Mr. Gerard Kennedy (Parkdale—High Park, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an honour to join this debate because this is Parliament doing something purposeful and necessary. In some ways, it is on its way to regaining some of the respect that it requires to do what the country needs it to do in these difficult times. It needs to make clear the difference between governments that simply make announcements and that want arbitrary powers and governments that give effect to government programs so that they make a difference in the communities where people are losing jobs.
This debate today is nothing short of making sure that actual aid and support is delivered from this place to the place where Canadians live. Unfortunately, there is a group of people currently in the government who need to be persuaded of that, who need to be brought on board with the concept that they actually have that responsibility.
This is an opportunity for parliamentarians to defend their constituents at a time of economic crisis. We are asking Parliament to implement the budget so that it has the required effect: new jobs, fair allocation and high-quality projects and programs.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee from the government. When the Conservatives were in opposition, and there are reams of quotes here, they encountered and embraced words like accountability and responsibility but we do not hear those words in any meaningful way today.
Incredibly, this debate is about a government that wants to have unfettered access to $3 billion without the oversight of the House establishing, as is required in its own rules of order, the requirements for due diligence. Contrary to what some of the members opposite might think, it cannot arbitrarily sprinkle dollars out there in its role as government. Instead, the traditions of the House are different and significantly different in a minority government.
Those are the reasons that the government is on probation. It finds itself not only on probation but getting constructive instruction from the House, and that is the nature of the proposal today, and what is going to start to change hearts and minds in this country in terms of the question they have.
Is the government trustworthy?
Is it possible to trust this government to deliver? That is the question people are starting to ask.
The average person, and I am sure there were tens of thousands watching question period before, does not comprehend why it is that the Prime Minister cannot stand up for unemployed Canadians and answer the question about whether or not he would consider allocating more dollars to help them. Instead, it is more a game about him and his prerogatives.
The idea that the government will not accept normal standards of oversight when it is looking to have extraordinary dollars is simply part of a pattern. However, it is a pattern that we are out to break. We are out to put the government into a mode of acceptable levels of governing. It is something that is very difficult for the government to do, and the track record and the facts underscore that very emphatically.
Let us rehearse what happened. The dilatory and obscurantist behaviour of the government, as some more eloquent speakers would say, is such that it actually got in the way of doing something on behalf of the country. The Conservatives pushed down the issues during the election and denied the recession was happening. They stalled for months.
However, there has been progress. The government has been compelled against its will to go from a $5 billion cut in programs to an $18 billion stimulus package. However, it only exists on paper until it is formed into programs that can reach people where they live, where people are losing jobs or need their jobs shored up by the investment that would actually touch them.
Whether it is in Summerside, Hamilton or any place in Canada, the government struggles on its own. All we are saying is that if the government is going to spend money, it needs to first say to the House where that money is going. The reason is that it has a track record of promising dollars and not delivering them. Only some 5% or 6% of the dollars have actually been delivered in the infrastructure programs in the last year.
Mr. Speaker, I want to mention that I will be splitting my time today with the hon. member for Vancouver Quadra. I know she will bring the perspective not just from that part of the country but from the same kind of place where Liberals have had to go to have oversight on the government and make it do its job.
In fact, in the government's own accountability report, of the over $2 billion in 2007-08, only 5% of those funds found their way to Canadians. One has to draw a distinction from it.
Canadians have become very cynical. They saw the Prime Minister practising the old politics out there the other week where he went around and made the third or fourth announcement about a project that is not actually happening and not employing any Canadians, but is there for the benefit of the government to be seen to be doing something.
Although the government says that it needs to get the infrastructure dollars out, the reality is that it has a due diligence process in place that requires it to look at each and every application.
A couple of weeks ago, a motion was moved in the House and, for whatever reason, the members opposite did not think it was good enough for Hamilton-Wentworth or for the ridings they represented. The motion was simply to flow the money to the municipalities through the gas tax method.
The gas tax method is one for which the municipalities and the construction association expressed a preference as the way to get dollars out by April 1. The same government that is telling us that it wants $3 billion to spend has said that it will not get infrastructure dollars out now until July and September because it will be too busy sorting out applications and trying to apply some kind of due diligence. However, there are warning flags that every member in the House should be paying attention to.
The government's record for the distribution of infrastructure dollars is about $2 billion and its promise this year is for something over $7 billion. It passes strange that members opposite are not standing in their place and demanding to have a structure to ensure the $7 billion will go to the communities. We must ask ourselves why they are so quiet. Why is there not one member on the government side expressing concern and qualms about getting all this money out there in a proper time and in a proper way?
It comes down to the temptations of governance. It seems as though the government and all its members will give into this. They do not want to give up their prerogatives. The gas tax method would distribute money on a per capita basis, which means that half of the money would go across the country, because every part of this country deserves to be protected from the downturn, and the other half could be used, as we will be suggesting, to address where the needs are the greatest.
Every member opposite voted against that method. They voted against the money going into their communities, such as the $20 million for Hamilton, because they believe they will be in a special place. They think they can make deals behind the curtains and get projects assigned in some method that is not described here in Parliament and accountable. That anchor to the old way of politics will do in the government if it cannot relieve itself from it. There is no question in my mind that the government will find itself stumbling over its refusal to take constructive suggestions from this side of the House.
The public has the right to expect that each member in the House takes some of the responsibility of ensuring that dollars land. The record is sobering. Of the $2.8 billion promised but not necessarily delivered, the Conservatives have skewed their promises to 70% of it landing in Conservative ridings. About 36% of the population voted Conservative but the Conservatives sense somehow that they might be able to turn this to their advantage.
I counsel the members opposite that that will not only disappoint their voters and let down the people who sent them here, but it also goes against the grain of what is happening. If it is $3 billion that will be spent, it is being borrowed from their children and grandchildren because the Conservatives put us into deficit to do it. If there has to be another standard, then those should be dollars that are treated in a much more thorough way and we should at least have this ordinary requirement to know where this money is spent.
