And before. I am very proud to say that New Democrats rewrote the Liberal budget in 2005 and made sure there was money specifically earmarked for housing.
I want to briefly refer to the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, in a report he wrote in 2007. Lest we think that this current housing crisis is manufactured as a result of the economic downturn, he pointed out that in his visits across his country he was hearing about hundreds of people who had died because they were homeless. He went on to talk about the fact that in its most recent periodic review of Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations uses strong language to label housing, homelessness and inadequate housing as a national emergency. This was in 2007 when we were supposedly in these booming economic times. We can only imagine what is happening in our communities now.
As people lose their jobs, as people are one paycheque away from poverty and as income-assisted rolls soar, people are losing their houses right now as I speak in this House. This economic stimulus package was an opportunity to do some innovative, creative things and actually contribute to a national housing strategy. What we could have seen were some green retrofits. What we could have seen was taking some existing housing and retrofitting it so it was suitable for people who needed access to affordable housing. There were many opportunities lost in this current package. I know that New Democrats had positive solutions to propose to address some of these issues.
One of the reasons we are having this discussion about accountability is that we have seen over recent history any number of good reasons not to trust the Conservatives in terms of being able to track the money and talk about the results.
During a recent internal audit of the post-secondary education program by Indian and Northern Affairs, it became clear that the government did not know where the money was going or what results it was getting from it. These are not figures that came from outside of the government itself.
One of the objectives of the audit was to provide assurance on the adequacy and effectiveness of the management control of the program. It seems like a good goal. I will not read the whole report, but when it came to conclusions, it gave some recommendations for the government. It stated:
Re-assess, in conjunction with the Transfer Payments and Financial Policy Directorate, the funding authorities in use and the reporting needs of the Program, taking into consideration the department’s obligation to account for the use of Program funds and the intended purposes of these funding authorities.
It goes on to to say that the government needs to improve the relevance and integrity of performance data being captured.
When we start looking at some of that information, I becomes clear that the government actually has difficulty in accounting for how some money is being spent. There are many other examples.
Canadians want to know that their government and parliamentarians are acting on behalf of all Canadians from coast to coast to coast, not just Canadians in Conservative ridings.
An article in today's National Post regarding a program called the new horizons for seniors program, states:
The government has announced 32 grants for seniors' groups since Feb. 17, and only one went to an organization located in a riding not held by a Conservative MP.
We have a minority Conservative government that received less than half the votes in Canada. The Conservatives and all members in this House must ensure that all Canadians have access to these funds, not just people in Conservative ridings. That is a fundamental piece of fairness.
I come from a province that, sadly, about eight years ago had an opposition that was reduced to two members. There were 77 Liberal members and 2 New Democrats but, of course, New Democrats have recovered that ground. However, what we saw in that case was a government that had just over 50% of the vote and yet took 90-odd per cent of the seats. What happened in that case was an undermining of the democratic process. Decisions were made that rolled back collective agreements, increased class sizes and made cuts to health care.
I would argue that no matter if one is in a government with the bulk of the seats or, as in this case, a minority government, one has a responsibility to all Canadians, not just to one's own Conservative riding.
When Parliament asks for a list of the likely projects, it seems to be a fair and reasonable oversight process to ensure that all Canadians have access to these very important projects that could provide economic stimulus.
The Minister of the Environment has said that the government will circumvent some of the environmental assessment projects. I am sure Canadians will be very interested to see the kinds of projects that are likely to come forward. If the government is going to abdicate its responsibility around environmental assessment, at least community members can start looking at where there may be impacts.
In an article in the Globe and Mail on March 21 it refers to the fact that effective immediately and for the next two years numerous types of projects will not require federal environmental assessments in certain circumstances. These include the construction and remodelling of community buildings, water treatment and distribution systems, transit, road construction and waste management projects.
I do not know about other areas of the country but when we start talking about road construction, we know there are all kinds of potential impacts on watersheds. In my own community of Somenos Marsh, which is on a major highway, any major development that happens in the area will directly impact on the health and viability of Somenos Marsh. We would expect there to be a full environmental assessment. It is a valuable, fragile ecosystem. Despite the serious economic downturn we are in, we know that Canadians still care about where they live, the air they breathe and the quality of their water. They do not want to see the environmental assessment process stripped away. However, when we talk about the transparency and accountability of these projects, it is no wonder Canadians are questioning whether they can trust the government to spend the money on behalf of all Canadians.
I, as a grandmother, do not want to see my grandchildren inherit an unhealthy planet because we failed to do the right things in times of economic downturns.
The Caledon Institute put together a paper called “The Red-Ink Budget” in February 2009 which raised a couple of points about wise decisions on how money could be spent. The report states:
With respect to leveraging of funds from other levels of government, it is not reasonable to include the full ‘leverage’ effect as part of the Budget’s overall fiscal stimulus because it is not at all clear that the provinces and territories can and will actually spend more than they had intended.
