Speech on Budget 2016

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Brampton Centre for sharing his time with me. It is such an honour for me to speak to budget 2016 this afternoon.

I am going to divide the 10 minutes that I have into three general categories: first, the overall quality of the budgetary information; second, a quick review of those things that are pretty good, but not good enough; and third, concerns about the environmental content of the budget.

First, on the quality of the budget, there is something that I think parliamentarians need to spend a lot more time talking about and demanding of Finance Canada. It has been a number of years since I have been able to find in the budget of Canada something that I think most Canadians would expect us to find, something called a budget: a statement of revenues, a statement of expenses, a bottom line, clear information.

I started saying with the previous government that we should really stop calling it the budget and call it the annual spring thick brochure so we would know what we were talking about. I expected more clarity of information, frankly, from the new finance minister, but as we have seen in the information from the parliamentary budget office in its review of this document, we still do not have detailed tables to identify the impacts of changes. Budget 2016 has actually shortened the time horizon on cost estimates from five years to two years, and it is going to be increasingly difficult to reconcile the program information with the budgetary information with our main estimates and supplementary estimates. I urge the new government to make sure that 2016 is the last budget that is not really a budget.

In addition to the things that the PBO has asked for, I would like to see a return to budget documents that include a statement of the budgets that are comparable from the previous year to the next year, department by department. Quite often in the budgets over the last number of years, we can see an announcement that there is money for a department to do whatever, but we cannot figure out for months, if we ever can, whether that is new money, re-profiled money, or whether it is a real commitment. I would like to see that.

Another thing I would like the Minister of Finance to do before next year, and as a matter of fact as quickly as possible, is present legislation to enshrine the parliamentary budget office and the parliamentary budget officer as independent officers of Parliament, properly funded and not subsumed in the budget of the Library of Parliament. The PBO does an amazing job for us as parliamentarians. It should not have to fight tooth and claw for information from Finance Canada. It should be as available to them as it is to us, and we are not seeing that change yet.

This budget is clearly much more welcome to the Green Party of Canada than the ones over the last 10 years. I do not open it and cringe and fear weeping at every page. Therefore, let me go through those things that are good, but not good enough.

It is certainly welcome to see $8.4 billion allocated to first nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. It is good, but not good enough, because it neglected where we really need to see some increased spending, which is on the care of children in those communities. Specific child care dollars were missed. We need more attention on those key areas. It is certainly welcome, but falls a bit short there. Actually, it is more than a bit short. It completely omits, as Cindy Blackstock has pointed out, money for first nations children and to make sure we act on all the commitments under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I was pleased to see action to assist young Canadians or any students with student debt in making that more manageable, but when one reads very carefully, one finds that there is no new money for that. It is re-profiled in ways that will help students carry student debt and ensure they do not have to start paying student debt back until they are making more money. It is encouraging, but not good enough.

There is more money for international development for Global Affairs Canada, but not nearly enough to catch up to where Canada should be. I want to see a reinstatement of our goal as a nation to 0.7% of our GDP into international development assistance. We are far short of that, even with the modest increase to spending in this budget.

It was very welcome to see money for housing and the federal government being involved again in housing. It is very important that we do that, but I was very disappointed not to see money in this budget for energy retrofits. I will return to that.

It is also welcome to see a return to the funding of basic science and away from the notion that we will not fund anything unless it has an immediate commercial application. It is very welcome to see a return to basic science research and more money for hiring scientists, such as the $40 million that was recently announced for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to start rehiring scientists. Parks and marine protected areas also get funding.

One of Canada’s greatest environmental thought leaders passed away earlier this year. I would like to take a moment to note that Jim MacNeill’s passing is devastating to the whole policy community that has done any work on sustainable development. Jim MacNeill always said that the single most important environmental statement from any government is its budget. After analyzing this budget for the environmental promises, that is where we find the deepest disappointment.

First, on infrastructure, during the election campaign the Liberals promised to spend enough on infrastructure to stimulate our economy to hire a great deal more people to ensure that we have a strong and vibrant economy that could get us out of the deficit. That was the premise of the Liberals’ election campaign. I have to say I do not quibble with that. The Green Party platform was a balanced budget, but I am easily persuaded that in a weak, stagnant economy, when the cost of borrowing is as low as it is today, it is not a bad idea to go into deficit to kick-start the economy. It is a good idea. However, the Liberals fell far short of what needs to be done to create the investments that we need in infrastructure and green infrastructure to create that vibrant economy.

In a nutshell, we read in this budget that over the next 10 years there will be $120 billion invested in infrastructure. That is a big number and it sounds great, until we realize that part one is the next five years, past the next election, in which less than 10% of that money, $11.9 billion, will be spent. The 90% of $120 billion will come to us in the second five-year period. That is important to note, because it means that for public transit money, which is desperately needed, there is only $3.4 billion over three years. It is not enough to significantly reduce greenhouse gases by moving us to public transit. A key piece of stimulus spending that would have put tens of thousands of Canadians to work quickly is to fund eco-energy projects.

With the previous Liberal government, under former prime minister Paul Martin who created the program, it was wildly successful. It delivered on greenhouse gas reductions. Homeowners loved it. Contractors loved it. Building supply companies loved it. It worked. It should have come back in this budget and it should have been expanded to include institutions like universities, schools, and hospitals, to replace inefficient furnaces, to bring in heat pumps, and to employ an army of carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who could go to work to deliver. It is missing and that is a shame. I hope it will get serious consideration before the 2017 budget so that we can actually attack the 30% of greenhouse gases that come from leaky buildings in Canada.

However, I have to say the most despairing part in reading the budget was when I came to a section which has the heading, “Restoring trust in environmental assessment”. This is at page 165 in the budget. Restoring trust in environmental assessment requires fixing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, brought in originally in 1993, was repealed in 2012 in the spring omnibus budget bill, Bill C-38.

This section of the budget suggests we are going to keep the broken, bogus, useless Environmental Assessment Act that was brought in under Bill C-38, and that we are going to keep it for four more years. There is a specific reference to it getting funded for four more years. This is an enormous mistake, and it must be reversed. Similarly, we must get rid of what Bill C-38 did to our Fisheries Act, to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which was in the fall omnibus budget bill, Bill C-45.

We need to fix our environmental laws if we are going to have a hope of restoring public trust in the environmental assessment process. This must be fixed and it is a budgetary issue. However, it is an urgent parliamentary concern that we undo the damage that every single member of the opposition fought against in 2012. Every New Democrat, every Liberal, and every Green MP fought that. We need to pay attention to the mistakes in this budget and fix them immediately.