The government will be revealed very shortly in terms of whether it can genuinely change. Some of the members opposite in other parties say that Conservatives cannot be changed. We are not worried about their moral character. It will be shown in time. We are worried about helping Canadians and this--
Ms. Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the debate. We are having a very critical discussion for several reasons. One reason is that the stimulus package coming out quickly and efficiently is very important to Canadians. It is very important to changing the climate of concern and fear about what the economic future holds.
So is accountability very important to Canadians. We are spending tax dollars that are harder and harder to find at a time of economic downturn. Each of those dollars is precious. These are not government dollars, they are not Conservative dollars, they are taxpayer dollars. They need to be respected and treated as such. There needs to be accountability and reporting on these funds. That is the intent of the Liberal Party motion.
The motion calls on the government to provide information about the departments and programs which are likely to require access to this extraordinary authority of an additional $3 billion and to report on how and where these dollars are being spent.
This is a very reasonable motion. As the critic for finance mentioned a number of times in his speech, the motion calls on government to take actions that will not delay the spending and will not cost additional dollars. In fact, the Obama administration is doing just this kind of transparency.
The Obama administration has set up a website, www.recovery.gov, that will track every dollar of federal economic stimulus spending. Approximately $27 billion in infrastructure spending has been announced. The website breaks down how much will be available to the various states, which projects, et cetera. This is possible to do and I am mystified by the resistance that has been put up by the Conservative government.
Three billion dollars is a vast sum of money. It would build 12,000 affordable housing units even in an expensive area like metro Vancouver. That is a huge program and taxpayers deserve to know what is being planned for these funds.
There is really no policy or practical reason to reject this motion. The President of the Treasury Board claims that there is no reason to support the motion because “the economic action plan initiatives is what this money will be spent on”. In fact, that is not necessarily correct.
In the language of vote 35, which outlines how these funds would be used, it says that they would be used to enact programs announced in the budget, but also gives the government flexibility to supplement other appropriations outside of budget 2009. Further, no list of programs was given in this vote to outline how this money would be spent. In fact, it is the blank cheque that it is accused of being, and the defence is inaccurate.
I will read a quote about the importance of accountability from a practical and policy perspective. It states, “To instill confidence, the government must be open and it must be more accountable. It must ensure that Canadians and parliamentarians have the right controls in place and it must provide them with the information they need to judge its performance”. That is what the Liberal motion calls for: no more, no less. That quote is by the former president of the Treasury Board, on April 25, 2006. We are calling on our Conservative colleagues to act on their very own rhetoric in this matter.
The motion will not slow down the provision of stimulus funds and it will not cost more. The list exists that we have asked be provided to Canadians. That list has been seen by the Liberal critic for finance and it should be made available. There is no reason why it should not be provided.
On March 3, the Prime Minister claimed that he had consulted the Auditor General on this matter. I have a little advice for our Prime Minister. Consultation actually involves listening to what the person has to say and incorporating her advice. The Auditor General has said that it is not unreasonable that there be accountability for these funds. Three billion dollars is a fair bit of money and the government must have ideas, even in broad strokes, about how that money will flow between April and June. I do not buy the argument that it cannot tell the opposition members something.
The Prime Minister has claimed to have consulted the Auditor General and then completely ignoring her advice and response on the matter. That leads to this question. Why not support this motion and provide this transparency? Why hide rather than provide the transparency that their own members have called for?
I can only think there must be one of two reasons. Either there is a hidden agenda that the Conservative government would like to obscure from the Canadian public and opposition, or its record of fiscal and financial incompetence has been so stunning and consistently incompetent that it feels the need to hide and obscure this spending from the public and opposition for fear of a continuation of that incompetence.
Let us test out the hypothesis of which of those two it is. Is it a hidden agenda, or is it a fear of the government's r own incompetence? When it comes to incompetence, there has been an unbroken track record of failure on the economic front by the Conservative government.
This is a government that, despite all its claims to fiscal prudence, cut the Liberal surpluses that were provided to it, during a time when the economy was just fine, with record spending and ill-advised GST cuts. It essentially spent the cupboard bare so that when the difficult times came, we were already in recession.
This is a government that in September claimed that Canada was effectively immune from the downturn and denied the reality that we saw all around us, from the United States to countries right around the globe. This is a Prime Minister who, in fact, when the downturn did come and the stock markets crashed in Canada, advised investors that it was a good time to invest. I presume he did not take his own advice because that would have been very costly to his own portfolio.
This is a government that projected ongoing surpluses as recently as the end of November, at a time when the government was already well into deficit. What could the Conservative government do in the face of all of this failure and economic mismanagement? It shut down Parliament for almost two months, leaving Canadians hung out to dry for any action, stimulus and spending. There is a record of incompetence, so that could be why the government is resisting the motion.
However, perhaps it could be because of the hidden agenda. Perhaps it could be that there is an agenda of partisan advantage. Again, we have seen that throughout the government's record and time in office. The Conservative record of secrecy has been quite stunning. Here is a report from the privacy commissioner, Mr. Marleau. In his recent summary of the previous year's activity, he asserts:
|| Our analysis has confirmed what Canadians have been hearing and experiencing for a while now, when trying to obtain government-held information...There are major delays, particularly with extensions, with some institutions routinely taking months to respond to information requests. Canadians expect and deserve far greater efficiency and accountability from their government.
That is what we are calling for: efficiency and accountability. Mr. Marleau goes on to say:
|| The poor performance shown by institutions is symptomatic of a major information management crisis throughout government.
|| These gaps are clearly indicative of a lack of leadership at the highest levels of government...As the organisation responsible for ensuring policy compliance, the Treasury Board Secretariat has yet to exercise the high-profile and forceful leadership which is required in the area of access to information.
Essentially, in his diplomatic way, the Information Commissioner is saying that from the Prime Minister on down there is an absence of transparency and a lack of provision of information.
