5 billion over five years for the food and consumer safety action plan and to support the legislation we will be bringing forward.
We have all seen news items in recent years regarding unsafe food, health or consumer products, including toys. As the father of a two-year-old, I can assure everyone that I am personally concerned about the food my daughter eats, the medicine she may take and the toys she may play with. Reports of melamine in imported food products or lead in paint in children's toys worry parents like myself.
Our legislation would ensure that federal inspectors have the power to enforce standards that parents can have the confidence in. Protecting and promoting the health and safety of Canadians, their families and communities is of paramount importance to our government.
The secure and efficient flow of goods, services and people is also essential to a trading nation like Canada. As members will know, my riding of South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale contains the busiest border crossings in western Canada.
The trade corridor linking Vancouver to Seattle and the west coast of the United States goes through my riding. The throne speech commitment to continued expansion of gateways and border corridors is essential to Canada's economic growth and cultural prosperity. It is particularly important to ridings like mine.
I am pleased to report that our government has already delivered on major investments in modernizing our land border infrastructure to accommodate the growth in west coast trade and tourism. This is particularly important for my region in preparing for the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games.
Our government is also delivering for other regions of the country, including a long overdue expansion of the critical border crossing at the Windsor-Detroit border.
While upgrading our gateway and corridor related infrastructure is essential to extending our trade and our economy, I am pleased that taxpayers will benefit from over $13 billion of planned and committed private sector investment in this infrastructure over the next three years.
As I conclude, I want to return to the main theme contained in the Speech from the Throne: the economy. We recognize that we live in uncertain economic times and stickhandling our way forward is a major challenge for our government. As I already mentioned, our prudent approach to fiscal policy since forming government has left Canada in an enviable position compared to other developed nations during this challenging time.
Even so, the slowing global economy and its impact on Canada creates challenges for our revenue stream. That is why our government will be further scrutinizing all areas of government spending in an effort to keep our national finances on track. I am confident that additional savings can be found without unduly impacting the essential services and responsibilities Canadians count on the federal government to provide.
I encourage all members to work together to support this government's agenda as outlined in the throne speech.