Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to address what I believe is a very important motion. It should be a wake-up call to the government, in particular to the Prime Minister and the staff in the PMO, that their behaviour toward federalism and their attitude, or lack thereof, in recognizing their responsibility to work with the provinces by not having premier conferences with the first ministers is wrong. I would like to take the opportunity to add a few thoughts I have with respect to why I believe first ministerial meetings are of critical importance.
My seatmate pointed out to me that we had our first first ministers meeting in 1906. The current Prime Minister has not had a first ministers meeting since January 2009. I believe that the Prime Minister not recognizing the importance of first ministers meetings represents a loss of opportunity. I will focus on a couple of agenda items at the get-go as to why it is that the Prime Minister has missed the boat by not going forward with the first ministers meeting.
We have heard a lot about the economy over the last little while, primarily because of the fall in oil prices. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance have said that there is so much uncertainty with respect to Canada's economy that they cannot even provide a budget date. We believe it will most likely come out sometime in April. If the economy and the forecasting are in such a situation that they had to defer the budget, one would question why the Prime Minister would not want to meet with the provincial premiers to talk about the issue.
We have known about this for a number of months. The impact of the falling oil prices will have an impact on each and every province. We are all concerned about the state of Canada's economy and the impact it is having not only on our national budget but also on the provincial budgets.
Once the federal government provides its national budget, usually within a number of weeks we will see the provinces providing their budgets. That is because, in good part, there is a heavy reliance on knowing how much money the government is investing into social programming and the safety nets that are there. Federal budgetary decisions do have a fairly significant impact on the provincial budgets.
I would ultimately argue that the delay itself could be justification for the Prime Minister wanting to meet with the premiers to get a better sense of what is happening in the different regions of the country, and how a united front with the different levels of government could have a more positive impact for all Canadians.
Add to that the issue of infrastructure, which has been a serious issue for months now within the Liberal Party. Since the federal government's last budget we have been asking questions with respect to the serious cuts that were being put into place for actual expenditures this year and the upcoming year, 2015-16. At the end of the day, we know it is having a profound impact on virtually every community in our country. There is a need for us to get a better understanding.
If we take that into consideration, along with the government's approach on the delay of the national budget, there is a second item that could easily be placed on a national agenda where we have the premiers coming to the table with the Prime Minister.
I can assure members that the premiers all have issues related to infrastructure expenditures. Timing is important. Timing does matter. Infrastructure is investing in our country. If the government seems to be more interested in the election cycle than it is in the infrastructure needs of our country, I suspect that if the Prime Minister were to meet with the premiers, he would be told about them fairly clearly.
I would like to think that the Prime Minister has also met with some of our mayors and municipal leaders. I believe that they have a shared concern with regard to the amount of monies that are necessary to meet our infrastructure needs and where that money needs to come from, at least in part, for us to realize the benefits of investing in priority infrastructure projects.
When we talk about a first ministers meeting, not all of the work is done during the actual meeting. There is a great deal of effort that is put in and invested in the lead-up to the discussion. I would argue that it is the majority of the effort.
For example, if we were to talk about infrastructure, I suspect that what we would have is municipal leaders working with provincial and federal bureaucracy, trying to get a better assessment of all the needs in the different regions of the country. With that, when the first ministers sat down for the discussion, if infrastructure were placed on that agenda, it would be a very wholesome discussion.
That is one of the ways in which we can build the consensus so that provinces as a whole feel they are all being treated equally, that they are being listened to, and that there is a sense that there is a united front as to how much money should be spent in any given fiscal year, given our economic circumstances.
We cannot have that comprehensive discussion and amount of dialogue by parcelling it out. If we wanted to have a national strategy on infrastructure, one of the best ways we could achieve it is by bringing the premiers to the table. A prime minister who was confident of his or her abilities would not be intimidated by the asks that would be put on the table by the different partners of our federation.
It does not necessarily mean that the federal government's only role is to dole out money. We have a federal civil service that I would argue is the best in the world. It has the ability to get an assessment from a federal treasury perspective and from a community perspective by working with the different civil servants at the different levels of the government. The federal government would be very well represented.
However, if we want to build the consensus in terms of having that national program, quite often it is best had at a first ministers conference. We have seen great successes to that effect.
I would like to give a real example, one I have had the opportunity to talk about in the past: health care. I am very passionate about health care, because I believe it is a part of our Canadian identity. If we talk to Canadians and ask them what makes them feel good about living in Canada, being a Canadian or a resident of Canada, quite often the number one answer we will get is a reflection on our health care system.
