Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the budget today.
Last month marked an important milestone for me, but it was not the budget. Forty years ago, on February 24, 1968, I arrived in Canada at the age of 13. In one month, I would say “no English” and in two months I would say, “no speak any English”. Today, I am an elected representative of the largest riding in Canada. There are few countries in the world where a newcomer, who arrived without a command of either official language, could find himself commenting on the national affairs as an equal alongside parliamentarians whose roots go back much further. That is one reason why Canada is a blessed country.
I intend to use this opportunity to speak to the budget, a budget that will undoubtedly impact the lives of millions of Canadians.
It should have been a budget that would prepare the Canadian economy for the hard times forecast for the near future without losing sight of the responsibility we have as parliamentarians to help ordinary Canadians get through those hard times. We cannot ignore the demands the economic downturn is placing on the federal budget, nor can we ignore Canadians in need of help.
I would like to focus my remarks on a few issues that I feel are important as they relate to the budget.
Events ranging from the high Canadian dollar to the U.S. economic downturn to high energy prices are adversely affecting the Canadian economy. Canada, as a trading nation, has long depended on stable international markets and this economic situation should concern us all.
Many dynamic manufacturing, life sciences and high tech enterprises have operations in my riding of Oak Ridges—Markham. These enterprises employ hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of people in the area. Plus, the local economy in my riding is tied to the largest economy of the greater Toronto area in southern Ontario. Many constituents, like Canadians across the country, are not sheltered from the effects of an ailing economy.
The impact of the economic downturn on manufacturing in Canada has been especially troubling. More than 130,000 Canadian manufacturing well-paid, high-tech jobs have been lost in the last year alone. If current economic trends continue, more jobs may be lost. For this reason, it was important for the budget to invest in Canadian families.
However, It fell short in several areas. I would like to focus on immigration, trade, health care and infrastructure spending.
I will start with immigration. Of the more than 200,000 newcomers who choose Canada every year, many settle in the major urban centres in Canada that are home to key industries. Many settle in my riding. Just last month I played host to a group of about 50 new Canadian citizens eager to contribute to our society.
The budget announced several measures to modernize the immigration system and streamline the process so that we can swiftly address our labour needs. As important as it is to improve processing, we also need to assist people once they are in Canada. It is important that we tailor programs to meet their needs and help them to integrate successfully into Canadian society.
The budget does not address foreign credentials. According to the Gandalf Group survey of the top 1,000 companies' executives in Canada, recognizing foreign credentials is one of the measures executives are looking for the government to implement. The government's decision to create a foreign credential referral service a few months ago fell short of addressing one of the major challenges facing new Canadians.
During the last election, the Conservatives promised to set up an agency for foreign credential assessment and recognition. Instead, they announced that Service Canada offices would do little more than refer people to provincial credential offices.
Turning to trade, we have learned from the firsthand experiences of many witnesses, who have testified at the trade committee, that Canada needs to diversify its trade relationships. It is never a good idea for business to put all its eggs in one basket. The same holds true for a country like Canada with so many vital export industries. That is why we are exploring the pros and cons of a trade agreement with South Korea in committee.
The business community has been requesting that we strengthen our representation in India and China. The Liberal Party has promised to harness business, community and research links through the creation of a south Asian foundation of Canada. Much like the Asia-Pacific foundation of Canada, its south Asian foundation counterpart would help Canada tap into the growing dynamism of the Indian subcontinent.
Such measures, designed to foster trade diversification, would help strengthen Canada's competitiveness over time. The government has chosen to concentrate on the Americas, but vision is needed for Canada to remain competitive in the “Asian century”.
Moving on to health, Canadians expect parties to work together to improve health care. This is especially true in minority government situations. It is especially true if we are to steer Canada's public health care system through tough economic times. As the vice-chair of the health committee, I am reminded weekly of health care challenges, from wait times to doctor shortages.
According to the Canadian Medical Association, almost five million Canadians do not have a physician. I have raised this issue with the health minister in committee. We have to find ways to continue to address these shortcomings, but the budget fails to do so.
The party opposite campaigned on wait times but dropped the ball in this budget. The budget sets aside funds for health and safety initiatives, but wait times are not among them.
Finally, on infrastructure spending, my party would have budgeted $3 billion a year as a contingency reserve to protect us from deficits or times of need, such as natural disasters. This budget left us with projected surpluses of $2.3 billion for 2008-09 and $1.3 billion for the next year, well below the $3 billion contingency fund that Liberals consider the bare minimum to address economic shocks.
As the representative of some of Canada's fastest growing municipalities, such as Markham, Stouffville, Richmond Hill and King, I know firsthand how important issues relating to roads, public transit and energy supply are to ordinary Canadians. When I speak to constituents in my riding, traffic congestion often comes up in conversation.
We can remain fiscally responsible by allocating a portion of government surplus to debt reduction while also allocating money to fix Canada's infrastructure. However, this budget leaves Canada with few additional contingency funds, owing to previous spending patterns and tax cuts.
It is ironic that the government chose to attack our prudent finance plan, claiming we would drive Canada into deficit. This is to distract from its own financial mismanagement, its own program spending and tax cuts.
These are some of the shortcomings in the budget, as I see them.