Mr. Speaker, first, I want to inform you that I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Dufferin—Peel—Wellington—Grey.
I take pleasure in speaking today to all Canadians, to tell them how we, the Government of Canada, have adopted a budget that demonstrates sound financial management.
It includes provisions for responsible and prudent financial management. It talks of improving accountability and integrity with respect to public expenditures and of continuing to present balanced budgets or better.
In the field of health, the budget promotes effective policies that will preserve and reinforce our health care and public health systems. With respect to learning, it is important to provide young people with the tools for success, while encouraging lifelong learning for all Canadians.
Of course, communities must not be neglected. We must ensure that solid and sustainable foundations are laid to create a new deal for communities. And to that we add knowledge and commercialization, in order to increase productivity through investments in research and development.
Canada's relations with the rest of the world are also a high priority and require the creation and strengthening of Canada's international ties.
Relative to economic and fiscal prospects, Canada’s economy was hit by a series of shocks in 2003, ranging from the SARS outbreak, a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the Ontario power blackout to forest fires in British Columbia and Hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia. All this, combined with the rapid increase of more than 20% in the value of the Canadian dollar, pushed Canada’s economic growth down to 1.7% last year, well below the 3.2% forecast by private-sector economists at the time of the last federal budget.
For 2004, private sector economists forecast an average growth rate of 2.7% for Canada’s economy, reflecting solid domestic fundamentals, low interest rates and a stronger economy. In 2005, growth is forecast to rise to 3.3%.
With respect to responsible and prudent financial management, the Government of Canada is committed to balanced budgets or better in each of the next two years. This commitment to fiscal discipline means the government will maintain its annual $3 billion contingency reserve which, if not needed to deal with unforeseen circumstances, will be used to reduce the federal debt.
Moreover, the budget restores $1 billion in economic prudence for 2004-05 and 2005-06. This kind of prudence is what enabled us to address some extraordinary burdens, as I mentioned earlier, and also allowed the government to provide $1 billion in direct assistance to agricultural producers to help offset the severe hardships caused by recent disease outbreaks and sudden drops in farm incomes.
This budget also sets the objective of reducing Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio to 25% within 10 years. I would like to point out that 50 years ago there were eight workers for every one retiree. Today, it is five workers for every one retiree, and in 25 years in Quebec, it will be two workers for every one retiree, which is why it is important to decrease the debt to ensure that our children and grandchildren have a promising future and the health care that they deserve.
An investment of $665 million this fiscal year and over the next two years includes $165 million to assist in creating the new Canada public health agency and to fund its main activities, including increasing emergency response capacity, and enhancing surveillance. It also includes some $100 million to be invested in Canada Health Infoway to develop high quality, real-time public health surveillance systems.
We need only think of SARS, West Nile virus and other diseases where rapid intervention is essential.
In addition, this budget provides an additional $400 million to the provinces and territories to support a national immunization strategy and to assist in enhancing their public health capacities.
This is in addition, of course, to the $2 billion that the Canadian government is transferring to the provinces this year, building on the 2003-04 agreement for $34.8 billion, for a total of $36.8 billion.
In terms of learning, budget 2004 includes a comprehensive package of measures to make post-secondary education more accessible to all Canadians and promote lifelong learning, including the following.
There will be a new Canada learning bond of up to $2,000 for children born after 2003 in a family entitled to the national child benefit supplement. An initial $500 bond will be provided, with subsequent $100 annual instalments for children, until age 15, in each year that the family is entitled to the national child benefit supplement.
Next, the Canada education savings grant matching rate for low-and middle-income families will be significantly enhanced.
A new upfront grant of up to $3,000 for first year post-secondary dependent students from low-income families is also being introduced.
The budget also raises the weekly loan ceiling under the Canada student loans program to $210 from $165.
In addition, this budget will be accelerating implementation of the agreement with the provinces and territories to improve access to affordable, quality early learning and child care programs.
Finally, this budget will extend the education tax credit to employees who pursue career-related studies.
A new deal for communities is announced. Budget 2004 takes the first steps on the government’s commitment to forge a new deal for communities of all sizes.
Municipalities will receive an estimated $7 billion in relief over the next 10 years with respect to the GST and the federal portion of the harmonized sales tax.
As an example, for the year 2004-05, which is said to have started on February 1, the municipalities of Quebec will receive $129 million. I can tell hon. members that several mayors have written to us, and others have spoken to us personally to thank us for this measure taken by the Government of Canada to support them in meeting their great need to upgrade their infrastructure.
The $1 billion for infrastructure will be spent over the next five years instead of the previously announced 10-year period, again because we know how many municipalities are in urgent need. We had a duty to do something, and this is excellent news.
Regarding the community-based and non profit sector, Canadians depend on a wide range of organizations to contribute to the well-being of individuals and families. We are going to improves the tax rules for charities; extend small business programs and help establish capital funds and other sources of lending to benefit social economy enterprises; and provide additional funding over two years to the voluntary sector.
This has been very well received by stakeholders in the social economy and by the entire Canadian public as well.
Unfortunately, I see that time is moving along quickly, so I will just say in conclusion that we have an excellent budget. There are things we will still need to do. There are things that are not included. For example, in 2000, we adopted a five-year plan to reduce taxes by $100 billion, and this year—that is the one about to begin—2004-05, Canadians will benefit from $31 million in tax reductions.
This shows the Liberal government's awareness and the importance it places on this budget, a budget of which I am very proud.