This supports my hypothesis that it could be the hidden agenda, as opposed to the incompetence, which is leading the government members to resist the simple provision of information being asked of them. This is a group playing politics with the money of the taxpayers of Canada. The members need to stop that now. They need to provide information on their spending and not ask for a blank cheque when they have no credibility and—
Mr. James Rajotte (Edmonton—Leduc, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Kitchener Centre. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate on this motion.
We are in extraordinary times. We have not gone through a recessionary period like this one since the second world war. It is obvious that Canadians from coast to coast are feeling the effects of this recession. They are concerned about their jobs, their savings and about the impact on their families, their businesses, their homes and their communities.
Leading up to the budget we did consult Canadians. We launched the largest national consultation in Canadian history, leading to what many have described as the earliest budget in Canadian history. Canadians told us that we must do what it takes to keep our economy going and to do what we can to protect them during this extraordinary time.
That is why our government introduced Canada's economic action plan in January. This is the plan to protect Canadians during the global recession, to create new good jobs for the future and to equip people in our country for success in the years to come. It is designed to stimulate economic growth, restore confidence and support Canadians and their families during this global recession.
It takes action to build infrastructure, to stimulate housing construction and to support businesses and communities. It also reduces taxes, freezes EI rates, and helps Canadians through the Canada skills and transition strategy. It approves access to financing, certainly the one thing mentioned to me and many others in the finance committee by businesses across this country in terms of strengthening our financial system.
The preparation and the announcement of the budget gets us only halfway down the road to economic recovery. To get the rest of the way, we need to implement these measures. We are not the only ones who think so. In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund called our economic action plan “large, timely and well targeted” and said our immediate focus should be on implementing the budget to mobilize spending. We need to get the money into the hands of Canadian individuals, families, communities and businesses.
To assist the hon. member who introduced this motion in understanding why this House needs to pass the main estimates as quickly as possible, I would like to explain the budget implementation process.
The implementation of budget spending measures typically requires two types of approval. The first is what is called policy approval and refers to the requirement that certain measures be approved by the appropriate cabinet policy committee and Treasury Board. That is why we are streamlining the review and approval of policies and programs while ensuring appropriate controls. This means, for example, using simplified or omnibus Treasury Board submissions for straightforward extensions or top-ups. The second type of approval is parliamentary authority over appropriations.
Typically, the earliest opportunity for budget measures to receive such funding is through the supplementary estimates (A), which Parliament votes on in June. However, if we are to help Canadian families, communities and businesses weather the current economic storm, we need to deliver stimulus funding as rapidly as possible. That is why we introduced the recently passed Budget Implementation Act, to make payments totalling $7.6 billion. These payments will be used to fund large priority initiatives as specifically identified in the Budget Implementation Act. This act includes statutory authority for ministers to spend money on these initiatives directly from the consolidated revenue fund. I would refer members to the budget document to see exactly what the government will be spending on.
We have also created a special time-limited budget implementation vote in the main estimates. With Parliament's approval of the main estimates, this vote will give departments money to spend on key budget initiatives as early as April 1. This vote will only be available between April 1 and June 30, until supplementary estimates (A) are in place. This vote is limited to $3 billion and will be used to provide initial funding for ready-to-go projects and initiatives identified in our economic action plan. This funding will get the ball rolling until departments and agencies can receive funding through future supplementary estimates following the normal supply process.
The allocation of funds from this vote must be approved by Treasury Board. Members opposite say they are concerned about accountability, and it is appropriate to raise accountability. In fact our government, certainly in the past session with the introduction of the Federal Accountability Act, through this measure is being accountable to Parliament and to Canadians.
All moneys distributed under this time-limited vote will be reported in upcoming supplementary estimates, as well as through regular reporting to Parliament. Parliamentarians will be able to review all of this.
The government will be tabling regular whole of government reports on the status of economic action plan initiatives. The first of these was recently tabled by the Minister of Finance. Tomorrow at the finance committee the Parliamentary Budget Officer will comment on the first of these tabled documents.
Furthermore, a committee of deputy ministers and chief financial officers is providing departmental oversight. Finally, the Auditor General will audit the spending.
We believe it is absolutely critical to strike the right balance between appropriate due diligence and transparency and rapid delivery of stimulus measures. I would like to emphasize that point. These extraordinary times require fast action. That is why we are moving so quickly with the economic action plan, but at the same time, with these measures we are ensuring that we will be accountable to Canadians and to Parliament. That is an important point we must emphasize.
It is obvious that Canadians who unfortunately are losing their jobs are looking for action in terms of employment insurance. Canadians in terms of small businesses are looking for action with respect to access to credit and financing that was in the budget. Canadians in terms of small businesses are looking forward to the tax reductions we have put in place. Canadians at the lower end of the income scale are looking forward to the tax reduction measures we have put in place.
The businesses, families and Canadians across this country are looking for action from the government. They have demanded action. We have acted in terms of our budget which was adopted by Parliament before the break. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to act upon that action plan and get the money flowing out the door to the families, the individuals and the Canadians who need it.
I am asking members of the House to therefore oppose this motion and to support the government's action plan, not only in terms of its passage, but in terms of its full implementation, so that Canadians can truly see the benefit of that action plan.
Mr. Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Centre, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today in the House to speak to the hon. member's motion before us.
I must admit, though, that while I am typically very pleased to have an opportunity to speak in the chamber, today is quite a different story.
Today I rise with sadness at the hon. member's resolve to do his utmost to prevent the government from getting stimulus money to those who need it most.
While he continues to throw up roadblocks, I have to wonder if the hon. member is really not aware of the effect of his efforts on Canadians, Canadians who are trying to pull together enough money to make their monthly mortgage payments so they do not lose their homes, Canadians who may have to go to food banks because they do not have enough money to put food on the table themselves, Canadians who have asked their elected representatives to stop their political posturing and to protect them in their time of need.
