Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to speak briefly in this important debate. I want to begin with what I think is a salient fact that should be relevant to Canadian decision makers on this subject.
Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Finland are countries with comparable national incomes to our own. I am speaking now not only as a member of Parliament, but as a man who spent the last few years teaching at universities in the country.
These countries have the lowest child poverty rates in the world, varying between 2% and 5%. What do they provide in their societies? Free child care, free secondary education and free university education. In fact, in a number of these countries, in addition to waiving tuition, they provide money for books and some of them residence costs for students.
Incidentally, this is not only is this social justice. They show the lowest gaps in final income distribution between the rich and the poor of any other societies in the world. They also have, from the point of view of the economy, the most innovative economic systems, if we are to generalize. If we look at productivity increases in these five countries and compare them with Canada in recent years, they either meet or in most cases exceed our productivity increases as an economy.
What is the moral of this? The moral is, and it goes to the root of social democratic philosophy, that it is not only correct to invest our resources as a society in our children in principle, but to ensure equality of the right to development. The real opportunity for a young boy or young girl to maximize his or her potential as a human being is the ethical impulse of social democracy. The economic spin-off is immense. If we put these resources in early on, then the whole society benefits later on. That is the point.
For me, it is not accidental that almost 90% of those who appeared before the committee on the bill opposed it.
I heard a young Conservative a minute ago ask a question of my colleague. He made a point that these so-called radical student associations often did not speak for their students as a whole. I taught students recently. I taught in British Columbia at SFU, at Queen's University in Kingston and most recently at McGill in Montreal, for three years. I can tell the member that overwhelmingly the students, whether they are in Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia, would condemn the bill.
As for the associations that came before the committee, it was not just student associations. Student associations in English Canada were there. The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec was there. As well, the Canadian Association of University Teachers was there. Is that a radical group? The Canadian Council on Social Development and the National Anti-Poverty Organization opposed the bill. These groups are concerned about the well-being in the context of average and low income students. They are not out furthering some so-called radical agenda.
Why are they opposed? What is the problem? I saw it with my students in these universities. Working class kids, if they get into university, had to spend up to half their time working outside the classroom to pay the cost of tuition.
I came from a working class family in the 1950s. I did not have to spend all my time working while I was at university. I worked at Christmas, I worked in the summer. On some weekends, I had a part time job. However, I spent most of my time learning. That is what university students should be free to do. They should not have to spend all their time working, I had students who spent up to 30 hours a week, because they could not afford the tuition or the costs to live at university.
The problem is existing students have a burden on them out of all disproportion compared to what we had when we were growing up. My students, upon graduating, correspond to the statistics of a $30,000 debt burden to the statistics of having a $30,000 debt burden. I ran into one of them two weeks ago on the streets of Ottawa. It is outrageous that a young person should start out in life with a $30,000 debt. We used to buy a house for that.
The problem is students cannot afford to go to university, particularly low income kids. We are now seeing the data. The poorest income kids are starting to be deterred from even considering it because of the fee levels. The bill will not help them.
There is a shortage in university funding that cannot be ignored either. As one of my colleagues pointed out, universities are literally crumbling, and the bill does not help that.
As for the learning bonds, as has been pointed out by all these associations, low income families barely have enough money to pay the rent and buy food for their kids, let alone buy bonds for some long term investment strategy. I can afford to do this. Indeed, I can afford to do it for my grandchildren. I am doing it because I can afford it, but I can tell members that most low income families cannot afford it, particularly the low income families that produced a lot of the students I taught at university. They will not get it.
In fact, we know that most of the money disproportionately is going to families earning over $70,000, who will get much more than families below $35,000, so this is not going to meet the needs--I repeat, it is not going to meet the needs--of low income kids in this country.
If a democracy means anything in the real world, it should mean that we are allocating resources, whether it is at the child care level, in our health care system or for education, and from the bottom up. We have to concentrate on those citizens who most need assistance to develop their capacities and talents in society. That ought to be the primary objective of a government. This bill totally fails in meeting that objective.
In the past seven years we have accumulated over $61 billion in surpluses. In the 1990s, there were cutbacks not only in post-secondary funding but across the board, cutbacks in housing and in other social dimensions of policy. No one faulted the government for dealing with the deficit issue in the early 1990s, but in the last seven budgets we have had surpluses, considerable surpluses.
It boggles the mind. Of the five countries I mentioned that provide free university and free child care and have the lowest poverty rates, not one of those countries would have a Minister of Finance who would go around boasting that we have the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G-7 when we have child poverty at the level we have or student debt burdens at the level we have. He should be ashamed of that. He should not be boasting at this time.
And I do not want my argument to be misunderstood: I am not talking about going into deficit financing. I am talking about using the more than $61 billion in surplus we have had in the past seven budgets in a better distribution. Yes, we should bring down the debt somewhat, but as some of my colleagues have already said, if we bring it down we have several billions of dollars that could be otherwise used.
Across this country we have thousands of low income kids in every province who deserve financial assistance. We should scrap the existing programs and scrap this bill and replace it with a system of income-based grants to students right across the country. On the other hand, we should provide to the universities the funding they need. Second, we should work with the provinces and put a freeze on the fee structure. Third, we should provide money to the provinces on the condition that they put a freeze on the fees to help rebuild the universities themselves to make up for the money they will not get once they freeze tuition fees.
We are opposed to this bill because we believe in social justice. We believe in genuine equality for kids wherever they live in this country.