Madam Speaker, it is great to be back here, and I would like to take the occasion to thank family and friends who supported me, volunteers who worked to help with my re-election, the electors who chose me, and even those who did not, for the privilege of serving in this august chamber. Most of all, I would like to thank the people of Carleton, my newly constituted riding, for giving me the chance.
It is newly constituted, but it is very much a historical place. Sir John A. Macdonald was elected in the riding of Carleton, and the century before, its namesake, Sir Guy Carleton, was the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec; so in a small sense, history is repeating itself with the re-emergence of these boundaries in this riding, but it is also repeating itself with the new government.
We have today, as we did almost a century ago, a Prime Minister who is a Liberal, who is a Quebecker, and who speaks of sunny ways. Of course, sunny ways is not an expression he invented; it is one he inherited from then prime minister Laurier, who of course is one of the greatest prime ministers this country has ever had. Laurier said:
Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.
More freedom at that time meant less government. From 1900 to 1910, federal, provincial, and municipal spending was a combined 9% of GDP. Today, it is about 40%. Low-cost government meant a low-tax nation. To quote the authors of The Canadian Century, Crowley, Clemens, and Veldhuis:
Laurier believed that the cost of government, and especially the tax burden, needed always to be kept below the level in the United States, so as to create a powerful competitive advantage for Canada.
Then, as now, Canada's low-tax plan worked. In the first 20 years of the 20th century, our population grew by an unprecedented two-thirds, and to quote the previous authors, “the wheat yield in the three Prairie provinces rose during Laurier's time...” by 500%, new and repair construction increased by almost 400%, and exports more than doubled. The rate at which the new companies formed and were chartered grew by 12 times during the first decade of that century.
That is a good moment in which to say that I will be splitting my time with the member for Abbotsford.
If today's Prime Minister were to bring sunny ways such as these, I think we would all rejoice. In fact, despite Laurier's partisan affiliation to what we call the Liberal Party, he would probably have recognized himself more in the policies of the previous government than the current one.
Conservatives in the last 10 years brought free trade, free markets, and free people. In fact, we left Canada the freest country in the world, according to the Legatum Prosperity Index. We had the sixth freest economy in the world, according to The Wall Street Journal, and according to the finance department last week, we also had a balanced budget.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has added that the projected surplus for this year, based on all the information available to him on the day that the current Liberal government took office, would have us running a surplus of $1.2 billion, and so in a sense the Prime Minister of today has inherited sunny ways from his predecessors in the recent past.
Much has been said about the gap between the rich and the poor and the plight of the middle class. I am glad we should speak of these subjects, because over the last decade the facts are clear: families moved out of poverty and into the middle class. The middle class got ahead and better off than any other country in the world. Between 2005 and 2011, during which time the Conservative government was in power, the take-home pay among low-income families was up 14%, after tax and inflation.
Even Andrew Coyne, who had previously endorsed the Liberals, admitted:
In 2011, the last year for which StatsCanada has figures, the proportion of the population living on low income...fell to its lowest level—well, ever. At just 8.8%, it beat the previous record of 9.0%, set in 2010. As recently as 1996, it was at 15.2%.
In other words, poverty fell by almost half in 20 years.
Of course, child poverty would be expected to rise during the great global recession that resulted from the financial crisis of 2008. In fact, according to UNICEF, the opposite happened here in Canada. While children around the world were falling into poverty, here in Canada the child poverty rate decreased from 23% to 21% during the recession, pulling roughly 180,000 children out of poverty.
How did this happen?
First, the reality is that we increased the amount that Canadians could earn before they started paying taxes and removed one million low-income Canadians from the tax rolls altogether. The parliamentary budget officer said, “In total, cumulative changes have reduced federal tax revenue by $30 billion, or 12 per cent. These changes have been progressive, overall. Low and middle income earners have benefited more, in relative terms, than higher income earners.”
The same report points out that the “highest 10 per cent of income earners benefit least, with after-tax gains of...1.4 per cent...”
Our government enacted policies to free people from poverty, allowing them to enter the middle class. Yesterday's poor are today's middle class.
What is the state of the middle class? The ultra Liberal New York Times had something to say on this subject. “Life in Canada, Home of the World’s Most Affluent Middle Class”, was the screaming headline.
The same article went on to say, “After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States.” That must have been a very tough admission for The New York Times.
Overall, under the previous government, personal income taxes are down 10%, and take-home pay is up 10% on average across all income levels. The median net worth of Canadians went up by 44%. We reduced poverty and freed middle-class strivers to get ahead, letting families keep more of what they earned. They earned bigger and better wages in a big, open, opportunity-filled, free-enterprise economy.
There are other ways than tax relief to free people from despair and poverty and allow them to get ahead. I suggest that all of them are based on three pillars: work, family, and community. It is not government, but work, family, and community. A job is the best anti-poverty program there is; family is the best social safety net we have; and community is what is left to take care of those people who, through no fault of their own, have no work or perhaps cannot rely on family.
I would like to share some stories that I heard along the way as we continue with this debate, but the time is now running out and members are anxious to get on with their questions. Therefore, I will just say that we in this country have an opportunity to continue to allow our middle class and our working families to get ahead if we remove the obstacles that government has put in the way, lift off the heavy burden of red tape, and continue to build an economy that is built on free trade, free enterprise, and free people.
I say this because of something I learned when I was minister of employment. There was a bureaucratic decision to close a recycling plant not far from here that takes care of all of the used sensitive documents of the Government of Canada. There were 50 special needs people who recycled all of that paper on our behalf. They do it very well and at a very low cost.
For some reason there was a bureaucratic decision to end that program. They were, of course, devastated. This was the place where they went, it was the place that gave them purpose, and it was a place, as they say in Cheers, where everybody knew their name.
When I announced that I would intervene and save this program, I went to visit these incredible young people. I asked one young man what he liked best about his job. He said, “work”. I asked him how we could make the place better for him. He said, “Send more paper. I don't want it to run out because I want to keep working.”
That is the kind of enterprising spirit that inspires us all to build the economy that we all want.