Statement made on 31 March 2010 by Senator James Cowan
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, I want to thank our newest colleagues, Senator Poirier and Senator Runciman, for launching the debate on the Speech from the Throne. I think we can all acknowledge that they did the best they could in difficult circumstances. So many words; so little substance!
Here we are again, debating yet another Speech from the Throne after yet another surprise prorogation by this Prime Minister. I have been Leader of the Opposition in the Senate for less than a year and a half and this is the third speech that I have given in reply to a Speech from the Throne.
Honourable senators, there are real and pressing issues facing our country. Canadians are concerned about jobs, the deficit, health care, and the environment. They want to know that their government is working to ensure that their children will have the skills and education they need to meet the challenges down the road in our rapidly changing world. They have seen their life savings disappear in a financial meltdown and they ask what is being done now to protect their retirement income and pensions.
Most Canadians were skeptical of the Prime Minister's claim that he needed to prorogue Parliament in order to recalibrate, but they were prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt, accepting that serious challenges require time to come up with serious solutions.
Honourable senators, Canadians have been sadly disappointed. This latest Speech from the Throne contains no serious solutions, no plan for Canada in the 21st century. As Mr. Ignatieff said, "This is recalibration? It looks more like regurgitation to me."
We have promises of recycled crime bills and Senate reform bills — bills that died because the Harper government either sat on the initiatives or because of the Prime Minister's decision to shut down Parliament.
The policy initiative that sparked the most public engagement was a proposal to change the words in the national anthem. That proposal was withdrawn within 48 hours. One could debate that issue at length, but it is the insight this fiasco provides into how this government comes up with policies for Canadians that is most shocking.
Prime Minister Harper justified his proroguing Parliament as somehow necessary to enable his government to consult with Canadians on a "recalibrated" Speech from the Throne. We can see now there was no recalibration, and it now appears there were no consultations, either.
Forty-eight hours of "listening to Canadians" was enough for him to decide that the proposal to change the words to the national anthem should not succeed. Why did that not happen during the period of prorogation? How many other policies contained in the Speech from the Throne and the budget were crafted in such evident haste and with so little forethought?
Canadians expect honest and serious public policy. Instead, regrettably, we have a government focused on spin while ignoring the real problems. It replaces substance with slick advertising and rejects out of hand all dissenting voices; whether from independent watchdogs, recognized experts, public servants, Parliamentarians or members of the public.
We have seen this government's supposed law and order agenda, which insists on simplistic solutions to the problem of crime in Canada. Indeed, the Minister of Justice, himself, is on record as strongly opposing the very solutions he now stridently advances.
Perhaps most disturbing of all were the attempts by the members of the Harper government to discredit the testimony of Richard Colvin on the issue of Afghan detainees. More than 125 former ambassadors, including no less than our former ambassador to Washington, Allan Gotlieb, took the highly unusual step of writing a letter protesting the treatment of Mr. Colvin. They said he was "unfairly subjected to personal attacks," and that the episode:
. . . risks creating a climate in which officers may be more inclined to report what they believe headquarters wants to hear, rather than facts and perceptions deemed unpalatable.
However, this government is not interested in serious public policy based on the honest examination of facts and evidence. It is interested only in controlling the message.
Cabinet ministers routinely refuse to answer questions about their portfolios or even their own proposed bills. We saw evidence of this in our own Senate committees. There were several occasions when cabinet ministers were invited to appear before Senate committees on proposed legislation they claimed was of critical importance and urgency, yet they did not appear.
The refusal of ministers to answer questions from the media is so well known as to pass with barely a shrug. It has been reported that members of the press gallery are routinely warned by the Prime Minister's aides not to ask questions at the many carefully staged photo opportunities.
Anyone brazen enough to ask a question is quickly reprimanded and told, if they continue, reporters will no longer be invited to ask questions.
So much for an era of openness and accountability. A new era, it is true, but not the new era Canadians were expecting. No government in Canadian history has been so secretive and so closed as this one.