That is the reason we brought it in decades ago and Pierre Trudeau brought in the Canada Health Act. That is an important issue to Canadians. I remember the 1990s when there were first ministers conferences, when Jean Chrétien, the former prime minister, had premiers come to the table.
Members will say that was when the Liberals cut back on health transfers. However, I was sitting in a provincial legislature debating the issue at the time. The biggest issue from Manitoba's perspective was a fear about a previous agreement that had tax points financing health care, and if the formula was not changed, it was only a question of time before Ottawa would not have cash transfers, just tax point transfers.
I, as a provincial legislator at the time, was saying that I wanted to see cash coming from Ottawa. I believe that was something that was talked about, because back then we asked our premier to raise the issue with the Prime Minister. Maybe I should not take it for granted, but I do take it for granted that it was raised.
I believe Jean Chrétien did a great thing for Canadians by ensuring there would always be an ongoing cash transfer to the provinces. That was a strong statement of policy, and it was in response to what Canadians wanted of their governments, not just the national government but also the provincial governments.
Fast forward to when we had Paul Martin as prime minister of Canada. We are familiar with the health care accord. The health care accord was achieved at a first ministers meeting. It was the prime minister sitting down with the different premiers. Whether it was Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, or Paul Martin, they understood how important this issue was to all Canadians.
In essence, they came up with a 10-year health care accord that guaranteed finances. They also wanted to make sure there was opportunity for Ottawa to have some influence in terms of the way in which health care is ultimately being delivered, if the government wanted to ensure some sense of accountability.
I send out questionnaires and I am constantly consulting with my constituents. If members canvassed their constituents, I have no doubt they would find that they want Ottawa to play a role in health care. Paul Martin recognized that. The best way to deal with that issue was to talk about it in a premiers conference. He sat down with the premiers and came up with this wonderful agreement.
Earlier one of my colleagues made reference to the fact that every other week when we are sitting we will hear a Conservative member of the caucus talk about how wonderful the government is because it is giving so much money to health care. The dollars they are referring to are the dollars that Paul Martin negotiated with the premiers over a decade ago at a first ministers conference. That is the benefit.
One of the reasons I got intrigued by and involved in politics was Pierre Trudeau and his constitutional discussions.
We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We have our own Constitution. Why? It is because we had a prime minister who had a vision that saw Canada as an independent nation that needed its own constitution. I took a great deal of pride in that. It would not have happened had there not been first ministers getting together to achieve a national goal.
We can talk about the Kelowna accord. The issues today in our aboriginal community are severe and serious. The Kelowna accord was a massive accomplishment of Paul Martin. He got premiers, first nations leaders, and others coming together and working together. At the end of the day, they produced a document that Canadians as a whole, I believe, supported and that the chamber, with the exception of the Conservatives, I suspect, supported.
These agreements and accords are something best achieved when we have a government that is not intimidated by attending premiers or first ministers meetings, by a prime minister who has some vision, some sense of what he or she would like to see the country look like. That is why I am so proud that the leader of the Liberal Party has made the commitment to ensure that we will have first ministers' meetings in the future. We should.
One issue, and I suspect that my leader does not need to be lobbied on it, is the Canada Pension Plan. The Canada Pension Plan is an issue Canadians from every region are concerned about. We understand the value of that program. It is only the Conservatives who seem to want to turn a deaf ear to what Canadians are saying about the issue of pensions.
We now have at least one province going it alone on CPP, and I believe one of the NDP provincial leadership candidates was talking about going it alone. There may be others talking about it. Let there be no doubt that a number of provinces would support a first ministers meeting to deal with pensions for our seniors, whether it is the OAS and the government's desire to increase the age from 65 to 67 for retirement or the need to invest more in the CPP. These are the types of issues that can make a difference in the lives of Canadians. What they want is strong leadership from the Prime Minister's Office.
I believe this Prime Minister does not have a national vision on the different issues out there. He takes issues day by day and makes decisions without consultation. The OAS is a great example of that. He was overseas, and while he was somewhere in Europe, he said that they were going to increase the age from 65 to 67. There was no real consultation at all. Then he came to Canada and we saw the reaction. The Liberal Party is going to correct that. We are going to leave it at 65.
We are going to meet with the premiers to talk about the CPP, because we are concerned about pensions. We understand that Canadians want good pensions when they retire. The Liberal Party is committed to working with the premiers, because if we are not prepared to work with the premiers collectively, we will not be able to achieve some of the things Canadians want.
By supporting this motion, one is saying one supports the idea that there is an important role for our national government in building consensus and making a real difference in the lives of each and every person who calls Canada home.