Statement made on 11 February 2009 by Senator James Cowan
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, just over two months ago I spoke in this chamber to another Speech from the Throne — a speech that we thought was setting out the government's agenda for an active session of Parliament. We would all get down to the business of helping Canadians weather the economic storm that was sweeping across large parts of the world.
Regrettably, what followed was not action but government panic, which culminated in the Prime Minister running to the Governor General to beg her to shut down Parliament so he could avoid a vote that he promised would take place but which he knew he would lose.
Mr. Harper has repeatedly demonstrated his reluctance to face Parliament. In 2007, he chose to end the First Session of the Thirty-ninth Parliament just before Parliament was set to resume after a summer recess. This delayed our return to work as we waited for a Speech from the Throne.
The Second Session of the Thirty-ninth Parliament lasted just eight months because Mr. Harper took yet another trip to the Governor General, once again waiting until the end of the summer recess. This time, he declared that Parliament — which was not sitting at that time — was dysfunctional and he required a general election.
We all know the reason for that dysfunction — organized obstruction by the government's own supporters. The early election call was completely at odds with Mr. Harper's own, much trumpeted, fixed-date election law. It was an indulgence that cost Canadians $300 million, and the only job that was saved was Mr. Harper's. How many real jobs would have been saved by a more responsible application of that money?
Everyone here knows what happened next. Parliament finally returned last fall after yet another long recess caused by Mr. Harper.
On November 26, 2008, during debate on the last Address in Reply, I said that we on this side of the chamber were eagerly looking forward to the start of the session. I said that we were ready and willing to fulfil our constitutional responsibilities by being an active, aggressive and progressive opposition. I said we were set to go — ready to scrutinize the government's legislative agenda carefully and to propose legislative measures of our own.
I spoke at length about the serious economic problems facing our country and expressed our determination to get to work to address those problems. I stated my belief that Canadians wanted us to dare to do things differently, to work together for the public good. I invited the government to throw out its manual directing parliamentarians to obstruct Parliament's work. I challenged the government and supporters in Parliament to dare to listen, especially those who disagree.
Instead of listening, Mr. Harper shut us down eight days later. Instead of agreeing to work together for all Canadians, the Harper government chose to prevent parliamentarians from doing their job. Instead of facing Parliament and accepting the judgment of Canada's elected representatives on his government's actions, Mr. Harper ran to the Governor General and asked her to prorogue Parliament.
Honourable senators, that was one of the most shameful episodes in Canadian democratic history. In this Speech from the Throne, the Governor General reminded parliamentarians that our ". . . predecessors, too, were summoned to this chamber at times of great crisis. . . ." This government seems unaware of the irony in that statement. Previous governments summoned parliamentarians to help address great crises in Canada's history. By contrast, the Harper government by contrast sends them home and silences their voices.
Let us be clear; Canadians have suffered as a result. On January 24, James Bagnall, Associate Business Editor of The Ottawa Citizen, who for 26 years has been writing for some of Canada's leading financial papers, wrote:
Had the Conservatives moved to stimulate earlier, there's little question they could have helped to soften the downturn that began in the last months of 2008.
Unfortunately for all Canadians, during the last months of 2008, as was made perfectly clear in its November economic and fiscal statement, the Harper government's priority was not economic stimulus. The priority was ideological political warfare.
This Speech from the Throne sounded a very different tone. The government now is speaking of a dialogue ". . . in a spirit of open and non-partisan cooperation."
Honourable senators will understand why I am a little bit skeptical.
Until faced with losing a confidence vote, this Prime Minister was anything but open and non-partisan. However, conversions are possible. An epiphany on the road to Damascus is available to us all, even to Mr. Harper. If true, this transformation and these new words of cooperation by the Prime Minister are welcome. We can hope they signal a positive change of direction for Mr. Harper and his government.
Frankly, Canadians expect and they deserve a different approach.
This current downturn is not some abstract concept; it is real. Tens of thousands of Canadians have lost their jobs; businesses are shutting their doors; parents worry about their ability to buy medicine for their children; families are turning to food banks in ever-greater numbers; and senior citizens who have worked hard all their lives, contributing to the Canadian economy and building this country, have lost their retirement savings.