How has this government tried to justify its refusal to allow cabinet ministers to answer questions from the Parliamentary Press Gallery? The Prime Minister's former press secretary was interviewed by The Hill Times a little over a year ago. This is what the article said:
"Ministers are available in Question Period to answer questions of the elected opposition, that is the system that we have, that is the primary way by which cabinet ministers in a Parliamentary democracy are held accountable," said Mr. Teneycke.
That was in November 2008. We know what happened next, honourable senators. Just two short months later, the Prime Minister shut down Parliament and then, a year later, he did it again.
So much for the accountability of ministers to Parliament.
Prime Minister Harper has repeatedly told Canadians that his government would never cut and run. Yet, that is exactly what the Prime Minister has done: Cut and run, shutting down Parliament not just once, but twice.
This response by a national government to purely political problems is so unusual that it has provoked comment not only in Canada, but worldwide. The Economist commented on this in an article entitled "Halted in mid-debate" and in a strong editorial entitled "Harper goes prorogue." which stated:
Canadian ministers, it seems, are a bunch of Gerald Fords. Like the American president, who could not walk and chew gum at the same time, they cannot, apparently, cope with Parliament's deliberations while dealing with the country's economic troubles and the challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic games.
The Prime Minister's Office has tried to convince Canadians that the prorogation was routine and that it is commonly used. Richard Foot of Canwest News Service researched the history of the prorogation manoeuvre. He wrote:
. . . no other English-speaking nation with a system of government like ours — not Britain, Australia or New Zealand — has ever had its parliament prorogued in modern times, so that its ruling party could avoid an investigation, or a vote of confidence, by other elected legislators.
Only three times has this happened, all in Canada — first in 1873, when Sir John A. Macdonald asked the governor general to prorogue Parliament, in order to halt a House of Commons probe into the Pacific Scandal. . . .
No prime minister dared use prorogation to such effect again, until Stephen Harper convinced Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean to suspend Parliament in 2008, so the Conservatives could evade a confidence vote.
A little more than a year later, he did it again.
Editorial boards across the country stood up to denounce this shameful action by Prime Minister Harper. The Globe and Mail took the rare step of publishing its editorial of condemnation on the front page, something it last did 45 years ago.
Some Hon. Members: Oh, oh!
Senator Cowan: I know the honourable senators opposite do not like to hear some of these facts, but it would do them good to do so.
Christopher White, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, set up a Facebook group which he called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Over 225,000 Canadians joined that group.
At our universities, it was not only students who protested. Daniel Weinstock of the University of Montreal, Jeremy Webber of the University of Victoria and Charles Taylor of McGill — three eminent Canadian professors — joined to write an article criticizing the Prime Minister's decision to prorogue Parliament. To date, more than 150 Canadian academics who specialize in the principles of democracy have asked to sign that article.
Liberal parliamentarians returned to work on January 25, the week that Parliament should have resumed. That week, we held the first of what became a series of more than 30 public round tables on issues of real concern to Canadians. Our round tables focused on creating jobs, including for the youth of Canada; on the digital economy; lifelong learning; supporting science and technology; energy and the environment; health care, including issues around Alzheimer's and dementia; the medical isotopes crisis; poverty and homelessness; white-collar crime and community safety; aviation security; veterans; accountability; and governance.
Honourable senators, I regret that I do not see the same forward thinking efforts at thoughtful public policy development reflected in the actions of this government. There is no vision or plan to ready Canadians for the future. That was terribly evident in the Speech from the Throne.
Canadians face a major demographic shift as baby boomers retire and join the ranks of senior citizens. As Senator Carstairs recently pointed out in this chamber, fully 25 per cent of the Canadian population will be over the age of 65 by 2031. This presents serious challenges in terms of labour shortages, tax revenues, social programs and health care, to name just a few. A responsible government prepares for such massive challenges. However, none of this is addressed in the Speech from the Throne. Our own Parliamentary Budget Officer made it clear that we ignore these demographic issues at our peril.