Our government consulted widely with Canadians on what action to take. The result is an economic action plan to inject $40 billion into the economy over the next two years. This plan, tabled as part of the earliest budget in history, is designed to jump-start growth, to sustain the recovery, and to help Canadians in these difficult times.
In fact, it has been praised by the International Monetary Fund. In a recent report, they called it “large, timely, and well targeted”. They said our immediate focus should be on implementing the budget to mobilize spending.
We are acting through all available means to protect our economy and to protect Canadians affected by the downturn. That includes the tax system, the employment insurance program, direct spending by federal and provincial governments, lending by crown corporations, and partnerships with the private sector.
Only 42 days after the plan was presented, we had done all we could to make the plan fully operational by April 1. This is six to twelve months ahead of the usual budget timeframe.
Why are we so focused on putting this plan to work so quickly? It is because our plan is designed to boost the economy when it is needed the most: now and over the next 24 months.
What have we done to lay the foundation for the implementation of this plan? Virtually all cabinet policy approvals are expected to be in place by the end of this month. We are ready to roll out $12 billion in spending on roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure. We introduced the recently passed Budget Implementation Act, which includes $7.6 billion in spending authorities and seeks parliamentary approval of $2.4 billion in tax reductions for 2009-10.
We have tabled the 2009-10 main estimates, which include a new central vote. This vote will enable Treasury Board ministers to allocate up to $3 billion in funding directly to departments. These funds are for immediate cash requirements directly related to measures in the economic action plan. Every single eligible program or project must be approved by the Treasury Board. This funding is only until formal supplementary estimates for these initiatives have received the usual parliamentary approval.
This vote will be used to fund specific economic action plan measures such as building roads, fixing bridges, and providing skills training for those Canadians hit hardest by this global recession.
As a result of this approach, by April 1, we would have authority to proceed with providing about $20 billion in budget measures. This would represent close to 90% of the stimulus contained in the economic action plan for 2009-10.
Therefore, it saddens me to know that much of this work will be for naught if the hon. member has his way.
It also saddens me to know that despite the fact that our non-partisan public service has been working non-stop, day and night, to get this money flowing quickly, the hon. member continues to play partisan politics.
My constituents have made it clear that they want politicians to stop playing political games and get to work on their behalf. I suspect that all hon. members are hearing the same refrain from residents in their ridings. I suspect that is why the leader of the official opposition instructed his colleagues in the other House to pass the Budget Implementation Act after his party dragged its feet as long as it could.
Members know too well that none of the spending measures contained in the economic action plan can proceed without parliamentary approval. The Budget Implementation Act has finally been passed. To move forward with more stimulus measures, we must now pass the estimates. So what does the hon. member do? He throws up roadblocks to getting this money out to support Canadians hardest hit by the economic downturn. He throws up roadblocks to helping communities and businesses to adjust and grow in these extraordinary times. Instead, as we are cutting bureaucratic red tape, he wants to add more in the name of accountability.
We are the government that introduced the Federal Accountability Act as its first piece of legislation coming into office. The hon. member refers to the Auditor General. It was our Federal Accountability Act that strengthened the power of the Auditor General so she can more effectively hold the government to account for its use of taxpayer dollars.
Canadians want to be confident that the Government of Canada is working in their best interests. They expect elected officials and public servants to manage their tax dollars wisely, and they expect us to uphold the highest standards of ethical conduct.
Is the hon. member really telling Canadians that our hard-working civil servants operate without any or the right controls in place? Does the hon. member think that Canadians want to have daily reports of every penny spent by their government?
We had no problem when the Liberal Party suggested reports every three months, so we said yes, but the hon. member cannot take yes for an answer. Now he is not satisfied with reports every three months. Now he wants daily reports.
Does the hon. member think the reports he wants just spring out of thin air? Does he not realize what a paper burden that will be?
Why does he want to divert our civil servants from examining projects, making sure of matching funds, getting the paperwork done and cutting the cheques? That is what Canadians want. They surely do not want our civil servants bogged down in redundant daily reports simply because the hon. member cannot wait until June.
One moment the hon. member says he knows the importance of speedy stimulus spending. The next moment he wants to bog down the process with extra paperwork. How shameless. How sad.
Our Federal Accountability Act provided Canadians with the open and honest government they deserve, one that acts responsibly, rewards integrity, and demonstrates accountability. That is the approach we live every day. It is the same approach that we are taking to these economic stimulus measures.
I stand today in this House and ask my hon. colleagues to reject this motion, and I call upon them to stop serving partisan interests and instead start serving those who elected us to this place.
Mr. Sukh Dhaliwal (Newton—North Delta, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Mississauga South.
The government, and more specifically the Prime Minister, is providing Canadians with a great example of how opinions can so easily change, depending on which side of the House we sit. Let me share with my fellow members what I discovered in doing a little digging into the Prime Minister's past positions. This is a quote from October 6, 2004, when the Prime Minister served as leader of the opposition:
|| We will remind the government at every turn that the money of Canadians is not the government's money to...hide. What it did before the election, what it did during the election and what it has done since the election will be exposed by the official opposition because that is our job and responsibility.
He also stated:
|--collaboration is a two way street and all opposition parties expect the government to be more forthcoming than it has been up to now.
Today, as he sits in government, however, the Prime Minister has dramatically changed his tune. Just a few weeks ago, he told The Canadian Press:
Rather than trying to throw up roadblocks, they [referring to the opposition] need to get out of the way and let that money flow.
I have one simple question for the Prime Minister, and the government as a whole. How can the principles of transparency, openness and co-operation be so important back then when today the same positions are considered obstacles?
We understand how important it is to get moneys out to communities. In my riding of Newton—North Delta, I am well aware of many projects that have been forwarded for funding consideration from both the city of Surrey and the corporation of Delta.
It is federal funds that will spur great economic opportunity and activity, and provide much needed stimulus to the local economy. And at the end of the day, creating jobs is what this whole debate is all about.
