Mr. Speaker, we all agree that financial literacy is important, that it is a good thing, but that is not the subject of today’s debate. The issue is whether or not this bill is going to strengthen financial literacy. And on that point I must say that I have many doubts about this bill.
As I said, we are supportive of financial literacy. Who would not be? We are deeply concerned about the lack of information in the bill. it is my hope that the government will clarify further detail in the course of this debate.
We can all agree that increasing the financial literacy of Canadians is an important goal for government, both federal and provincial. A more financially literate population would be a more prosperous population. But financial literacy is not the panacea that the Conservative Party seems to pretend it to be.
Far too often over the past six years we have been told by the government that problems like increasing post-secondary education costs and rising household debt can simply be solved by waving this magic wand of financial literacy. This is simply incorrect. There are a number of policy levers the government can operate to help solve the issues of rising household debt or runaway student debt. Increased financial literacy is one of them. My goal is not to downplay the importance of financial literacy but only to point out that it is not the only policy solution available to the government.
Let me turn now to the contents of the bill. I get the distinct impression that Bill C-28 was written on the back of an envelope, that the primary motive was probably to have an “announceable” for Financial Literacy Month last November, because it is virtually content-free. I will explain.
The bill and its supporting documents are completely devoid of any detail as to how the office of the financial literacy leader would even work. The bill does not specify if there would even be an office of the financial literacy leader or if he or she would simply be one more employee at FCAC.
Bill C-28 was a response to the recommendations of the Task Force on Financial Literacy. The task force was created as part of the 2009 budget. It reported back to the minister early last year. The task force had 30 recommendations. This legislation satisfies only a part of one of the recommendations.
The first recommendation was that the government create the position of financial literacy leader and that this person be charged with improving financial literacy across Canada. It also said the financial literacy leader should report directly to the Minister of Finance. Under this legislation this position would report to the commissioner of FCAC. Let us give the government half a point for getting recommendation 1 half right. Its total score then is one-half of one point out of thirty. If I were back in my professor days, I do not think that would be a passing grade.
The bill would also give FCAC the power to impose a levy on the banks in order to pay for its efforts in improving financial literacy. But it would also give the Minister of Finance the power to spend government money to achieve the same objective. As parliamentarians, we are yet again being asked to vote on a bill that causes the government to incur costs, spend money and perhaps tax banks without being given even a hint of the numbers involved.
Liberals, indeed all parliamentarians, should not have a problem with spending resources to improve financial literacy. However, we do want to know the order of magnitude these expenditures and the related taxes would be on. Are we talking about $100,000, $500,000, $1 million, $10 million? We have no idea, because there is nothing in the bill to tell us what this process would involve other than the naming of this one person. The question of how much things would cost is important because many of the other recommendations from the task force's report would require additional effort and financial commitment on the part of the government.
For example, recommendation 2 requires the government to establish an advisory board on financial literacy. The advisory board would help the financial literacy leader to develop a national strategy on financial literacy.
Recommendation 4 requires the national strategy to incorporate financial literacy in the school curriculums across Canada and at all levels of education. This would obviously require coordination with provincial governments and may I suggest the direct ministerial mandate asked for in the task force's first recommendation.
Recommendation 9 suggests that financial literacy material be delivered to Canadians through programs that reach Canadians directly, such as EI, CPP, OAS or the universal child care benefit. There are many such requirements and they will all cost money.
Surely the government must have some idea of the anticipated costs. Yet there is no mention of any of these recommendations or any actions to be taken or not to be taken in the bill. Therefore, we are all left totally in the dark as to what, if anything significant, this leader would accomplish, how much money it would cost and what the scope of the mandate would be.
This is not the first time that the House of Commons has been asked to vote on legislation without knowing the cost. The most prominent case that comes to mind is Bill C-10, the tough on crime compendium of bills. The government did not tell us what the additional costs would be for new prisons. We know from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that it is many billions of dollars. We know that some of those billions would be downloaded onto the provinces. The government did not come clean on that and it was a far more important case in terms of expenditure of funds than this would be. However, it is the same principle. The government wants us to pass legislation, but tell us nothing about what it would actually do and what it would actually cost.
This similar issue has caught the attention of the government operations committee, which is currently conducting a study on how Parliament considers supply and more broadly how we as parliamentarians are presented with information on the government spending plan. I would certainly suggest that not knowing the cost of bills before we vote on them is just one part of this problem.
Back to the contents of the bill, there are other existing mechanisms at the disposal of the federal government to promote financial literacy. For example, the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education was created in 1974 as a non-profit, non-partisan organization with the goal of promoting greater financial literacy. It already has tremendous buy-in from government and from the private sector. A quick scan of its website indicates that its list of board of directors include prominent members of the private, post-secondary and labour sectors. On the government side, the CFEE has relationships with the federal Department of Finance and numerous ministries of education provincially.
