Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to rise today to participate in the debate on what is almost certainly going to be the last Conservative budget of this Parliament and, we hope, the last Conservative budget Canadians will have to endure for a long time.
Let me begin my comments this afternoon by reiterating what the NDP said on budget day. A month ago, the NDP leader, the member for Toronto—Danforth, met with the Prime Minister to discuss the budget. He set out a clear message: focus on the priorities of middle-class families or be prepared to go into an election. We proposed reasonable budget measures despite the fact this is a government we have not supported.
However, New Democrats do believe that it is important to try to make Parliament work and we owe it Canadians. Therefore, we told the Prime Minister that in this recession, middle-class Canadians are working harder than ever before to make ends meet. Household debt is at an all-time high and the costs of everyday essentials are going up.
After years of the well connected and big business getting all the breaks, we believe it is time for families to get a break. We want to build a Canada where no senior lives in poverty, a Canada where no family has to go without a doctor, where every Canadian can retire with security. Clearly, the Prime Minister does not. The Prime Minister had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working middle-class families, but he missed that opportunity. He just does not get it.
In the midst of mounting scandals, the government could have put political games aside and worked with other parties. It could have achieved practical, affordable results that would help families now and show Canadians that Ottawa can work for them, but the Prime Minister chose not to do that.
We called on him to create new positions for doctors and nurses for the five million Canadians without access to family medicine. The Conservative budget does not do that.
We called on him to help Canadians with ever-rising energy bills by removing the federal sales tax from home heating. The Conservative budget does not do that.
Because a quarter of a million seniors live in poverty today, which is a national disgrace, we called on the Prime Minister to ensure that no senior lives in poverty. The Prime Minister's budget will not do that. Because every Canadian deserves to have access to financially secure retirement, we called on him to set goals to increase benefits to the Canada pension plan. The Conservative budget does not do that.
Nothing in the budget has persuaded us that the Prime Minister has changed his ways and that he is prepared to work with others in Parliament to give middle-class families a break. That is why New Democrats cannot support the budget as presented.
Let us look at the budget in more detail. As I said, it was critical to my NDP colleagues and I that this budget be about helping seniors and the middle class. While the Prime Minister likes to point to soaring bank profit, taking that as proof that the recession is over, we have been focusing on an economic recovery that leaves no one behind. Clearly, hard-working families are far from enjoying any benefits from the so-called end of the recession.
Let me remind members in the House of the latest data. Yes, the government is right on one point: Canada's big banks are, indeed, raking in the cash. In the first quarter of 2011 alone, the big six banks earned over $6.5 billion and a record-breaking $21.58 billion for the past four quarters. Shamefully, the banks used half of those profits, a staggering $11 billion, for executive bonuses. Then, just to add insult to injury, those same six banks received an annual bonus from Canadian taxpayers of almost $890 million.
Are you kidding me, Mr. Speaker? We cannot afford $700 million to lift every senior out of poverty, but we can spend $890 million on corporate tax cuts just for the banks? I do not believe for a second that this will pass the nod test for anyone who is analyzing the Conservatives' budget priorities.
By reducing the corporate income taxes that government collects, the Conservatives are depriving the treasury of billions of dollars that could and should have been invested in Canadians. At a minimum, instead of giving tax cuts with no strings attached, they should have been focused on creating jobs. Job creation continues to be one of the most important issues for Canadians.
The government's own figures reveal that it has fallen 240,000 jobs short of its own targets. In fact, in the past three months, we lost almost 24,000 full-time jobs in this country. With the annual growth of population in Canada at 1.5%, there should be 280,000 new jobs created each year just to maintain our country's level of employment, but we are heading in the opposite direction.
When we look at the data, it is clear that the government's claim of creating hundreds of thousands of jobs is misleading. In February 2011, Canada had 156,000 fewer full-time jobs than before the great recession began in October 2008. It is no wonder that Canadians simply do not share the government's optimism about their economic futures.
The Conservatives' budget does nothing to improve the situation. Despite the title of the budget proclaiming it to be a plan for “jobs and growth”, there is little in this budget that would give hope to the unemployed of a sustained job creation strategy. As the Toronto Star columnist, David Olive, warned so succinctly in his article entitled, “A budget worth defeating”:
Continued meaningful stimulus programs are not necessary, [the Prime Minister] feels, since the nation’s all better now.... As with a U.S. stimulus program that ended prematurely, Canada risks a return to slow growth as [the Prime Minister] turns now from stimulus to austerity.
In truth of course, it is very selective austerity. He had no problem finding $6 billion for additional corporate tax cuts, or $9 billion for U.S. style mega jails, or a whopping $29 billion for shiny new F-35 fighter jets.
This budget spends $10 for corporate tax reductions for every $1 it has for seniors. When it comes to job creation, again there is no money to be had.
On the contrary, the $4 billion in cuts to the federal public service will mean cuts in both jobs and services. The ministry that is tasked with helping Canadians through programs like EI, training and disability pensions is seeing its own cut of half a billion dollars over the next three years.
While I am on the topic of EI, let us look at another noteworthy fact from the budget. Over the next five years, EI premiums will exceed benefits by $15 billion. Given that forecast, it is absolutely shameful that the budget did not include any progress on enhancing Canada's employment insurance system. This is workers' money and workers need it now to put food on the table for their families. We know that EI stimulates the economy because the money paid out will go directly back into the community. People who are unemployed are not socking their benefits away in tax free savings accounts. They are spending that money on everyday essentials like food, clothing and shelter, mostly in their local community. EI thus helps hardworking Canadians and the local economy.
However, clearly poverty reduction is nowhere on the government's radar. There is nothing in this budget for affordable housing either, nothing for childcare, no increase to either the child tax benefit or the universal child care benefit and no real commitment to lifting seniors out of poverty.
