Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to the Conservative 2008 budget. I will be sharing my time with the member for Sydney—Victoria.
The sad reality is the budget will likely be one of the least memorable in recent federal history. Its most glitzy tax cutting measure was the $5,000 a year savings account with interest accruing tax free. Over time, it may assist some wealthy seniors in meeting their ongoing savings needs, particularly after age 71 when they are required to begin drawing down their RRSPs. However, it is still a pale response to the income trust debacle.
The savings account will be of no assistance to low and middle income earners, including many young families and seniors who cannot afford the luxury of savings. The amount of interest earned at today's rates will be pennies in any event. On the other hand, with a slowing economy, additional spending by Canadians would help to stimulate the economy. This is a short-sighted program for our current economic conditions.
Speaking in general terms, the budget is a hodgepodge of very low dollar spending initiatives, with no apparent theme or direction: 58 spending initiatives in total with 55 of these being less than the cost of a federal election.
In 2006 the Conservatives inherited the largest surplus and the best economy in Canadian history. Now after two years and a few budgets and economic updates, they have spent it all and moved the country, once again, to the brink of deficit spending. The Conservatives must like living on the edge, as the country returns to Mulroney economics, something that the Liberals will never do when we return to government.
The story in the budget, however, is what is not mentioned. Let us talk about the crisis in manufacturing.
Canada's economy is hurting badly. Ontario's is hurting worse and Niagara's economy is worse yet. A St. Catharines-Thorold Chamber of Commerce report on manufacturing in Niagara notes that currently manufacturing accounts for 14% of Niagara's economy, down from 29% over the past two decades. Niagara's overall employment growth has been less than 1% since 2000. This average places Niagara near the bottom of the province in statistics related to full time employment rates and employment income levels in the province.
What does the Minister of Finance do? He tells all the world that Ontario is the last place in which business would invest. In public comments made earlier this week, the Minister of Finance claimed Ontario's manufacturing industry was suffering because the province faced the highest corporate tax rates in Canada. However, the minister's claim is nothing but a distortion of reality. Only four provinces have lower corporate tax rates than Ontario for manufacturers and processors. In terms of attracting new investment, the nearest competing U.S. states, including Michigan and New York, face corporate tax rates 12% higher than Ontario's and Ontario continues to lower the tax rates.
The budget's paltry support for the manufacturing sector has prompted the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, in frustration, to explain that it has received only recycled ideas and pocket change at a critical time when it needs tangible solutions. Out of a $6 billion budget, manufacturing received $150 million.
In my region health care remains one of the major areas of concern. Physicians lobbying on Parliament Hill today will tell us that there are five million Canadians without a family doctor, that England has twice as many physicians per capita than we do, that we have over 4,000 medical students training outside our country because there are insufficient spaces in our medical schools and most of these will not come home to work, that we have foreign trained doctors within Canada who need assistance meeting our standards and that we have an aging doctor population leaning toward retirement. It is urgent that we address this. Our emergency room crisis, patient wait times and physician health care work shortages are all crying out for help. Sadly, there is none. Sadly, no one is listening.
There is nothing in the budget to address poverty and homelessness. A poverty report prepared by the region of Niagara stated that approximately one-third of visits to food banks in the Niagara region were made by children. In 2005 just over 4,000 households utilized 13 food banks across the Niagara region, and the situation continues to decline.
The Regional Municipality of Niagara owns or manages over 5,500 housing units that are subsidized, of which 2,200 are occupied by families whose average family income is $15,680. The poverty line for a family of four in the Niagara region is $27,500. The need for housing assistance is very high within Niagara. There were 4,000 households on the waiting list in June of 2006. The number of rental units has simply not kept pace with demand.
The huge negative impact of poverty and homelessness in my riding has been left to flounder and fester. The budget's silence was deafening. Nothing for the less fortunate in our society. Perhaps government members should visit a hostel, soup kitchen or food bank and look directly into the eyes and faces of those who cannot fend for themselves, for whatever reason. In the region of Niagara there is an urgent demand for homeless spaces. These figures are compounded across the country and the totals are staggering.
