Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today and speak on the government's recently tabled budget. I would like to inform you, Mr. Speaker, that I will be splitting my time with the member for Brant.
From my perspective, as vice-chair and the former chair of the Standing Committee on Finance, the budget process has given me a unique insight into the importance of the federal budget and its effect not only on the daily lives of Canadians but on the long term prospects for Canadians as well.
As a member of the finance committee, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to hear from Canadians from all walks of life and all regions of the country in an unfiltered manner, be they non-profit, business groups, organizations or individuals.
The reason I bring up the finance committee is due to the fact that under the House of Commons Standing Orders the finance committee is obligated to prepare a report to Parliament on what it heard during its pre-budget consultations.
Therefore, since we do most of the leg work for the Minister of Finance before he tables his budget, the minister should be paying closer attention to what Canadians are saying.
Once again this year the finance committee held its pre-budget consultations and as witnesses spoke to us, actually to me, since I was the only member to be present at all the pre-budget consultation meetings. In fact, I even had to chair half the meetings while our committee travelled since the government was here in Ottawa trying to figure out how to get last year's budget bill passed in the House and moved to the Senate.
I listened to Canadians. They voiced their opinions and concerns for the Canada of today and shared with us aspirations for the Canada of tomorrow.
Canadians are passionate about the future of Canada. Like our Liberal leader says, “Canadians want the Canada of the future to be more just, to be fair, to be greener and to be economically sustainable”. That is vision.
This budget has no vision. It is nothing more than a hodgepodge of credits and spending of public money with no real vision or plan. Even the government's highly touted one year old “Advantage Canada” and money back guarantee plan has now been officially shelved based on its own 2008-09 estimates.
Therefore, how can I in good conscience support a budget that has no vision? The answer is simple. Being the optimist that I am, I am able to find a few elements that I genuinely like, but upon further analysis, I now realize the reason I say this is due to the fact that many of the Conservative proposals that have been adopted in the budget are actually Liberal initiatives.
For example, it is the Liberal Party that advocated that the gas tax transfer ought to be made permanent. It took a while but the Conservative Party has finally come around and done just that in the budget.
Even Quebec's finance minister applauded the decision to make the gas tax transfer permanent. She also liked another idea that came from the Liberal Party: investing an additional $500 million in public transit. Quebec would receive $116 million of that amount.
Another initiative that originated with the Liberal Party is the decision to extend the accelerated capital cost allowance for manufacturing companies for three years. This should promote investment in machinery and manufacturing equipment, and the extension makes it easier for companies to plan large purchases over the long term.
For my colleagues in Ontario, one positive budget proposal is the direct support to Canada's automotive sector. We in the Liberal Party for months have been highlighting not only the downturn in the automotive sector but the entire manufacturing sector in central Canada where it has suffered job losses.
That is why we immediately proposed that the Government of Canada should provide support to the manufacturing sector and not just the automobile sector in this difficult time.
It would appear that the learning curve for the government has shrunk considerably in recent days. The Conservatives seem to finally be grasping, ever so slightly, what the Canadian people have been telling them for two years, that a minority government is a mandate to work with its political opponents, not to try to run roughshod over them.
I do not know what they have started putting in the water at the Conservative Party's headquarters, but the next step is to increase the dosage and the frequency of consumption.
It comes down to vision. It is quite easy.
It comes down to vision. Some have it; others do not. The Liberal Party had a solid majority in the 1990s because Canadians saw that we had a vision to lead the country. The sound fiscal policies of successive Liberal governments turned record deficits into record surpluses. Liberal policies enabled Canada to begin paying down the national debt.
In short, it was the Liberal Party that did what had to be done and put Canada's fiscal house in order. When it came to power in 1993, the Liberal Party saw that Canada was being crippled by debt, and it set about addressing the debt problem. We can say proudly that, thanks to the efforts of the Liberals, the level of our national debt is the envy of the other G-8 countries. The Liberal Party understood that maintaining a budget surplus is a responsible way to govern.
We believe that any budget must contain a reserve fund of at least $3 billion to protect Canadians from unexpected economic shifts during a fiscal year.
That is one of the weaknesses of this budget. When the economy is healthy, this reserve is not used but is applied to the debt. It is a very simple concept.
As I said, we think it is necessary to have a reserve of at least $3 billion in the budget each year. Obviously the Conservatives do not agree, because in these times of economic uncertainty, they have left out the reserve and are predicting a surplus of only $2.3 billion for 2008-09, and $1.3 billion for the following year. This shows a clear lack of vision.
On page 214 of the budget—I know some people have not managed to read to page 213, because they fall asleep after the first few pages—the Conservatives themselves talk about the “Estimated impact of a one-year, 1-per-cent decrease in real GDP growth on federal revenues, expenses and budgetary balance”.
This means that if there is a 1% change in the GDP, it will cost our government $3.3 billion and show up on the bottom line. This means that if there is a 1% decrease in GDP growth, the government will have a deficit the following year. No reserve has been set aside. So we can comment on whether the government will be in a positive position next year.
Today, at this very moment, this Parliament needs to address a new issue, which is that Canada is now being crippled by crumbling and outdated infrastructure. The Liberal Party proposed using $7 billion out of this year's surplus to make a badly needed investment in Canada's infrastructure, but the Conservative government did not see fit to take this path, simply because it wants to appear to be the champion of debt reduction.
The Liberals wrote the book on debt reduction and we do not need a lecture on the subject. We simply recognize that the national debt is under control and Canada's next major challenge is addressing the infrastructure deficit that is sorely in need of an upgrade.
The Conservatives are not prioritizing properly and are throwing away a golden opportunity to invest in Canada, just so they can gain political advantage. Again that is a lack of vision.
The Conservative government introduced the Canada graduate scholarship program in this budget, which quite admirably attempts to attract top students from around the world. The problem is that there is no strategy laid out by the Conservative government to try to keep these students in Canada once their studies are completed. As it stands, these students will only be allowed to remain in Canada for a maximum of two years after they graduate. What is the logic behind investing in bright young students and then not providing them with opportunities and incentives to stay?
When it comes to education, the Conservatives have remained in the dark regarding the millennium scholarship fund. They have just decided to let it die, when it actually has an excellent track record of providing services, and according to the Treasury Board, its operating costs are only four per cent.
The long and short of it is that the government has in one instance created a program to attract good foreign students to Canada, but it did not have the foresight to provide avenues to keep these students in Canada in the long term, and in another instance, it is allowing a successful program that helps hundreds of thousands of homegrown students, many of whom have demonstrated a strong dedication to Canada already, to fade gently into the night. This is not a good vision.
Finally, this budget proposed by the government is hardly visionary. It is definitely a Conservative budget, a problem that repeats itself time and time again. When the government sets extremely low goals for itself, this is what we get.