I know this group from my earlier incarnation with the Royal Bank as their chief economist and I had several meetings with this group. I know that they were working diligently. However, it certainly is not obvious from the bill, which tells us virtually nothing, why the addition of one more body in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy would improve financial literacy better than the work being carried out by the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education.
In the end, the issue I have with the bill is that we simply do not know what the government is planning to do. We do know that it may involve taxing banks. We know that it may involve spending more government funds, but we have no idea how much. We do not know the size of this new organization. We do not know which of the other recommendations from the Task Force on Financial Literacy would be carried out. We know very little, virtually nothing about it.
As I said at the outset, improving financial literacy is an important task for the federal government. However, we have concerns on this side of the House that the newly created financial literacy leader would not be able to carry out his important task.
There is another side of this coin. We can talk about the need for greater financial literacy on the part of Canadians, but we can also talk about the problem of financial illiteracy on the part of the Conservative government.
I would like to say a few words on the financial illiteracy of the Conservative government. I think if there needs to be a course in financial literacy, the first ones to enrol in such a course should probably be the members sitting opposite.
My first example of Conservative financial illiteracy goes way back to 2006. Prior to the arrival of the current government in 2006, for many years Canadians had to have at least a 5% down payment on a mortgage. The longest mortgage they could get was 25 years. What did these financial wizards do in 2006? Instead of a 25 year maximum period, they made it 40 years.
Instead of a 5% minimum down payment, they made it zero. Brilliant. Magic. People could get a zero down payment mortgage for 40 years under the Conservative government.
Now, the problem is that this is like the subprime mortgages in the U.S. Eventually, they found out, but did not admit it because the Conservatives would never admit they made a mistake. They discovered they had made a mistake, so they put it back from 40 years down to 35 years, and they brought the minimum payment up from zero to 5%. Then they claimed credit for tightening the system.
However, the system is not back to where it was when the Conservatives arrived. It is still looser. That is the first example of financial illiteracy.
So I suggest that the Minister of Finance and some of his colleagues enrol in financial literacy 101. If they do, maybe their performance will improve.
The second example of financial illiteracy is the fact that the Conservatives were so lucky when they inherited a massive $13 billion Liberal surplus when they came to power. Then they proceeded to spend like drunken sailors. They are the biggest spenders in Canadian history, to the point where these Conservatives actually ate through all that surplus and went into deficit before the recession began.
That is a second reason for the Minister of Finance to enrol in that course which I shall call financial literacy 101. It is important to have a prudent fiscal policy. It is not good financial literacy to blow through a $13 billion surplus by spending madly when the economy is strong. One might have a deficit when the economy is weak, but one should not run through a surplus when times are good, with massive spending just before a recession begins.
I have a third example of this government’s lack of financial literacy. That is its plan for massive cuts in government spending at a time when the Canadian economy is very fragile. It is suggesting reductions on the order of $4 billion or even $8 billion in public spending and reductions of government services to Canadians. It will be doing this at a time when the economy is very weak.
Let us not forget that unemployment remains high; let us not forget that there is a crisis in Europe; let us not forget that the U.S. economy is extremely weak.
We are living in a world where the unemployment rate remains too high and where the level of risk is very high everywhere, compared with the past.
In this context of a hugely fragile weak economy, anyone who went through financial literacy 101 would know that this is not the moment to have massive cuts in government spending, massive layoffs of public servants and massive reductions in the services provided to Canadians. It is not a good idea.
Members do not have to believe me, I will invoke the name of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF. The IMF is the mother of all fiscally prudent people. Typically the IMF calls for countries to cut. Christine Lagarde recently said that countries which have room, and this might not include Greece but it certainly includes Canada, should in the short run focus on measures to create jobs and support the economy, and in the medium term they should have a credible plan to balance the books and bring down debt. That is not me talking, that is the head of the IMF. The chief economist of BMO had said something similar, that making massive cuts at this time is as crazy as what Herbert Hoover did in the U.S. during the Great Depression.
As I said earlier, I think members of the government, maybe even the Prime Minister, might like to enrol in this course which we could set up called financial literacy 101.
If they do this, there will be at least three subjects. The first is that it is not smart to have mortgages amortized over 40 years with no capital outlay. That makes no sense. We saw this in the United States, but this government changed the system for the worse in 2006. Second, when you inherit a $13 billion surplus, it is not financially prudent to spend all of those funds when the economy is strong and to go into deficit even before the recession. That is not a good example of financial literacy.
That is what this Conservative government did: it did not demonstrate sound financial literacy. As I just said, it is not a good idea to make massive budget cuts in government investments and have monumental job losses in the public sector when the economy is weak and the global economic system is very fragile. That too is not a good idea.
In conclusion, in terms of the mark that the bill deserves, it got 1 of the recommendations out of 30 half right, so is one-half of one out of 30, which is a failure. Also, in terms of the three subjects for a financial literacy class 101, which I recommended for the government, it fails on all three.