I get it. In fact, we all get it. Every member of this House, regardless of what party they belong to, knows of people who are losing their incomes, who are having their savings and retirement nest eggs decimated, and who are very scared for the future of their families and their businesses.
However, at the same time, we have an obligation to spend taxpayers' hard-earned dollars in the most effective and responsible way possible.
In fact, this has supposedly been one of the core beliefs of the government. It was not that long ago when it campaigned on that old forgotten ideal: accountability.
We have seen the government's hypocrisy in action on this front. The latest outrage is the allocation of funding through the new horizons for seniors program. Out of 32 ridings where this money has gone, 31 are Conservative ridings. And now the government wonders why we are so insistent on checking the books.
We can clearly see how a $3 billion slush fund can be used for the Conservatives' political purposes, though of course the government does not see the benefit in the opposition asking questions. The government would rather us sit here silently and vote in favour of spending, with absolutely no plan in place or any principles of accountability to Canadians.
Well, I am here today to say that this is not acceptable.
Does the government feel as though it can use the excuse of tough economic times to justify unilateral action on spending?
Canadians have a right to know where their tax dollars are going. It does not matter what the circumstances are. If the government is unwilling to provide a detailed account of what is happening with taxpayers' money, something is wrong.
Which departments will have access to these funds? What are the criteria for the projects receiving these funds? What kind of information will the public receive both before and after these moneys go out the door? Finally, what does the government have to hide?
If the Prime Minister can assure the House that this $3 billion will not be used to fund Conservative MPs' pet projects or applied to the ridings that the Conservative Party is attempting to target in the next election, then why can Canadians not be given full disclosure? Like I said, something just does not add up.
Either one supports accountability and transparency or one does not. That position should never change whether one sits on the government side of the House or on the opposition side. Either one is going to use the funds responsibly or try to hide the real purpose, which amounts to political payoffs.
These are not complicated questions and like the Prime Minister used to say when he actually cared about providing Canadians with real answers, government expenditures must be “exposed by the official opposition because that is our job and responsibility”. Those are the Prime Minister's words and either he was sincere back in 2004 or he is showing his true colours now. However, one thing is for sure, the two positions are opposite to each other and cannot go together.
To conclude, I want to appeal to the common sense of the government. It should realize that no matter what part of the country one represents and no matter how bad economic times get, there is one thing that remains constant throughout. That is that taxpayers' hard-earned money is not ours to spend freely and that basic reporting principles that include a plan and rationale are fundamental principles of a democratic society.
The Conservative Party's website identifies the following as two of its founding principles: fiscal accountability and a belief that a responsible government must be fiscally prudent. I challenge my counterparts in the government to live up to these basic expectations not only because it is what their party is founded upon but also because it is what Canadians deserve.
Mr. Paul Szabo (Mississauga South, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I have spent the day listening to the debate and I am disappointed to hear that the government will not support a motion which calls for openness, transparency and accountability for all Canadians. That is very telling. A number of government members talked about things other than the motion before the House only because they did not want to give their opinion on whether what was asked in the motion was not only reasonable, but whether it was the responsibility and in fact the duty of parliamentarians to exercise due diligence and scrutinize proposed spending of taxpayer dollars. It is our job.
In this instance we have a $3 billion amount which is labelled “unmarked funds” proposed to be used for a variety of purposes. In the section that describes this amount of money in Treasury Board vote 35, it refers to budget implementation initiatives subject to approval by the Treasury Board between the period of April 1 and June 30”. In other words, Treasury Board will authorize the expenditure of certain moneys, $3 billion, in the first quarter of the upcoming fiscal year.
It goes on to say “to supplement other appropriations and to provide any appropriate Ministers with appropriations for initiatives announced in the Budget of January 27, 2009”. It basically says that it can be spent on anything, whether it is in the budget and announced to Canadians what the intent was, or some other purpose to which the government may decide to apply it.
What the vote is really saying is “trust us”. The government wants $3 billion and at some point in time it will disclose where it was spent, but it will not tell us right now. How can Parliament exercise its responsibilities and its duties to scrutinize the proposed spending of taxpayer dollars if it does not know what it is? However, we understand there will be some matters that come up that may very well not be able to be identified specifically as to the precise location, the name of the project, the size of the project and other details.
The motion does not ask for pre-disclosure. It simply asks for disclosure when the funds are being used. That is when all is known. It is simply asks the government to publish a report which advises parliamentarians and Canadians on what the moneys were spent. That is the gist of the motion. When the money is spent, we would like to know what it is because the government did not tell us during the process of the estimates or identified it in the budget. This could be almost anything.
The Conservatives are going to vote against this. Why? Because Conservatives have to do it anyway when the supplementary estimates come in next June. However, that is after all the money has been spent. If Parliament has a problem, or concern or question about expenditures of some of the $3 billion, when will members get a chance to do this? They will not get a chance until June and even then, depending on what goes on in the House, the House may rise for the summer by the time other things are done and all of a sudden it will be next fall. Therefore, the motion asks for accountability, openness and transparency.
The Treasury Board officials commented on vote 35. They indicated that it ran contrary to the principles of accountability and responsibilities of parliamentarians. In fact, House of Commons Standing Order 80(1) clearly states:
|| All aids and supplies granted to the Sovereign by the Parliament of Canada are the sole gift of the House of Commons, and all bills for granting such aids and supplies ought to begin with the House, as it is the undoubted right of the House to direct, limit, and appoint in all such bills, the ends, purposes, considerations, conditions, limitations and qualifications of such grants, which are not alterable by the Senate.
Even in our own Standing Orders, it says that if Parliament is to discharge its responsibilities, it needs to have this information. The government has moved forward with this $3 billion in unmarked funds and it will tell us sometime three months down the road what it was for. There has to be a compromise here and this motion proposes that compromise. It says that as the money flows out, we want to know what it was spent on, what the project name was, the amount and the department or program under which it was operated.