As we move to deal with this economic crisis and as our Prime Minister once again faces Parliament, I hope that this time his approach better recognizes the constitutional and practical consequences of its bicameral nature. Parliament is an independent body and its constituent parts — the House of Commons and the Senate — are independent.
That is what the Fathers of Confederation intended and what our Constitution explicitly provides. This chamber, the Senate of Canada, was specifically designed to be independent both of the executive branch of government and the other place.
George Brown summed up the intentions of the Fathers of Confederation as follows:
The desire was to render the Upper House a thoroughly independent body — one that would be in the best position to canvass dispassionately the measures of this House. . . .
Sir John A. Macdonald was equally clear:
No Ministry in Canada in future can do what they have done in Canada before — they cannot, with the view of carrying any measure or of strengthening the party, attempt to overrule the independent opinion of the Upper House. . . .
The purpose, he went on to explain, was to preserve the independence of the upper house and to make it, in reality, a separate and distinct chamber having a legitimate and controlling influence in the legislation of this country.
There have been a number of times in Canada's history when a majority of members in this chamber exercised their mandated sober second thought and rejected bills put forward by the government of the day that had been passed in the other place: The James Coyne incident during the Diefenbaker era; the abortion bill passed in the other place by Prime Minister Mulroney; the debate over the implementation legislation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement; and the repeated refusal of this chamber to pass the Pearson Airport bill, Bill C-28. These are a few instances where this chamber exercised its role as a check and balance to the power of the prime minister and the executive government of the day.
This is not a partisan matter. Liberal and Conservative governments have each faced the independence of this chamber. It is a fundamental feature and an essential characteristic of the Senate. Maintaining the independent character of our chamber is a matter of upholding our constitutional responsibility. If we fail to uphold the independence of this chamber from the prime minister and the other place — if we fail to exercise our power as the chamber of sober second thought — then our critics are proven right. Why are we here, collecting taxpayers' money, if it is not to exercise our constitutional responsibilities to the best of our ability?
It was in this context that I was deeply troubled to read news reports alleging that our newest colleagues may have been summoned here only after having compromised their constitutionally-mandated independence. I will read to you from the report of Don Martin as it appeared in the National Post on Tuesday, December 22, 2008:
When Mr. Harper added 18 senators and their $135,000 paycheques to the taxpayer's tab with job security until age 75, they had to first pledge allegiance to Conservative policies on Senate reform in the future while promising to oppose any coalition of opposition parties that included the Bloc Québécois.
Mr. Harper's demand goes beyond the standard expectation of senators being generally loyal to their patronage saint. It demands their specific votes as the pre-condition for their appointment.
I have difficulty accepting that this story is accurate because the substance of the pledge reported by Mr. Martin makes little sense to anyone with knowledge of the role of this chamber within Canadian parliamentary democracy. Of what possible concern or interest is any coalition of parties in the other place to the Senate or to individual senators? We are not a confidence chamber. We cannot cause the government of the day to fall.
As I said regarding Senate reform at the opening of this session, it makes perfect sense to me that, after 140 years, we would want to examine whether institutions established by the Fathers of Confederation could be improved. However, we should conduct that examination by listening to evidence presented on the issue by ordinary Canadians, by other levels of government and by constitutional experts before making a final determination on any particular proposal or reform. That consultation process where we listen to Canadians is the essence of our parliamentary democracy.
A critical part of our role here is to represent our provinces, our regions and minority rights. To represent those interests fairly, we must first listen.
I dare say that if a judge were found to have pledged away his or her view on a particular issue before the evidence was even presented, Canadians would be angry and justifiably so.
In my opinion, our response to these regrettable media reports, such as the article I read a moment ago, should be to demonstrate through our actions here in this place that our determination and our ability to represent our regions faithfully remains unfettered and intact.
As always, our actions will speak louder than words.
