Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise to debate Bill C-44, the budget 2017 implementation bill.
Back in the days when I taught zoology at UBC and comparative anatomy labs at Memorial University, we talked a lot about form and function. Today I would like to begin by talking about the form of this bill and move on to its function, its contents, and what that means in regard to government priorities.
As others have commented, the most obvious thing about this bill is its sheer size. It is almost 300 pages long. It amends more than 30 separate acts and even incorporates Bill C-43 within it, which was already on the Order Paper. Many of these components have nothing to do with the implementation of the budget. For instance, the bill includes major changes to the powers of the parliamentary budget officer, which I will talk more about later.
This bill is the very definition of an omnibus bill. Many Canadians will remember quite clearly what the Liberals said about omnibus bills in the previous Parliament. They and the New Democrats pointed out that omnibus bills were clearly designed to pass disparate pieces of legislation without providing opportunity for proper debate or committee study. The Liberals loudly complained that one of the Conservative budget bills was 175 pages long. That was a micro-bill compared to this one.
The Liberals were so outraged by the omnibus bills of the Conservative government that they put clear promises in their 2015 election platform, saying, “We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny” and “We will change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic practice”, yet they could not resist doing the same thing with budget 2017, and in a very egregious way. The Liberals have broken a growing number of election promises, but this broken promise, one that puts them in the same camp as the Conservatives when it comes to eroding Canadian democracy, must be one of their most disappointing acts for many of their supporters.
Now I would like to move from form to function and some of the consequences of Bill C-44.
One of the main themes of the last federal election was the struggle to reduce income inequality in Canada, an inequality that has been steadily increasing for the past 20 years or more. The NDP has led this battle for years, and in the last election the Liberals agreed with us in principle and said they would, as we have heard so often since, support the middle class and those trying to join it. In the last budget, the Liberals disappointed most Canadians in the middle class by doing absolutely nothing for those making less than $45,000 a year, instead bringing in income tax changes that gave tax relief primarily to those making $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
The Liberals promised that they would plug the loopholes that allowed CEOs to pay taxes at half the rate of middle-class Canadians, but did nothing in last year's budget and, I am sorry to say, did nothing in this budget as well. Bill C-44 has no provisions to close this loophole, which costs the government almost $800 million each year and leaves that money in the pockets of the wealthy Canadians who least need it.
Who do the Liberals choose to squeeze money out of instead? It is transit riders, the middle class and those seeking to join the middle class who take buses and trains to work every day. Under Bill C-44, they would lose their public transit tax credit so that the government could pocket $225 million in savings. Wealthy CEOs get to keep $800 million, while bus riders have to cough up $225 million. Budgets are about choices, and this is the unfortunate choice the Liberals have made.
On top of that, we in the NDP were hoping that the Liberal government would take concrete steps to shut down offshore tax havens, where the wealthiest of Canadians and corporations that have pocketed billions of dollars in tax cuts move their profits to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. However, neither Bill C-44 nor any other legislation before us addresses this critical step in reducing income inequality in Canada.
As I mentioned at the start, one of the features of Bill C-44 is a section that would change the role and powers of the parliamentary budget officer. This has no place in a budget implementation bill. Maybe the Liberals thought they could slip it in because of the word “budget” in the title of this important office. The parliamentary budget officer must be independent and neutral, but Bill C-44 would degrade that independence in several ways.
First, it requires the parliamentary budget office to submit an annual work plan to both the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate. This requirement could only benefit the government, as the PBO would not be able to undertake any study unless it had been approved in the annual work plan.
Second, only committees—committees dominated by government MPs—would be allowed to request that the PBO estimate the cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction. At present, individual MPs can request the PBO to undertake these analyses, but if Bill C-44 becomes law, they could only request cost analyses on proposals that relate to a bill, a motion, or an amendment that they themselves had made.
Again, this bill would greatly restrict the independence of the PBO and restrict the abilities of individual MPs to study the costs of government proposals. It was this type of independent initiative that exposed the true costs of the F-35 fighter jets to Canadians, and it was this independent action that showed that the so-called middle-class tax cuts of this Liberal government only benefited the wealthy in our country.
Another point of disappointment in the budget is the change that would index the excise duty on wine to the consumer price index beginning in 2018. My riding, I must admit, produces the best wine in Canada, and the wine industry plays a large role in the economy there and in other wine regions of the country.
Canadian wine producers are very concerned that this duty will now rise automatically every year, despite already being almost twice as large as the duties levied by other countries. For instance, the duty is 63¢ per litre in Canada versus 38¢ in the United States, while Germany has no excise tax on wine at all.
This automatic increase will exacerbate those differences and undermine the growth of the wine industry in Canada, impacting the entire economic value chain from farm gate to retail.
I would like to end on a positive note by mentioning a few measures that I am happy to see in the budget.
One is the promise to spend about $40 million to support projects and activities that increase the use of wood as a greener substitute material in infrastructure projects. Using wood as a primary material in large buildings is a technology for which Canada is already a world leader. One of the leading companies in Canada in the construction of these buildings is Structurlam in my home town of Penticton. Structurlam sources a lot of wood for its glulam beams and cross-laminated timber panels from the Kalesnikoff mill near Castlegar on the other side of my riding.
Expanding this part of the forest industry in Canada would give it a much-needed boost in these troubled times as mills across this country face trade sanctions through the softwood lumber dispute. We have heard a lot recently about efforts to diversify our foreign markets, but here is an opportunity to build the domestic market as well, and to build it quickly. Unfortunately, this spending is not scheduled to start until next year, when it might come too late.
Another way that the government could move forward on this file is by adopting my private member's bill, Bill C-354, which directs the government to consider the use wood in building projects. Government procurement is a powerful force that would immediately boost the forest industry across this country.
I am pleased that the Liberal government is keeping at least one of its election promises, albeit a year late, which is to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. In 2014, the Pembina Institute estimated that more than $1 billion in fossil fuel subsidies still exist in our tax framework, so I am happy to see that budget 2017 will exclude producing wells from the Canada exploration expenses tax deduction.
In conclusion, I will simply say that budget 2017 represents yet another lost opportunity for the Liberal government to turn the corner on rising inequality in Canada.