Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have this opportunity to join in the debate on Bill C-47, the budget implementation act.
As the government operations vice-chair, much of my 13 years as an MP has been spent in an environment where budgetary restraint were the operative words. They were key. In fact, it was a period of cutting, hacking, and slashing in a way that we often criticized as going too far.
In the Liberal years, when they tried to balance a budget, they did so in such a way that they were not just trimming the fat from government programs but had gone through the fat and were into the bone. Some of those cuts have never healed. In fact, some of the Liberals' cutting, hacking, and slashing bordered on cruelty in that they seemed to take no notice of the human consequences associated with their deep, reckless, and irresponsible cuts.
That was the environment in which I spent most of my political career, trying to direct spending to social spending and to bring an element of reason and compassion into the slashing that was going on. I contrast that now with the position I find myself in as the vice-chair of the government operations committee, the oversight committee for estimates.
When I contrast the experience of yesterday with that of today, I see billions of dollars flying out the door at breakneck speed, with virtually no oversight, model, projection, or yardstick to measure progress by. This is irresponsible and cavalier, almost reckless.
Granted, this spending was called for by other OECD nations. We all knew we had to get some money into circulation. But surely with some prudence and probity, we could have designed a way to get money into circulation with some yardstick to measure progress by, with goals and objectives that could be stated, observed, measured, and then evaluated.
We in the committee asked for that type of participation. But we were given none of it. In fact, it has been incredibly frustrating. For instance, we asked for the projected job creation associated with this spending initiative, and we got nothing to go by. This is my frustration as a member of Parliament. I am finally given the opportunity at this late date to speak to the budget implementation bill. Yet I recall that, at every step along the way, I tried to speak to the issues associated with this massive windfall of spending. And every step of the way, I was stymied.
Instead of the government coming to Parliament and allowing members to test the metal of its policies through vigorous debate and informed participation, it has put a shroud of secrecy over what it is doing, as if policy can be discussed only behind closed doors and drawn curtains. It seems we have no right, according to the government, to know what the stimulus spending is doing, where it is going, and how it is being allocated.
Whether the Auditor General will ever be able to do a thorough analysis of these billions of dollars of stimulus spending remains to be seen. In any case, if such an analysis were to occur, by that time things would likely have gone too far. We will be into another political cycle and presumably another election will have taken place.
It would be disingenuous to allow the Canadian people to think that we have weathered this economic recession relatively well owing to the strong financial stewardship of the government, but that is the illusion the government is trying to create. In every speech Conservatives make in public on the international scene, they say Canada has weathered the recession a lot better because they did what was right. Let us remind ourselves that, if we had actually run with the Conservative budget in late 2008, a catastrophe would have ensued.
The budget we are seeing today is in fact a coalition budget, a budget that we forced the Minister of Finance to entertain. In November 2008, remember, he was in full denial that an economic crisis existed.
The government considered that it was just business as usual. It did not worry about the economy, suggesting that the crisis would pass. We said no. The rest of the world said no. All of the members on this side of the House said no. We told the government that we would not let it drive the bus over the cliff, so we stopped it, and it is a good thing we did. We scared the government straight, as it were, because it had to regroup, pull back, and withdraw. It came out with a stimulus package that has helped us overcome the economic challenges of the last few months.
The Conservatives did not listen to advice, though. With what has been called the biggest economic crisis since the great depression, one would have thought there would have been some effort to reach across the aisle and co-operate. When the country is at war, a war cabinet is pulled together. When the country is in crisis, one would like to think that the government would approach opposition parties and say, “Look, in light of this crisis, we need an unprecedented level of co-operation, because we have to be paddling our canoe in the same direction to get out of these dangerous rapids”.
None of that happened. In fact, the Conservatives ignored all the advice proffered. Surely, they cannot think that they have a monopoly on common sense and reason, financial responsibility and experience. There are talented people on this side of the House, too. We put forward good ideas to the Conservative Party, but those members ignored virtually every one of them. I will talk about only one or two.
I fully supported getting money into circulation as quickly as possible to stimulate the economy in a Keynesian way. But we suggested ways to achieve secondary objectives at the same time. Yes, get the money into circulation. Yes, public spending is the way to do it. Yes, get it into people's hands. But we could have done transformative things with our economy, if we had set out mind to it.
I heard a speech recently by Van Jones, who was an adviser to President Obama in the United States. Two important U.S. objectives in its stimulus spending were, first, to wean society off the carbon-based economy that was dragging the country down, and second, to bring in the new green economy of the future. A stated objective in the U.S. stimulus spending was to do things that were environmentally smart to wean the American people off imported energy from questionable sources. That was smart. That was making lemonade out of lemons.
There will never be a flurry of public spending like this again in our lifetime. It is rare. As I said, my entire political experience of 13 years has been in an era of budgetary restraint, cutbacks, spending less, and getting government out of things.