Honourable senators, last week, the government presented its much-awaited budget. It was a radically different document than last November's economic and fiscal update. The November statement painted a picture of surpluses and rosy times ahead. We know how that picture was greeted. Economists, except for Mr. Harper, were unanimous. The statement was described as "disastrous" and a "fiscal delusion." One economist said, "My cynicism has reached new heights. What else can I say?"
Under threat of losing government, Mr. Harper and his Finance Minister finally became serious about addressing Canada's economic crisis. However, do we now have a budget and a plan of vision? Sadly, the answer is no.
Our neighbour to the south faces much more severe economic challenges than we do. Yet President Obama is confronting the crisis as an opportunity to unite Americans across the political divide and to define a new direction for his nation. He is investing in infrastructure, but he is also investing in science, alternative energy sources, health care and education. His stimulus plan is driven by a coherent vision and a plan for his country for the 21st century.
Sadly, it is clear from this budget and the Speech from the Throne that the Harper government has no such vision and no such plan. Its tunnel vision is focused solely on its own political future — how to stay in power, whatever the price.
President Obama inherited a $1 trillion deficit from former President Bush. Prime Minister Harper inherited a $13.2 billion surplus from the Liberal governments of Prime Minister Chrétien and Prime Minister Martin. That healthy surplus was squandered by the Harper government, lost to fiscal mismanagement and short-term thinking.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty repeatedly promised Canadians that their Conservative government would never put Canada into deficit. We were told that the notion was ridiculous. Now we are told to accept a $34 billion deficit this year and another $30 billion next year. The Harper-Flaherty government calls for $85 billion in cumulative deficit over the next five years.
The government says it has a plan to pay off the deficit. They absolutely will not, they say, put Canada into a structural or long-term deficit. If this promise is like the last one, I shudder to think of the consequences for our children and grandchildren.
I studied the budget documents, honourable senators. I see a lot of hope pinned on a quick recovery from this recession. I see questionable assumptions, like raising money from a fire sale of unidentified federal assets. I do not see a real plan that would instil any measure of confidence about the future.
The International Monetary Fund has already issued projections that cast doubt on the Harper government's ability to balance the budget, as it has promised. The IMF does not share Mr. Harper's and Mr. Flaherty's optimistic projections and assumptions, either for the U.S. recovery and growth or Canada's.
Our Parliamentary Budget Officer has said he is worried that the Harper government's budget plan could push us into a persistent structural deficit. He was quoted in The Globe and Mail on January 29 as saying:
There should be concern that because of the more permanent measures that were taken in the budget that this could push us into a structural deficit position.
Don Drummond, Chief Economist with the Toronto-Dominion Bank and formerly a senior official at the Department of Finance, reportedly said he believes there is "absolutely a high risk" of Ottawa ending up in structural deficit.
I fear Canadians are in for rough times ahead to pay down yet another Conservative deficit. Tory times are indeed tough times.
This budget is, as some have observed, a scattergun budget — millions of dollars offered almost indiscriminately for a myriad of diverse projects. If the money actually flows, there is potential for creation of jobs for Canadians, and that is good. Infrastructure jobs are important, and will hopefully go a long way to getting the economy moving once again.
However, so many opportunities are lost with this budget. I think a general consensus is that the best jobs in the 21st century will be those that harness knowledge, science and technology for innovative solutions; but where is the science in the Harper budget? Scattered money is parceled out, some targeted to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, some for students and infrastructure — all good things — but the federal granting councils, whose money is critical to supporting research, will have their budgets cut.
I draw the attention of honourable senators to one example of opportunity lost in the science sector with the budget.
Since it was established in 2000, Genome Canada has been a critical source of funds for research in areas like agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment, new technology and cancer stem cells.
With $25 million in proposed funding by Genome Canada, our country was set to lead an international consortium of 100 leading scientists in 25 nations in the International Barcode of Life project, iBOL. These scientists were about to create a comprehensive library of DNA bar codes of animals, fungi, plants and other organisms, and technology to allow for their immediate identification from anywhere in the world.
Insects like the mountain pine beetle could be identified quickly early, before they have an opportunity to destroy vast areas of our forest. Foreign mosquito species could be identified when they first arrive in Canada, before they have an opportunity to threaten Canadians with diseases like the West Nile virus.