If the motion is simply asking for openness, transparency and accountability, why is the government saying that it is going to vote against it? It is bizarre. If someone gets a bee in his or her bonnet and all of a sudden another party decides to vote no along with the government, what happens? All of a sudden we do not have any money flowing because we are going to an election. That is what it really means. Ultimately, it is like playing chicken.
The government showed us that side of its strategy in the budget. The budget did not just have budget information in it; it had a number of other non-budgetary items in it. Why? Why did it include the Competition Act? Why did it attack pay equity for women? Why did it attack the Navigable Waters Act? It took a lot of time to do that and the government threw that in there. Why? Because if members objected to those things, they would defeat the whole budget and they would not defeat the whole budget because Canadians needed the stimulus.
Therefore, the government has us. We have to pass the things it wants without the normal parliamentary scrutiny.
The government's economic statement last November, in which it forecasted four years of surplus and no recession, was disastrous. All of a sudden, between the first week of November and when it tabled the budget in January, there was an international economic crisis that was not seen in November. It happened instantaneously in each one of those countries. It was not gradual. There were not any signs. It was as if somebody flipped the switch and all of a sudden we had a crisis.
Something is wrong here. It is a matter of trust. When the former Treasury Board president, who is now responsible for infrastructure, was pressed for an explanation as to why the government continued to refuse to give Parliament the specifics, he told the opposition members that the matter fundamentally amounted to trust. He was honest with us and he was honest with the committee. He said that they either had confidence in the government or they did not.
This response has lead us to conclude that neither the minister nor the government appear to have a clue as to where the money will go. Instead, they suggest that the government is getting set to improvise with billions of taxpayer dollars. It is flying by the seat of its pants with $3 billion of taxpayer money. This motion says that we need to have some accountability. We will give the authority to go ahead and pass the estimates, but we want to know what the money is spent on as it goes out. We do not want to wait until June. It is our responsibility and our duty, and the government should support the motion.
Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, the motion we are speaking to today in the House of Commons is important because one of the things we know over the last several years is that Canadians have lost trust in their government.
Many of us know about the Gomery inquiry and the corporate sponsorship scandal. Subsequently, we have had other issues that have certainly raised concerns around whether Canadians can trust how money is spent in this country.
I want to point out to the House that the motion tabled today is very similar to the one the member for Outremont had proposed over a week ago. It speaks to the fact that members, certainly on this side of the House, have some serious concerns about the government having access to a $3 billion slush fund that it can distribute, although it claims that there is an accountability measure attached to it.
The sad fact is that often it will come to light many months after the money is out the door. It is like closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped.
The motion before the House is simply putting into place some measures. When we look at the wording, it says, “...the programs which are likely to require access to this extraordinary authority”. What the House is asking for is some oversight, which seems to be a perfectly reasonable request, in my view.
One of our responsibilities as parliamentarians, which we should never abdicate, is that money cannot be spent before it is approved by Parliament. As parliamentarians, we need to be able to go back to our communities with some assurance that the money the Canadian government is putting out will actually be spent in a way that Canadians can track and can see the deliverables on it. That just seems like a reasonable plan.
I am sure most Canadians have tuned into why we are discussing an economic stimulus package and why we are discussing accountability but I want to put a couple of things on record.
Every day in many of our communities we hear stories from people who have lost their jobs. In my riding, it is forestry workers. When I was in my riding last week doing my constituency work, I ran into a number of forestry workers who told me that their employment insurance was running out or that they did not qualify for employment insurance or the kinds of training programs being offered. One forestry worker said that he was offered retraining as a long distance truck driver. He is in his fifties and does not have the experience. He wondered where he would find work as a long distance truck driver.
We are seeing the direct and immediate impact of the loss of employment in our communities, whether it is forestry, manufacturing or shipbuilding. We are hearing those stories from our community members each day we are in our ridings.
Much of this is not new information. We have seen deep-rooted problems with poverty in this country for a long time. I want to point to Campaign 2000. Many members in the House are aware that in 1989 Ed Broadbent proposed a motion, which was passed by Parliament, to end child poverty by the year 2000.
In November 2008, before the Conservatives acknowledged that we actually had an economic problem in this country, when Campaign 2000 tabled its latest report card on progress, it reported that one in nine children in Canada still lived in poverty when measured after income taxes. That amounts to 760,000 children and their families who are currently living in poverty.
B.C. continues to report the highest provincial child poverty rate in Canada. If we listen to the current B.C. Liberal government, it says that up until recently the economy was doing very well, thanks very much, and so were people from B.C., but we know that whether it is health care workers, forestry workers, shipyard workers or children and their families, people in British Columbia have been suffering for a lengthy period of time and it has only been made worse by this current economic downturn.
I want to talk about housing. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said that there was some money for housing in this current budget but none of us should think that will actually amount to a national housing strategy.
I often hear the Conservatives say that New Democrats are always criticizing but do not propose anything. That is absolutely false. We have been calling for a national housing strategy ever since I was elected to this House in 2004.
Ms. Dawn Black: And before.
Ms. Jean Crowder: And before. I am very proud to say that New Democrats rewrote the Liberal budget in 2005 and made sure there was money specifically earmarked for housing.
I want to briefly refer to the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, in a report he wrote in 2007. Lest we think that this current housing crisis is manufactured as a result of the economic downturn, he pointed out that in his visits across his country he was hearing about hundreds of people who had died because they were homeless. He went on to talk about the fact that in its most recent periodic review of Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations uses strong language to label housing, homelessness and inadequate housing as a national emergency. This was in 2007 when we were supposedly in these booming economic times. We can only imagine what is happening in our communities now.
As people lose their jobs, as people are one paycheque away from poverty and as income-assisted rolls soar, people are losing their houses right now as I speak in this House. This economic stimulus package was an opportunity to do some innovative, creative things and actually contribute to a national housing strategy. What we could have seen were some green retrofits. What we could have seen was taking some existing housing and retrofitting it so it was suitable for people who needed access to affordable housing. There were many opportunities lost in this current package. I know that New Democrats had positive solutions to propose to address some of these issues.
