Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the budget. I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso in the hope that one day he will split a dinner bill with me, but I live in hope.
There are a number of things I would like to talk about today on the budget. My colleagues and other members have spoken about a number of important issues. I want to talk about four things: the impact in my province of Nova Scotia; post-secondary education; literacy; and poverty, in particular women and children in poverty.
I do not believe that the government understands Atlantic Canada. I do not believe that the government addresses Atlantic Canada very much. I do not think the government particularly cares for Atlantic Canada. We saw that a year ago when last year's budget torched the Atlantic accord.
The immediate reaction of Atlantic Canada, and I would generally agree, is that this is a pretty non-event budget.
The Nova Scotia minister of finance, a Conservative, said his initial reaction was disappointment that there was not more in the way of direct funding for infrastructure projects, especially for the province's universities. He said that it is likely revenues flowing from Ottawa to the province, from equalization and the Canada health and social transfer will be flat, creating a “huge pressure” on his spring budget.
This is a headline in today's The ChronicleHerald: “$21 million less expected from Ottawa. Premier: Federal budget lowers the projected offshore windfall”.
We lost the Atlantic accord. The premier of Nova Scotia, Rodney MacDonald, scrambled around to try to save face and cut a deal with the federal government and now we find, as a result of this budget, that $21 million less is going to Nova Scotia. It is not a very attractive start. There is not much in the budget for Nova Scotia.
I certainly have talked about post-secondary education in this House on a number of occasions. On many of those occasions I have talked about the millennium scholarship foundation. We have asked questions in this House about the government's plan on the millennium scholarship foundation.
The millennium scholarship foundation was set up some years ago by the Liberal government. It has kicked out a lot of money for students, almost exclusively students in need. This year, for example, the amount was $350 million for students in need.
In this budget, not surprisingly, considering what we saw with the summer jobs program last year, the government got rid of the millennium scholarship foundation and replaced it with its own needs based granting system. It is the government's right to do what it wants, but the reason the government used, the direct quote from the budget was that the millennium scholarship foundation was an intrusion into provincial affairs.
Yet the millennium scholarship foundation worked with every province and territory, unlike the student loans program, including Quebec, where its office was based. It worked with every province and territory to provide grants for students. Every province and territory wanted the millennium scholarship foundation renewed. They wanted it replenished, because of the fact that it was working for students, but the government has chosen to take that $350 million and put it into a student grant system. There is no more money for students. It has changed the programs and has decided to put that money into a new system through HRSDC.
I would like to read a comment from the Educational Policy Institute, which is a very good think tank on post-secondary issues. It has some issues with this, not the least of which is, why would the government kill a program that was working and then create a new system when there already was a platform for one that worked?
The institute also has concerns that the new granting system will apply to more students, but not based on need as much. It suggests this will be good news for students from middle income families but bad news for low income families who will now be receiving less aid because the average grant amount is going to go down.
To have a granting system targeted at those most in need, one would think the money should go to those most in need. Middle income families all have pressures; there is no question about that. But if the purpose of the program is to assist students most in need, why would the government give it to more students but less to those who need the money the most and reduce the amount at a time of increasing tuitions? I do not think it is a very sensible proposition.
We have been asking about student loans. The minister has been telling us not to worry, that there is all kinds of good news about student loans, that a review is being done on the student loans program and there is going to be some great stuff. It turns out not to have been quite so great. There are some initiatives in there that should help students who have student loans navigate the system, which has been outdated, and I think we would all agree with that.
However, the biggest issue with student loans is the rate of interest charged. One of the champions of that issue in the last number of months, and perhaps even years, has been a group called the Coalition for Student Loan Fairness. I want to report what coalition members had to say about the budget. They gave it a D. The reason they gave the budget a D was that there is no reduction in the rate for students.
Right now we charge students over 8% for their student loans. The cost of government borrowing is probably about half that, if that. So why, at a time when we had the opportunity to review the program, to make it better, would we not reduce the rate? That is the big burden that students are bearing.
There is no promise to create anything like an ombudsman or commissioner of student loan fairness, somebody who could actually help students navigate the problems they have with the system.
However, there are some improvements in the student loan program, or at least we think there are, because it is very difficult to tell with the government, which cobbles together little bits and pieces and chunks of money from here and there. Some of it may be new, some of it old, some may be borrowed and some may be blue. We never know. We cannot tell when we first see what is coming out of the government. With student loans, it is the same problem.
The Coalition for Student Loan Fairness gave the government a big fat D on what it did. The coalition had big hopes that there might be something significant for students in the budget, but it did not come.
On research and innovation, there was again some money for the granting councils and CIHR, but CIHR needs hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain the momentum that came out of the incredible investments of the Liberal government of six, seven or eight years ago for the granting councils, for NSERC, SSHRC, CFI and CIHR. Alan Bernstein has now left CIHR. That is another great scientist that Canada has lost.
On SSHRC, the social sciences and humanities funding body, there is so much to say. We had a breakfast this morning on the Hill that highlighted the work and research done by the social sciences and humanities. An increase of $12 million a year is simply not enough for an organization like that.
Other nations in the world, the OECD nations, the European nations and even the emerging nations of China and India, are starting to put a lot of money into research. If one travels Canada, and I recommend all MPs should, one can talk to some of the researchers. The brain drain is not an issue like it was 10 years ago, but if we take the foot off the accelerator on research, we are going to lose an awful lot of those researchers. We simply cannot do that.
What I really want to talk about is what bothers me most, not specifically just with this budget but as a small continuation of what we have seen, and that is the issue of poverty. Much was made of the fact that because it is tough times the Minister of Finance went to have his shoes re-soled instead of buying new shoes. I think he should ask for a refund because there is absolutely no “soul” in this budget. It offers nothing for those who need the very most.
The National Anti-Poverty Organization, which has the Canada Without Poverty campaign, said:
The budget shows that individuals earning $15,000 per year can expect $215 in reduced taxes in 2008-09, while those earning $150,000 will pay $3,265 less in taxes.
--the budget is virtually silent in helping to address poverty in Canada. There is zero, for example, for affordable housing and for child care spaces, two of the most pressing needs of low- to middle-income families.
The Canadian Association of Social Workers said:
After so many years of scrimping, eliminating the deficit, and paying off debt, the time has come to give back to Canadians. This latest Conservative budget fails to do so.
Pamela Cross, director of advocacy and public policy with YWCA Canada, said:
This budget continues to help those who need it least. The Tax-Free Savings Account--
The much vaunted tax-free savings account, I might add.
--introduced in the budget will be of little interest to most of Canada's women who earn just 60 cents for every dollar earned by men and who do not have $5,000 burning a hole in their pockets to put into a savings account. Most of us are much more interested in social programs such as housing and child care.
On employment insurance, the government talks about creating a separate arm's length commission. I am sure that my colleague from Cape Breton—Canso will talk to that, but there is not a mention about the workers on the whole page of the budget that talks about the new commission.
This is not a budget that moves Canada forward. At best we stand still while other nations rush past.
This budget, though, is not the turning point. It is obviously not the reason to have an election. The turning point was the election of the government in January 2006. Since then we have seen a government with a record surplus turn its back on the vulnerable, mismanage the economy with initiatives that generally help the fortunate, and bring us to a point where we face a faltering economy with a government incompetent to manage that crisis and uncaring for those who will be hurt the most. Canadians deserve better.
The budget treads water, enshrines inequity and cements unfairness. It is not the time for an election, I agree with that, but that time is coming, and when it does I will campaign to make things better for those in need and against this budget.