Unfortunately, honourable senators, Canada will not lead this project because the Harper government has decided there is no new money for Genome Canada in its multi-billion dollar stimulus package. As Dr. Laurence Packer, Professor of Biology at York University explained in a letter to The Globe and Mail on January 31:
With Genome Canada funds, we were leading the world in the development of tools for automated identifications of economically devastating invasive species; disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes and pollinators that are essential for agricultural productivity, among others. These activities will now grind to a halt; the technical expertise of hundreds of highly trained personnel will be lost to other countries and/or other endeavours. This is an enormous leap backward.
Scientists are not alone in recognizing the critical importance of monitoring invasive species. In her report tabled last week, the Auditor General of Canada focused on problems with the government's ability to safeguard our food supply, protect animals and plants, and support trade and commerce by protecting us from invasive plants, pests and plant diseases.
I noticed, in this morning's National Post, another letter from Dr. Packer and I will quote one paragraph:
If your child gets ill as a result of an unidentified disease vector, if fruit prices skyrocket because of reduced pollination, if the forestry industry collapses under the weight of even more introduced alien forest pets, the 2009 federal budget will have been partly to blame.
Senator Mercer: Disaster!
Senator Cowan: While the Harper budget provides $1 billion for the Community Adjustment Fund to help, among others, those parts of British Columbia and Alberta affected by the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle, there is no money to invest in the science necessary to protect from future ecological tragedies.
The iBOL project will be dropped. The lead researcher on iBOL has already sent word to 95 international collaborators telling them the project is on hold.
Mr. Harper's stimulus package is supposedly about creating jobs but some 100 graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and technicians were involved in this project alone last year at universities and research institutes across Canada. Those numbers will drop by 90 per cent by May 2010 unless replacement moneys are found.
This example is but one of the projects that will be stopped in their tracks after years of preparatory work because of this budget — because of this government's lack of vision for the future of Canada. The message is clear: If you want to do scientific research, you will have to leave Canada. The Harper government is not interested in you.
The Chrétien and Martin governments, after struggling to eliminate the massive debt inherited from the last Conservative government, carefully nurtured Canada as a first-class place to do cutting-edge research; and we succeeded. Liberal governments turned what had been a notorious brain drain into an impressive brain gain, with eminent professors and researchers moving to Canada to pursue their research and to train young Canadians. Between 1997 and 2005, annual federal funding for university research more than tripled to over $2.5 billion.
The Harper government clearly does not share this dedication to the importance of supporting scientists and their research. For many years, Mr. Harper flatly and openly rejected the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change. He abolished the Office of the Independent National Science Adviser. Scientists have been repeatedly sidelined by this government.
In the latest episode of neglect, we are presented with a budget that provides money for bricks and mortar, with no funding for scientists to do their research in the laboratories that will be built. They will stand empty as a monument to the Harper government's lack of vision for the future.
The United States is facing terrible economic challenges that are far worse than we are confronting here. However, far from abandoning science, President Obama is seizing the opportunity to encourage scientific research. In his inaugural address, he pledged to "restore science to its rightful place." It appears that Mr. Harper is only too happy to give away the Canadian advantage to him.
Turning to the environment, I appreciate that Mr. Harper does not share my conviction that climate change is real and that we must act now to take steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to see this government produce such an enormous budget with so little attention paid to the environment. What we are talking about is the legacy that we will leave to our future generations.
The Harper government has chosen to focus its plan to kick-start the economy on infrastructure programs. The buzzword, as we all know, is "shovel-ready." Many of the projects are important and necessary for our communities, but the critical question is whether the money will actually flow to the projects to get the economy moving again. We have heard concerns from municipal governments about the conditions being imposed on the flow of this money. It took Mr. Harper months, which was far too long, to finally accept what the rest of us and the rest of the world have been saying, namely, that a stimulus package is required with money for infrastructure projects.
Happily, honourable senators, many of our municipalities did not wait for Mr. Harper. Anxious to help their citizens, communities across the country moved quickly to identify and begin work on a number of different projects using what money they could pull together. However, it is not clear whether these projects will qualify for federal infrastructure support.
