Madam Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the request for the restoration of the money that the all party transport committee saw fit to reduce VIA Rail by.
I heard the hon. parliamentary secretary start off tonight by saying that he was proud to rise on this. Frankly, I find that very difficult to believe. The parliamentary secretary is a decent sort of person. I actually feel a great deal of sympathy for him. He is in a very tough role. He has to support the minister even though the minister is totally out to lunch on this issue.
I would like to raise two points tonight, one of them being VIA's funding, just to clarify some of the things that the parliamentary secretary felt he had to say, and also the role of committees in scrutinizing estimates.
First, I just want to ensure that people are clear. What is at stake tonight is $9 million of VIA's budget. There is a misconception out there that somehow this actually affects its entire budget of $266 million. It is $9 million, or 2.9%, of its budget.
A hundred seventy million dollars a year is the annual amount of taxpayer money that the government gives to VIA Rail to operate in Canada. That is in addition to the $401.9 million the government committed to VIA Rail for capital expenditures in the year 2000.
The committee's job is to find out if it is justified in giving the money that the various agencies want.
VIA came before the Standing Committee on Transport and informed it that its ridership is up. The parliamentary secretary himself said that. VIA had more riders last year than it ever had before. How did that work out in its bottom line? Exactly like the parliamentary secretary said. Its revenues were up as well. As a result, its operating deficit was $154 million.
As we have already both agreed, VIA's subsidy for operating, which cannot be moved over into the capital expenditures, was $170 million which meant it had $16 million left over. Taxpayer money was given to VIA to operate at $170 million, but it only needed $154 million of that money. What did it do with the money? Did it return it? Did it actually save the taxpayer a small amount of money and give that money back? No, it did not. Somehow it managed to squish that over, play with the figures, fudge on it a bit, called it corporate profit that it was reinvesting, even though it lost $154 million, and blew that money on some other part of its operation.
That is one of the things the committee looked at when VIA came before it to explain why it was asking for this money.
What VIA is actually looking for is not only to get the $170 million again, which is $16 million more than it needed last year, but it wants another $10.5 million on top of that. That is absolutely unacceptable. VIA did not justify the increased funds and, frankly, neither did the minister.
What did VIA do? There was one project I know it undertook last year. Perhaps that is where a chunk of this money went.
VIA Rail went out and hired a PR firm by the name of Hill and Knowlton. It sent this PR firm out to British Columbia to lobby communities to request the minister to have VIA Rail expand its service to operate on what is known as the southern route from Calgary to Vancouver. What is interesting is there already is a train that operates on that, run by the private sector, formerly run by VIA Rail. This private sector company bought it from VIA Rail.
Therefore VIA Rail wants to have these communities, which it paid this company to go out and lobby, say that they wanted VIA to come back and operate on the same track a private sector company operated, the private company that purchased the business from VIA Rail in the first place. To be kind, that is pretty tacky. Perhaps that is where a bit of the money has gone.
The private rail company that we are talking about in British Columbia is called the Rocky Mountaineer. The minister, when he came before the committee, said that in the past VIA Rail did not compete with the Rocky Mountaineer because the Rocky Mountaineer was a tourism service and VIA Rail was a passenger service. Rocky carries tourists and VIA carries passengers who have to go from point to point.
While the minister was discoursing on a separate part of some of the conversation with members at committee, he said that VIA's ridership might be down in this coming year. He explained why. He said because of SARS and other problems there were less tourists coming to Canada, and of course less tourists meant less riders on VIA Rail.
I naturally seized on this because it kind of conflicted with what he had said in the past. I asked him if he was saying then that passengers who VIA Rail primarily carried were tourists. I said that I had always maintained that.
My position is who would ride on the train outside of the corridor? Outside of commuter rail, who will ride any distance on the rail simply to get from point A to point B? It is expensive, it takes a long time and a lot of it is carried on at night. For example, it costs more to go from Edmonton to Vancouver on the highly subsidized VIA Rail than it does the highly taxed airline. People can fly cheaper than if they take VIA Rail. VIA Rail takes 16 times as long, and contrary to what a lot of people think, it is not environmentally friendly. Commuter rail is, where there is high density movement of traffic. However to go from Edmonton to Vancouver by rail is less fuel efficient than flying on an airplane.
The minister acknowledged, yes, that very few people would actually get on the train to go any distance to get from point A to point B. He said that they did it for the rail experience. That begs this question. Why then do Canadian taxpayers have to subsidize a tourism experience?
Let us look in terms of the actual value of what VIA Rail provides. The minister said that even if VIA Rail went in the southern route, it would not be competition with the Rocky Mountaineer because Rocky Mountaineer was a high end tourist attraction. It provided a wonderful, fancy, high end product while VIA Rail provided a more straightforward service. Therefore it was completely different, appealing to a different set of clients and therefore not in competition.
VIA Rail from Vancouver to Edmonton goes 24 hours without stopping. An upper berth, the cheapest thing someone can get, costs $619.53. The Rocky Mountaineer is $729.00 but VIA Rail is so heavily subsidized. In fact I suggested to the minister that if Rocky Mountaineer got VIA Rail's subsidy, for the amount of passengers the Rocky Mountaineer carried, it could pay every passenger $1,700 to ride on its rail system.
I will move on rather quickly because there is a lot that needs to be said tonight.
The minister has moved to overturn the committee's recommendation to restore the $9 million.
Committees are charged with the responsibility of reviewing the spending requests of various government departments and agencies. What the minister is saying is that review is a waste of time. Unless the committee rubber stamps whatever the government wants, the government will simply overrule those recommendations.
First, it means the whole committee process is a waste of time and money. Second, it means there is no real scrutiny of the spending of taxpayer money. In fact the Liberal government in the past quite clearly suggested better scrutiny by MPs might have prevented the billion dollar overrun of the firearms registry.
The transport committee was simply doing its job. The minister's response has been essentially that he does not want us to do our jobs; he wants us to do what he tells us. The transport committee did not ignore its responsibility when it voted to support reducing VIA Rail's increased funding request. We stood up for those who elected us to come here and represent them. I hope other members of the House will not ignore their responsibilities and those who elected them when they vote on the restoration of funds tonight.
A vote against this motion is a vote in support of the committee review of estimates, and a vote of support for Canadians who look to us to ensure that all expenditures are necessary and appropriate. The additional $9 million for VIA Rail does not meet that test.
This is a chance for Parliament to say that we occasionally do some meaningful work in here and the government will not overturn what Canadians have sent us here to do.