One of the reasons we are having this discussion about accountability is that we have seen over recent history any number of good reasons not to trust the Conservatives in terms of being able to track the money and talk about the results.
During a recent internal audit of the post-secondary education program by Indian and Northern Affairs, it became clear that the government did not know where the money was going or what results it was getting from it. These are not figures that came from outside of the government itself.
One of the objectives of the audit was to provide assurance on the adequacy and effectiveness of the management control of the program. It seems like a good goal. I will not read the whole report, but when it came to conclusions, it gave some recommendations for the government. It stated:
|| Re-assess, in conjunction with the Transfer Payments and Financial Policy Directorate, the funding authorities in use and the reporting needs of the Program, taking into consideration the department’s obligation to account for the use of Program funds and the intended purposes of these funding authorities.
It goes on to to say that the government needs to improve the relevance and integrity of performance data being captured.
When we start looking at some of that information, I becomes clear that the government actually has difficulty in accounting for how some money is being spent. There are many other examples.
Canadians want to know that their government and parliamentarians are acting on behalf of all Canadians from coast to coast to coast, not just Canadians in Conservative ridings.
An article in today's National Post regarding a program called the new horizons for seniors program, states:
|| The government has announced 32 grants for seniors' groups since Feb. 17, and only one went to an organization located in a riding not held by a Conservative MP.
We have a minority Conservative government that received less than half the votes in Canada. The Conservatives and all members in this House must ensure that all Canadians have access to these funds, not just people in Conservative ridings. That is a fundamental piece of fairness.
I come from a province that, sadly, about eight years ago had an opposition that was reduced to two members. There were 77 Liberal members and 2 New Democrats but, of course, New Democrats have recovered that ground. However, what we saw in that case was a government that had just over 50% of the vote and yet took 90-odd per cent of the seats. What happened in that case was an undermining of the democratic process. Decisions were made that rolled back collective agreements, increased class sizes and made cuts to health care.
I would argue that no matter if one is in a government with the bulk of the seats or, as in this case, a minority government, one has a responsibility to all Canadians, not just to one's own Conservative riding.
When Parliament asks for a list of the likely projects, it seems to be a fair and reasonable oversight process to ensure that all Canadians have access to these very important projects that could provide economic stimulus.
The Minister of the Environment has said that the government will circumvent some of the environmental assessment projects. I am sure Canadians will be very interested to see the kinds of projects that are likely to come forward. If the government is going to abdicate its responsibility around environmental assessment, at least community members can start looking at where there may be impacts.
In an article in the Globe and Mail on March 21 it refers to the fact that effective immediately and for the next two years numerous types of projects will not require federal environmental assessments in certain circumstances. These include the construction and remodelling of community buildings, water treatment and distribution systems, transit, road construction and waste management projects.
I do not know about other areas of the country but when we start talking about road construction, we know there are all kinds of potential impacts on watersheds. In my own community of Somenos Marsh, which is on a major highway, any major development that happens in the area will directly impact on the health and viability of Somenos Marsh. We would expect there to be a full environmental assessment. It is a valuable, fragile ecosystem. Despite the serious economic downturn we are in, we know that Canadians still care about where they live, the air they breathe and the quality of their water. They do not want to see the environmental assessment process stripped away. However, when we talk about the transparency and accountability of these projects, it is no wonder Canadians are questioning whether they can trust the government to spend the money on behalf of all Canadians.
I, as a grandmother, do not want to see my grandchildren inherit an unhealthy planet because we failed to do the right things in times of economic downturns.
The Caledon Institute put together a paper called “The Red-Ink Budget” in February 2009 which raised a couple of points about wise decisions on how money could be spent. The report states:
|| With respect to leveraging of funds from other levels of government, it is not reasonable to include the full ‘leverage’ effect as part of the Budget’s overall fiscal stimulus because it is not at all clear that the provinces and territories can and will actually spend more than they had intended.
When the government put together the stimulus package, it made some claims about the impact of the stimulus and yet we have independent institutes questioning the premise of some of its logic. This is under the economic and fiscal policy part of the report.
Later on in the report, it refers to some additional skepticism. It reads:
|| We are also skeptical about the capacity of the federal government to get much of the infrastructure and housing money out the door.... This requirement is especially problematic due to the demand for cost-sharing and the assumed federal engagement in picking and choosing projects. This will require negotiation and creative paper work (for provinces and territories to make up stories about incremental spending). Moreover the rush to spend will not necessarily encourage great wisdom in the choice of projects... Both the present and the previous governments failed to undertake adequate or, more accurately, any, contingency planning for the ‘lean years’ during the ‘fat years’ – a failure which will now impede our capacity to recover from the current recession and to spend our infrastructure funds wisely.
I think we would be hard-pressed to find any Canadian who would say that we should shovel the money out the door, that they do not care what the project is or what the consequences will be for their community and the environment.
This is an opportunity to ensure that projects will contribute to the overall health and well-being of our country and communities, both now and in the future. It is an opportunity to ensure the environment is protected, that jobs are created for the future and that we are doing some of the green initiatives that the New Democrats have proposed.
The Caledon Institute's report refers to spending money wisely. I have heard members say that we do not want to see a road built to nowhere or a bridge that goes halfway across a body of water. We want to ensure those projects are integrated into the plans of the community and make sense in terms of job creation, education, and the environment.
I know a couple of people have mentioned the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. I want to touch on a couple of points the FCM has raised. This has certainly been mentioned in the House. It talks about use of the gas tax model, that it is fast, tested and accountable.
Of course, New Democrats have said that consistently, that the gas tax model is already in place, it works well, and we know that we can get money out through that process.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in this particular publication, states that:
|| The most efficient and effective federal funding program is the [gas tax fund], which empowers communities to start work quickly on clearly established infrastructure priorities.
Members will notice that it says “clearly established infrastructure priorities”.
|| The GTF flows money to cities and communities on a per capita basis. Municipalities must then invest these dollars in accordance with clear eligibility criteria, guided by established, federally-approved capital investment plans.