The Harper government says explicitly in the budget documents that it will apply a strong "use it or lose it" theme to the stimulus measures. In other words, if municipalities cannot move fast enough to change from the track they have been proceeding along to one of Mr. Harper's choosing, they will lose out. I worry that this is another variation on Mr. Harper's theme of "my way or the highway." This kind of approach is not helpful at a time when Canadians are losing their jobs in record numbers.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has raised warnings about the actual size of the stimulus package that results from Budget 2009. In his report on February 5, he said that the Harper government's budget estimate of stimulus totalling $39.9 billion over 2009-10 to 2010-11 "appears to be somewhat overstated." By contrast, the Parliamentary Budget Officer's analysis estimates that the total net stimulus would be 20 per cent smaller, at $31.8 billion, than what was reported by the government in its budget.
His report states:
Further, a significant part — up to 25% — of the Government's $39.9 billion stimulus appears to be contingent on matching contributions from other levels of government.
Honourable senators, that means $10 billion is contingent on other governments joining in.
The real issue, of course, is creating jobs for Canadians. The reports of January's job losses were shocking — 129,000 jobs lost in one month. That devastating decline was greater than any monthly decline from any economic downturn over the last 30 years. That is more jobs lost in one month than the government will create with its stimulus package over two full years. The budget projects it will create or save 190,000 jobs, but our Parliamentary Budget Officer suggests the more accurate figure might be 120,000.
Dale Orr, Managing Director of IHS Global Insight Canada, came to the same conclusion. According to the Globe and Mail on February 3, Mr. Orr believes that:
The Harper government has overestimated by more than one-third the economic benefits and jobs its $40-billion stimulus package will create . . . .
He used the Finance Department's own formula and concludes that by the final quarter of 2010, the stimulus package will create about 120,000 jobs and yet, 129,000 jobs were lost just last month when we were not permitted to act because Mr. Harper shut this place down.
Once again, honourable senators, Canadians have been forced to watch their Prime Minister, who campaigned for re-election saying that his would be a steady hand at the helm to steer Canada through the rough waters of these economic times, as he careened from one response to another. Last Thursday, his Minister of Finance warned Canadians of the jobless figures about to be released and said that he is "open to the possibility" of adding to the stimulus measures in the budget. The next day, the Prime Minister himself spoke about the job loss numbers, dismissing calls to add to the stimulus package. He was reported in Saturday's Globe and Mail as saying:
We cannot have in Parliament, quite frankly, instability every week and every month, every time there's a new number, people demanding a different plan. . . .
We continue to believe this is the action we need, and we're going to need it in the months to come, and we're not going to be blown off track every time there's some bad news.
However, by Sunday, the Harper government was whirling around again. This time the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance reportedly said that the government is prepared to act if the economy gets worse.
Colleagues, who is in charge here? Does this government really know what it is doing? Is its plan based on serious, tested analysis of information, or is this job creation on the fly? It is not enough to simply throw large sums of money at the problem — there must be a thoughtful, serious plan behind it.
Honourable senators, we have learned from hard experience that Mr. Harper only acts when his feet are held to the fire. I believe that the best assurance that his government will follow through on these promises is provided by the amendment proposed by my Liberal colleagues in the other place to require rigorous, regular reports from the Harper government and to hold this government to account. Jobs are promised in this budget, but they must be delivered. Money is promised, but it must actually be allowed to flow.
The arts community will receive some much-needed funding — again, that is good — but there has been no reinstatement of the important PromArt and Trade Routes programs that supported touring Canadian artists and the export of cultural goods. They were not expensive programs — PromArt was a $4.7 million program and Trade Routes was valued at about $9 million annually — but they were important programs that went a long way to help Canadian artists become known internationally. It was good for the artists and good for Canada's reputation as well. Thus, I was startled to see a new program in Budget 2009 called Canada Prizes for the Arts and Creativity. I will read a small paragraph from page 175:
The Canada Prizes for the Arts and Creativity will bring the world's best new artists from a vast array of art forms to Canada to compete for the title of most promising new artist and for significant cash awards. These artists will be publicly adjudicated by a distinguished panel of established artists in each discipline.