One of the key proposals that we put before the Prime Minister was to help Canada's most vulnerable seniors with an affordable increase to their guaranteed income supplement. With $700 million, or half of what the government spent on the posh G8 and G20 summits, we could have ensured that no senior would have had to live in poverty. What did the budget do? It gave less than half that amount of money to three times as many people. It will not even come close to eliminating poverty for Canadian seniors. It is an absolute disgrace. Seniors have worked hard all their lives and played by the rules, but now everywhere they turn, every bill they open, they are paying more and getting less.
Just look at consumer prices. Overall, they rose 2.2% in the last year. Everything is going up except people's incomes. Energy prices rose 10.6% over the last year. We live in Canada. Heating our homes is not an option. How are seniors and middle-class families supposed to cope with that kind of an increase? Simply put, they cannot. That is why we proposed to take the HST off home heating. It was a reasonable proposal, especially when the budget reveals that the federal government is raking in $9 billion from the HST. We could and should have a longer discussion about how that is even possible when the government assured Canadians that the HST would be revenue neutral. I have to say there was no prouder moment for me in this Parliament than when my NDP colleagues and I stood in opposition to both the Conservatives and the Liberals and voted against the HST.
Let us look at the cost of gas next, another commodity that is not only rising in price but is also subject to the HST. Gasoline prices rose by a whopping 15.5% in the last year. Drivers faced double digit price increases for gasoline in every province except Manitoba. Every penny per litre increase in the cost of gasoline means an additional $1 million per day in profits for the oil companies. The 20¢ increase over the past six months therefore means an astonishing $20 million per day for the already super profitable oil industry and 95% of that price increase goes directly to the bottom line of the oil companies. Yet, the Conservative government is continuing to give these companies an additional bonus with taxpayers' money by lowering the tax levies on those super profits. Canadians are shaking their heads and saying enough is enough. It is time to cut off the support for these corporate welfare bums and start acting on the priorities of seniors and middle-class Canadians.
Let us get to the other two priorities that Canadians told us had to be in this budget, and that we submitted to the Prime Minister on their behalf. The first was ensuring that Canadians can count on their pensions when they need them, by strengthening the Canada pension plan. Specifically, we needed to see a commitment from the government that it move to an eventual doubling of the CPP benefit. Instead, the budget offered vague rhetoric with no real goal. Frankly, that is not good enough.
Only one-third of Canadian workers have a workplace pension.
Similarly, only a third of Canadians contribute to an RRSP, and those who do, just watched billions of dollars in precious savings vaporize during the recession. The current system is leaving too many people without the retirement savings they need. There is too much at risk and not enough security.
In past crises, Canadians have come together to create solutions, to minimize risks by sharing it. That is what we did when we created public health care and yes, that is what we did when we created the public pensions that are now the only reliable part of our whole retirement security system.
Let us face it, for more than a generation wages have failed to keep pace with the cost of living and most Canadians have not been able to save what they need.
The best way to help today's workers save enough money for tomorrow is through an improved Canada pension plan, which is why we propose that over the next several years we lay the foundation to double CPP benefits for the future. The CPP has been proven time and again to be a safe, secure and efficient retirement savings plan. Plus the CPP is portable from job to job, across provinces, keeps up with inflation, and is backed by the government. Because the CPP operates independently from government, there is no cost to taxpayers. In fact, there is the potential for governments to save over time.
We all need to save more for retirement. Putting that little bit extra into the CPP makes more sense than investing it into risky RRSPs. It is safer, easier, in fact, it is effortless, and it earns more.
I know that my time is just about up, but I want to say at least a few words about our fourth budget ask, as well.
Currently, there are five million Canadians without a family doctor. What is the government's answer to this crisis? It wants to incent doctors and nurses to work in northern and remote regions. That strategy is robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The Conservatives are not creating a single new doctor with that strategy. Instead, they are taking doctors out of urban centres and moving them elsewhere in the country. That is hardly a solution. The shortage of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals is acute in all parts of the country.
The Canada health accord comes up for renewal in 2014. I thought that this budget would have risen to the occasion and laid out a blueprint for the challenges ahead. But, instead, there is silence. I suppose I should not have been surprised. The Conservatives never did keep their promise of a comprehensive patient wait times guarantee. All we had was a handful of pilot projects that left most patients out in the cold.
The government's big plan to train more doctors, which was announced with such fanfare last month, turns out to have a target of just 100 doctors for the five million Canadians who have no doctor now.
As the president of the Canadian Medical Association rightly pointed out on February 28, Canadian health care is “deeply troubled” and the Prime Minister is failing to take any active role to fix it.
The Council of Canadians echoes that sentiment. Here is its reaction to the health care part of the budget:
The budget was released yesterday and health care is anything but a top priority.
We need a government who will invest in comprehensive community care (home care and long-term care) and is willing to look at sustainable solutions to the current health care challenges, not a government who listens to the pharmaceutical lobbyists hoping to pad the pockets of their investors and share holders.
This budget is a great disappointment for Canadians looking for the Conservatives to stop playing political games and get something done for them.
The Prime Minister had the opportunity to address the needs of hard-working middle-class families and seniors but sadly, he chose instead to manipulate an election call while trying in vain to blame others for it. He chose to ignore the struggles of families and instead spent tax dollars lining the pockets of corporate Canada and the wealthy.
In this budget and in the appalling behaviour of the current government, particularly in recently months, the Prime Minister has shown the House of Commons and the people of Canada nothing but intransigence, arrogance, small-mindedness and contempt--contempt for our democratic institutions, contempt for Parliament and therefore, contempt for Canadian families and seniors.