Mr. Speaker, congratulations to you. Having served this House longer than anyone here, it seems a fitting place to find you. In his absence, I would also congratulate the Speaker on his re-election.
Mr. Speaker, I am splitting my time with the hon. member for Lac-Saint-Louis.
As this is my first occasion since the last election to speak to the House, I want to thank very much my family, my wife Denise, my sons Nathan and Nicholas, and my newest son Noah, who is only eight weeks old. My wife was very much expecting Noah during the campaign, so she gets added appreciation for having gone through the election campaign expecting a baby on the 24th of January.
I also want to thank the people of the riding of Fredericton. No Liberal has been elected twice in Fredericton since Confederation and I have had the honour to serve the people of Fredericton riding for my fifth election. I do appreciate the honour and the opportunity to represent the good people of that riding here.
Given the nature of the standings in this Parliament, we are all going to have to work very hard to make Canadians proud of the institution. I hope to do my part by being as positive as I can be. There is a role in opposition to point out limitations and inadequacies, but that can be a constructive role.
Within the Speech from the Throne, the references to the soldiers in Afghanistan, to dealing with the Chinese head tax and to picking up on waiting times initiatives are all positive and the government is to be commended. Having said that, the repeated commitment to a limited number of priorities does lend itself to the observation that some very important things were left out. I would like to enumerate a few of them.
First, as the infrastructure and communities critic for the official opposition, there is a glaring omission having to do with investment in infrastructure, to which the previous speaker from the New Democratic Party spoke, not only because of the importance of these investments but also because of the importance of the relationship that the former government was able to establish with municipalities. Having been an infrastructure minister in the past, I can say it was well received and very important to the country.
Also left out was a reference to the Indian residential schools agreement and the Kelowna accord. In particular, on the question of Indian residential schools, as was mentioned by the last speaker, I would just make the point that the answers to the questions on Indian residential schools have been that we are waiting for the final agreement. The reason there was an agreement on an advance payment was that we knew the final agreement would take some time and many of the elderly people perhaps would not be able to share in that. An advance payment is, by definition, something that would come in advance of a final agreement. I think the government should reconsider that position.
There was no reference to research and development, or making universities more affordable to students. In the case of research and development in particular, we have come a great way. In terms of publicly funded, university based research, in the early 1990s Canada was in the middle of the pack and now we are leading the world in this area. The research chairs program, the indirect cost program and increases in all the research granting agencies have had that effect. I would hope when the budget is presented that the absence of reference to research and universities in the throne speech will be mitigated by good news in the budget. I see the Minister of Finance grinning. I hope that is a good sign and not that he just finds me funny.
Regional economic development is critically important to Atlantic Canada. I am concerned about that. During the last campaign a lot of references were made to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which were not necessarily the most positive. I hope the investment has been made, particularly in innovation. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is an entirely different institution than it was when the Liberals took office in 1993, with a new commitment to communities and innovation primarily. I hope that continues and is in fact enhanced.
I want to acknowledge the regional minister for the province of New Brunswick, the Minister of Veterans Affairs. That causes me to think about agent orange and herbicide spraying at CFB Gagetown in my constituency. The area covered is shared by my constituency and the constituencies of the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the member for Fundy Royal. I have great optimism, because of his awareness of the subject and his commitment to his constituents, that the Minister of Veterans Affairs will be able to move this file quickly.
I was also surprised at the lack of reference to what I consider to be a huge demographic challenge facing the country. It is most acute in Atlantic Canada, but I think it visits all of rural Canada, in particular, in terms of the shrinking and aging population. It simply cannot be sustained.
Finally, this is the 25th anniversary of the International Year of Persons with Disabilities and the obstacles report, which was a seminal piece of work on disabilities. By leaving that out of the throne speech, I hope the government does not intend to see that year go without attention. I am optimistic that it will not.
There was no reference to culture, which has been the subject of many questions in question period, and I will await the budget to see what will happen in terms of the commitments that were made to the Canada Council and the CBC in particular.
Specifically, on the infrastructure program, my concern is that the Canadian strategic infrastructure fund is, for all intents and purposes, committed fully. Therefore, if this budget does not see a renewal in the Canadian strategic infrastructure fund, not only will that be a huge loss to Canada in terms of our ability to invest both in large and small projects, depending on how the applications are organized, but I think it also signals troubling things for the municipal rural infrastructure fund. It would signal the fact that perhaps some of the speeches that have been made in other House about the constitutionality of the former government's commitment to communities through infrastructure spending might in fact see those programs not renewed. That would be a bad thing, not only for the communities that are dependent on these funds but also for a positive relationship in a modern society.
The former government invested between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion a year. To my knowledge the commitment made by the government is $2 billion over five years. If the Canadian strategic infrastructure fund and MRIF are not renewed, that would constitute a 60% cut in infrastructure spending by the government. I will await the budget to see if that holds up. I suggest there are many worthy projects across Canada. In my province the Saint John Harbour cleanup is a significantly important issue.
On the question of R and D, it is an area where there was a lot of investment made and I hope it continues.
I mentioned Indian residential schools. Let me also speak of the Kelowna accord. While Indian residential schools deal with our legacy, which needed to be reconciled, the Kelowna accord speaks to the future, a significant investment in education and housing. At the end of the day, these things are not just about principle. They are also about investment and it is long overdue.