When we got into a crisis, we decided as a people that government needed to get into this. But I do not think we are going to see it again. It is a wasted opportunity. We could have used this economic downturn and this blitzkrieg of public spending to transform ourselves from a carbon-based economy into a more sustainable one.
A nationwide, comprehensive energy retrofit program would have put money into circulation immediately. The country would have been put back to work and people would have renovated their homes.
The government offered a paltry home renovation program, but it did not have an adequate energy component. One could get the home renovation stimulus money of $1,300, not a great deal of money, to build a sundeck, for instance. That grant should have been available only to homeowners who wanted to energy retrofit their homes, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I understand that, if a homeowner wanted use the program to put in windows, this would be an improvement in energy efficiency. But there was nothing mandated about that. That was a mistake.
The government could have done something else in home retrofitting. It could have set up a comprehensive asbestos removal program, so that people could rid their homes of harmful asbestos, especially Zonolite insulation.
I cite that specifically because the federal government subsidized and promoted the installation of Zonolite asbestos insulation in 350,000 homes across the country and a countless number of public buildings through CHIP, its Canadian home insulation program. People's homes were devalued and made unsafe by virtue of a government program.
When UFFI, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, was put in and a few people started getting irritation from it, I think it was André Ouellet at the time who started a massive, nationwide removal program to take all that foam insulation out of the houses, which the government had just paid to put in.
While UFFI is irritating to some people, asbestos is deadly to everyone. Yet there is no corresponding removal program. This would have been a perfect opportunity to implement a nationwide asbestos removal program to help homeowners whose homes have been devalued and made unsafe by the government's own home insulation program from 1977 to 1984.
We believe another way we could have stimulated the economy and get money into circulation immediately, plus achieve important secondary objectives at the same time, would have been to increase the old age security payments to Canadian pensioners. Instead of a $1.50 per month increase, anti-poverty groups tell us that an increase of $100 per month would have elevated hundreds of thousands of Canadian seniors out of poverty to the poverty line. This would not make them wealthy by any means, but it would at least elevate them to the base minimum level of poverty that we identify with the low-income cut-off.
Our party costed this out, and for the 300,000 individuals involved, it would be a total cost of $700 million. It is a lot of money, and I am not trying to downplay that, but one could guarantee that the money would be in circulation immediately. A dollar in a poor person's hand is spent that day, in their home community, and it would be in circulation. We all know that every dollar spent gets re-spent four times before it finds its natural state of repose, usually in some rich man's pocket. However, that would have been one way to guarantee money in circulation immediately and solve a serious social objective of senior citizens living in poverty, for a relatively low price tag.
These ideas were put to the Minister of Finance during the brief, paltry, and now we find useless, consultation process. We made these arguments. Frankly, it would have been very smart politically and I think the government would have looked pretty good in the minds of the general public if the senior citizens living in poverty were brought up to at least the poverty line, for one-fortieth of the stimulus spending that went on.
Those are some of the ideas that I find myself frustrated with as an opposition MP and as a member of the government operations committee, now that we are finally asked to discuss the budget implementation bill.
I would also like to discuss in the context of Bill C-47 the enormous crippling deficit that we now must address collectively. I doubt there will be a great deal of consultation associated with that either. Perhaps there will be an election following the next budget and there will not be anymore Conservative budgets after that. However, we strongly suspect that the next budget will be a bad-news budget.
We can anticipate the Conservative government trying to balance the books, and I am afraid that it will try to balance the books along ideological lines. The Conservatives will be trying to achieve secondary objectives and goals as sort of a neo-conservative wish list of things they would like to do.
During the time that I have been an MP, deficits were about as popular as a hooker with a chipped tooth. Now we are faced with a serious issue of deficits.
One of the things we predict through the Conservatives' law and order agenda, the legislation they are putting through, is a very predictable increase in prison construction, an unavoidable increase in prison construction because virtually every one of the bills they are pushing through has mandatory minimum sentencing, which will result in more people in prison.
We have just had the Parliamentary Budget Officer to our government operations committee giving us a projection of what this will cost, and it will cost billions and billions of dollars. Mark my words, the Conservatives will look at privatization of prisons, and there will be some company like Onex or Halliburton that will come into Canada and say that it costs Canada $147,000 to house a prisoner in a federal penitentiary and they can do it for $125,000, and these guys will jump on it like a dog on a pork chop. They will just leap for that.
There is a point in law, and my colleague from St. John's East and I were talking about it. It says a person can be assumed to have intended the predictable consequences of his or her actions. They can be presumed to have intended the predictable consequences of his or her action. The predictable consequences will be stacking up prisoners like cordwood in our penitentiaries. The Conservatives will end up locking up a whole generation of young aboriginal kids, because from now on, if some kid steals a loaf of bread, he or she will wind up in prison, according to the agenda of the Conservatives.