Surely the measure of our worth is diminished when we fail to take initiatives to help. Community-minded volunteer organizations, donors and churches are struggling under a terrible burden, but the government walks by, completely oblivious to the pain and suffering.
What have the Conservatives accomplished during their time? They have accomplished very little. They continue to spend while eroding the tax base. With economists across the country warning that cuts to the GST would be the worst tax cuts to consider, the Conservatives blundered ahead to reduce the GST by two percentage points, all for the sake of what they felt was politically astute for their party, not what was economically good for Canadians and the country.
As the party that introduced the GST, perhaps the Conservatives felt guilty. They have a lot to feel guilty about, but such poor tax cuts are not the way to redemption.
The Conservative child care program has not produced any new child care spaces that young couples and single parents so desperately need. The reality is it was simply a baby bonus program with no vision, no direction and no spaces. Young mothers and fathers were most appreciative of the money until they filed their income tax returns last spring and began to realize the Conservative child care program was all smoke and mirrors. This wonderful $100 a month per child is taxable. They are not pleased that they have been duped once again.
The Prime Minister has become the largest spending prime minister in Canadian history, and now the cupboard is bare. What did Canadians really get for it? Are they really better off? Canadians will send a resounding no in the next election.
As our biggest trading partner, the United States, continues to spiral into recession, our economy, so connected with them, continues to be pulled down. There is also the economic uncertainty of a high Canadian dollar and a retiring skilled workforce. Our country is heading into the perfect storm at a time when no one in the Conservative government is at the helm. Any shock to revenue or any unanticipated spending initiative will put Canada back into deficit.
What has the government done to prepare the country for a possible economic downturn? It has done simply nothing. Are we surprised? We should not be. The finance minister drove the province of Ontario into deficit, all the while claiming a balanced budget as his Conservative government headed into a provincial election. The smile of the victorious McGuinty government soon turned sour when independent auditors discovered a huge deficit. So much for openness, transparency and accountability.
Canadians are very concerned that Conservatives have a projected surplus of $2.3 billion for this year and $1.3 billion for next year, which is well below the $3 billion contingency fund that Liberals consider the bare minimum to cushion against unanticipated economic shocks. It has been said that our country is one SARS crisis away from a deficit, and this is if one believes the Conservative projections are accurate. The finance minister's prior track record of misrepresentation makes me and the entire country uncomfortable.
Moreover, the Conservative government lost an opportunity to address Canada's infrastructure deficit by failing to act on the Liberals' proposal to use $7 billion from this year's surplus to fund infrastructure programs across the country. As municipalities beg for financial assistance to address the compelling infrastructure deficit, as bridges collapse and aging water treatment plants malfunction, the government plods blindly, seemingly oblivious, to the cries from our communities. Let us not forget the positive impact of well-paying construction jobs that infrastructure projects would have provided.
Actually, the Liberal opposition should be flattered that many of the budget initiatives were driven by them.
It was the Liberals who first created the gas tax transfer to municipalities in 2005 and pledged to make it permanent over a year ago.
It was the Liberals who advocated direct support to Canada's ailing auto industry. The Conservatives' $250 million over five years to provide research and development is simply a pittance.
It was the Liberals who committed to desperately needed improvements in public transit. Is a rail line from Peterborough to Toronto through vast tracts of agricultural lands and small hamlets our country's biggest priority? Is there enough potential passenger usage to make it financially viable?
It was the Liberals who committed to funding to have more police across our country.
It was the Liberals who committed to improving cash flow, supporting livestock producers and providing direct payment for hog farmers.
It was the Liberals who advocated reversing the Conservative government's previous cuts to university councils and research programs. It was the Liberals who urged the modernization of the Canada Student Loans Act.
We are pleased the Conservatives are adopting prudent Liberal policies, but the insufficient funding, because of an ill-advised national debt payment, will detract from their effectiveness.
I suggest the budget is a non-event, paying lip service to worthy causes such as the environment, students and crime, but by no means is it a green budget, an education budget or a law and order budget. There is no economic stimulus or poverty initiatives to help Welland riding. There is nothing of great substance. It is simply underwhelming. After two years, the Harper government has exhausted its legislative agenda and has lost its drive.