It goes on also to talk about what is of particular interest in my riding, and I know other members here have small communities, the fact that smaller communities must not be ignored and that there must be funding set aside for smaller communities, and communities must be protected.
So in terms of tabling a list of likely projects, it would enable us in the House to see if there is that good balance between large urban centres and smaller communities.
I know there has been some work done around this, but for smaller communities, if we just simply look at per capita funding, the city of Duncan, for example, has 5,000 people, yet it has some major road infrastructure that has an impact on every other community in the area. So there must be some sort of set-aside that recognizes the integration of these communities, but they also must have access to the funding to recognize the fact that simply a per capita formula will not do it. Again, tabling of the likely projects will allow us as parliamentarians to assess that and will allow the Canadian public to assess it.
I know other members have raised this, but our neighbours to the south have somehow or other figured out that accountability and transparency is a good thing. In a memo written on February 9 that went out to the heads of departments and agencies, there are a couple of key points that talk specifically about that accountability and transparency.
|| We are asking the American people to trust their government with an unprecedented level of funding to address the economic emergency. In return, we must prove to them that their dollars are being invested in initiatives and strategies that make a difference in their communities and across the country.
It seems to me that the Americans have it. They understand that there is a partnership around this.
We as parliamentarians can approve spending, or not, but then there must be a partnership with the public around how that money is spent.
The Americans have a website, which I am sure others have spoken about, but I want to re-emphasize this because there are a couple of really key goals. On the website, www.recovery.gov, they say the funding “must be subject to unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability”.
We are actually asking Canadians to shoulder a debt. We are asking Canadians, to some extent, to do it in good faith, because although we may have talked about the potential economic stimulus and how it is going to benefit our communities, we are really asking them to take it on faith that the money that is being spent will actually make a difference in our communities.
The other part of that partnership then must be these unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability. It must go above and beyond anything we normally have asked of our government, and it would seem to me that the principles outlined in www.recovery.gov seem reasonable. These principles are that:
|| Recovery funds are awarded and distributed in a prompt, fair, and reasonable manner;
|| The recipients and uses of all recovery funds are transparent to the public, and that the public benefits of these funds are reported clearly, accurately, and in a timely manner;
|| Recovery funds are used for authorized purposes and every step is taken to prevent instances of fraud, waste, error, and abuse;
It states further:
|| Programs meet specific goals and targets, and contribute to improved performance on broad economic indicators.
If the United States, which has a significantly larger population than Canada, can do this, surely we in Canada can figure this out.
I would urge members of this House to support this motion, and I would urge the government to take some lessons from what has happened with the Obama government and some of the initiatives it has proposed.
Mr. Chris Warkentin (Peace River, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I stand today to support the special vote that is found in the main estimates known as vote 35.
As we have heard today, vote 35 is a $3 billion appropriation requested by the government for the Treasury Board to provide funding for initiatives set out in the economic action plan starting April 1. This is an extraordinary step taken to provide funding for departments that have projects that are ready to go right now. Many such initiatives are construction projects, which need to be started at the beginning of the season if Canadians are going to feel the positive effects in this given year.
There has been some confusion among the hon. members on the other side about the role of this $3 billion vote. I would like to shed some light on how this process would work.
Of course, there will always be those who prefer to muddy the waters so that Canadians and their members of Parliament are not clear about what the choices are, but I should think the hon. members opposite would appreciate my efforts in bringing clarity to this particular issue.
There are several challenges that need to be addressed with the economic action plan. These measures need to be dealt with by moneys that are put into place by this measure. One of them is the Budget Implementation Act, which provides funding for some of the economic action plan initiatives.
With this act receiving royal assent on March 12, the most important task at hand for hon. members is the passage of the main estimates. This is necessary to ensure that the measures provided for in the economic action plan, such as building roads and bridges, reducing taxes, supporting Canadians hardest hit by the economic downturn, and helping communities and businesses adjust and grow, will move forward now when they are needed the most.
Anyone who has ever invested money knows that the sooner one puts that money to work, the better it is. It is better to invest sooner, because the returns for that investment start flowing sooner and last longer.
When it comes to investing, time truly is of the essence. That is why we need vote 35 in the main estimates. It provides funding for a broad range of economic action plan measures that are not funded through the Budget Implementation Act but need access to money between the dates of April 1 and June 30. These include community recreational infrastructure projects, investments in first nations infrastructure, and investments in aboriginal skills and employment partnerships, just to name a few.
To ensure that departments can start funding these initiatives before this summer, we have requested the authority to make payments on these projects up to $3 billion.
This approach has been applauded by the International Monetary Fund. In a recent report, the IMF said that Canada's immediate focus should be on implementing the budget to mobilize spending.
This vote is necessary because the short time period between tabling the economic action plan on January 27 and the main estimates, which were brought forward on February 26, did not allow enough time for departments and agencies to seek funding for budget initiatives through the main estimates. Vote 35 allows the government to provide initial funding for ready-to-go initiatives until departments and agencies can receive funding through the normal parliamentary supply processes.
This really is bridge financing. It is simply a way of advancing the funding that would otherwise have to wait until supplementary estimates in June or even later.
However, make no mistake, we are accountable for this $3 billion. That is why we will table reports in Parliament on the status of the economic action plan initiatives, three more in this particular year: one in June, one in September, and one in December. The first report has already been tabled in the House.
In addition, the government will report on all allocations for the central vote as is the case for all central votes in subsequent supplementary estimate documents.
Finally, the Auditor General has indicated that she will be reviewing this process as well, and no one wants the Auditor General saying that money was not spent on what it was supposed to be spent.
This government has made accountability and transparency the cornerstones of its mandate and at this point we are not going to change our stripes. Our first piece of legislation was the Federal Accountability Act. Since tabling the economic action plan, we have cut red tape, taken extraordinary and unprecedented actions to ensure critical investments are not delayed--