Honourable senators, $25 million is budgeted for this program. That amount is almost twice the value of the PromArt and Trade Routes programs. However, instead of promoting Canadian artists internationally, the Harper government is spending taxpayers' money to promote international artists here. Does that make any sense?
Some Hon. Senators: No.
Senator Cowan: I have highlighted a number of areas where I believe this government missed opportunities with this budget. I have other concerns as well.
Employment Insurance is extended for those receiving benefits, but no adjustment is provided to extend the protection of the plan so that more Canadians in need can receive those much-needed benefits.
I heard a presentation this morning that would indicate that only about 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians actually receive Employment Insurance benefits.
Parents desperately looking for quality, affordable child care do not receive any help from the Harper government with this budget. Once again, they have been abandoned by the government.
Unilateral changes have been made to the equalization program that are causing grave concern in several provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador could lose more than $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, thanks to a special side deal, Nova Scotia will not lose a penny this year.
I hope my colleagues from Nova Scotia who are applauding will applaud next year as well. The letter provided by Mr. Flaherty — and I suggest to my colleagues they might pursue this matter with him — provides no assurances with respect to future years.
Honourable senators, we have a situation where Mr. Harper is making unilateral changes to important federal-provincial arrangements by making a side deal with one province, apparently giving it preferential treatment over another province. As our leader, Michael Ignatieff, has said, "That is not a way to run a federation."
In its budget plan, the Harper government said that it "is taking action to ensure the fairness of major transfers." Honourable senators, is this Mr. Harper's idea of fairness — special side deals with certain provinces whose political leaders have not openly challenged Mr. Harper, over other provinces whose political leaders dared to disagree with him?
The opposition can properly claim victory for pushing Mr. Harper to finally acknowledge the truth about Canada's economic situation and to begin to take action to address it. The results are in the budget, in the significant planned expenditures on infrastructure, amongst other things.
We will do our best to fulfill our constitutional role as members of an active, thoughtful, dedicated opposition, exercising our mandated role of sober second thought. We will watch closely to see whether the promised money is indeed distributed in a timely and effective way, and that the budget indeed is achieving the results that this government has promised.
We intend to scrutinize the government's legislative program carefully and we will propose legislative measures of our own. Where we find fault with legislation, we will propose amendments to improve it. If, however, we find favour with the government's proposals, we will support them. As always, our guide will be the public good.
We will not be bullied or threatened by Mr. Harper to comply with artificial deadlines imposed by the government for purely partisan purposes.
Serious issues face our nation. Mr. Harper has squandered too many hard-earned resources of Canadian taxpayers and lost too much time to self-serving political manoeuvring to keep himself in power.
Our leader, Michael Ignatieff, has warned this government that it is on probation. Mr. Harper has declared his commitment previously to accountability in government, and to tough consequences for those who do not uphold the terms of their probation.
Promises may no longer be broken by this government. Childish antics and misleading statements will not lead this country into a brighter future. The stakes are high. They are nothing less than the legacy this government will bequeath to our children.
Canadians are watching closely and, with this government, so they should.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Some Hon. Senators: More, more!
The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, are there questions or comments?
Hon. Wilfred P. Moore: Will the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate take a question?
Senator Cowan: Absolutely.
Senator Moore: I heard the honourable senator's remarks with respect to Genome Canada. I recall that when Genome Canada was established in the Atlantic, it was given the mandate of research with respect to the DNA of animals and plant life. Given the comments of the honourable senator, I do not know if this is another fiscal attack on Atlantic Canada.
In view of what the honourable senator has said, I am concerned about the job losses at Genome Canada in the Atlantic. Has he looked into that area? Does the honourable senator know what the employment impact on the scientific sector will be as a result of the cuts to Genome Canada in the Atlantic?
Senator Cowan: I asked the research universities in Atlantic Canada to provide me with exactly that information. I only have partial information, but I will be happy to provide it as soon as I receive the balance of the information I have requested.