When the government put together the stimulus package, it made some claims about the impact of the stimulus and yet we have independent institutes questioning the premise of some of its logic. This is under the economic and fiscal policy part of the report.
Later on in the report, it refers to some additional skepticism. It reads:
We are also skeptical about the capacity of the federal government to get much of the infrastructure and housing money out the door.... This requirement is especially problematic due to the demand for cost-sharing and the assumed federal engagement in picking and choosing projects. This will require negotiation and creative paper work (for provinces and territories to make up stories about incremental spending). Moreover the rush to spend will not necessarily encourage great wisdom in the choice of projects... Both the present and the previous governments failed to undertake adequate or, more accurately, any, contingency planning for the ‘lean years’ during the ‘fat years’ – a failure which will now impede our capacity to recover from the current recession and to spend our infrastructure funds wisely.
I think we would be hard-pressed to find any Canadian who would say that we should shovel the money out the door, that they do not care what the project is or what the consequences will be for their community and the environment.
This is an opportunity to ensure that projects will contribute to the overall health and well-being of our country and communities, both now and in the future. It is an opportunity to ensure the environment is protected, that jobs are created for the future and that we are doing some of the green initiatives that the New Democrats have proposed.
The Caledon Institute's report refers to spending money wisely. I have heard members say that we do not want to see a road built to nowhere or a bridge that goes halfway across a body of water. We want to ensure those projects are integrated into the plans of the community and make sense in terms of job creation, education, and the environment.
I know a couple of people have mentioned the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. I want to touch on a couple of points the FCM has raised. This has certainly been mentioned in the House. It talks about use of the gas tax model, that it is fast, tested and accountable.
Of course, New Democrats have said that consistently, that the gas tax model is already in place, it works well, and we know that we can get money out through that process.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in this particular publication, states that:
The most efficient and effective federal funding program is the [gas tax fund], which empowers communities to start work quickly on clearly established infrastructure priorities.
Members will notice that it says “clearly established infrastructure priorities”.
The GTF flows money to cities and communities on a per capita basis. Municipalities must then invest these dollars in accordance with clear eligibility criteria, guided by established, federally-approved capital investment plans.
It goes on also to talk about what is of particular interest in my riding, and I know other members here have small communities, the fact that smaller communities must not be ignored and that there must be funding set aside for smaller communities, and communities must be protected.
So in terms of tabling a list of likely projects, it would enable us in the House to see if there is that good balance between large urban centres and smaller communities.
I know there has been some work done around this, but for smaller communities, if we just simply look at per capita funding, the city of Duncan, for example, has 5,000 people, yet it has some major road infrastructure that has an impact on every other community in the area. So there must be some sort of set-aside that recognizes the integration of these communities, but they also must have access to the funding to recognize the fact that simply a per capita formula will not do it. Again, tabling of the likely projects will allow us as parliamentarians to assess that and will allow the Canadian public to assess it.
I know other members have raised this, but our neighbours to the south have somehow or other figured out that accountability and transparency is a good thing. In a memo written on February 9 that went out to the heads of departments and agencies, there are a couple of key points that talk specifically about that accountability and transparency.
We are asking the American people to trust their government with an unprecedented level of funding to address the economic emergency. In return, we must prove to them that their dollars are being invested in initiatives and strategies that make a difference in their communities and across the country.
It seems to me that the Americans have it. They understand that there is a partnership around this.
We as parliamentarians can approve spending, or not, but then there must be a partnership with the public around how that money is spent.
The Americans have a website, which I am sure others have spoken about, but I want to re-emphasize this because there are a couple of really key goals. On the website, www.recovery.gov, they say the funding “must be subject to unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability”.
We are actually asking Canadians to shoulder a debt. We are asking Canadians, to some extent, to do it in good faith, because although we may have talked about the potential economic stimulus and how it is going to benefit our communities, we are really asking them to take it on faith that the money that is being spent will actually make a difference in our communities.
The other part of that partnership then must be these unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability. It must go above and beyond anything we normally have asked of our government, and it would seem to me that the principles outlined in www.recovery.gov seem reasonable. These principles are that:
Recovery funds are awarded and distributed in a prompt, fair, and reasonable manner;
The recipients and uses of all recovery funds are transparent to the public, and that the public benefits of these funds are reported clearly, accurately, and in a timely manner;
Recovery funds are used for authorized purposes and every step is taken to prevent instances of fraud, waste, error, and abuse;
It states further:
Programs meet specific goals and targets, and contribute to improved performance on broad economic indicators.
If the United States, which has a significantly larger population than Canada, can do this, surely we in Canada can figure this out.
I would urge members of this House to support this motion, and I would urge the government to take some lessons from what has happened with the Obama government and some of the initiatives it has proposed.