Climate change is another serious challenge. It is real, and it is happening here today, transforming the world as we speak. Yet this government has no responsible environmental plan. It chooses instead to outsource its plan to the United States, while taking no action to prepare for the impacts that scientists know will occur — on the global food supply, water resources and even our physical health.
Economic development opportunities are being lost by this government's myopic approach to the environment. The Harper government says it is waiting for the United States, but President Obama has announced significant spending initiatives on emerging renewable and conservation technologies.
Before the recent budget, the United States government was outspending our federal government 14 to 1 on a per capita basis. According to the Pembina Institute, Budget 2010 not only failed to narrow that gap, it widened it. Now, the U.S. government will be outspending Canada 17.8 to 1 on a per capita basis. Consistent with this neglect, Minister Flaherty did not even mention the words "climate change" in his budget speech.
Where is the plan to position Canadians to create and seize the best jobs of tomorrow? This government cut literacy programs. It decimated the national literacy infrastructure, stranding Canadians who desperately need these skills to work.
Education is the key to success yet this government has not presented any coherent plan to ensure that Canadians have the skills they will need. There are isolated initiatives and I applaud them. However, without a plan or clear ideas of where we want to be as a nation 5, 10 or 20 years from now, how can we hope to reach a destination?
Honourable senators, "vision" is not a rhetorical device. Vision is building for the future, not just solving the latest current crisis.
In the Speech from the Throne, the government ostensibly set out, in sometimes lofty tones, its plan for the upcoming session. In the budget tabled the day after the Speech from the Throne was delivered, we find some details of what Canadians can expect.
The government has made the deficit the centrepiece of this budget. Let us be clear. This is a problem of the government's own creation. It is a problem that seems to have taken this government by surprise, not only once, but repeatedly.
Prime Minister Harper inherited a healthy $13 billion surplus from the previous Liberal government. He swore to Canadians in the 2008 election that his party would never put Canada back into deficit. He called the very idea "ridiculous." That is the word he used — ridiculous. His government presented its economic and fiscal update on November 27, 2008. Canadians were told to expect a $100 million surplus in 2009-10.
Only weeks later, Finance Minister Flaherty was forced to admit that his analysis had been wrong. Canada would run a deficit of between $20 billion and $30 billion, which climbed to $34 billion and is now a record $53.8 billion.
An Hon. Senator: He should be fired.
Senator Cowan: Honourable senators, how can Canadians have any confidence in this Minister of Finance who has been so spectacularly wrong about what is happening to the nation's finances?
Mr. Flaherty is now telling Canadians that he can reduce the deficit without tax increases and without cuts to program spending. The deficit will disappear through a review of government departmental spending and with the economy growing its way out of deficit.
Many economists across the countries, including our own Parliamentary Budget Officer, question the government's assumptions. One newspaper called the plan "six sleights of hand."
Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business was unequivocal in his assessment of this pie-in-the-sky approach to fiscal policy:
The budget's assertion it does not increase taxation is nonsense. While taxes are frozen for the calendar year 2010, every employed Canadian and every Canadian business that has staff will experience a significant Employment Insurance premium hike starting in January 2011.
No doubt, air travellers will disagree that this government has not raised taxes when they are forced to pay increased airport security fees.
The message from the Harper government on the deficit seems to be: "Trust us." However, how can Canadians be expected to trust a government that did not see the recession coming; a Prime Minister who claims to be an economist, but who told Canadians to invest in the stock market at the worst possible time; and a Minister of Finance who did not know whether he would be running a deficit or surplus?
It is also difficult to take seriously this government's promise to reduce government spending when the Harper government quietly boosts funding to advertise its economic action plan.
According to news reports, the government recently increased its advertising spending on the action plan from $34 million to $39 million — a 15 per cent increase. This level of thinly-veiled partisan advertising is equivalent to buying a Porsche with taxpayers' money and preaching to those same taxpayers that they should take the bus.
Only this week, Canadians learned in a report by Daniel Leblanc in The Globe and Mail:
A senior Conservative official repeatedly intervened last month to try and suppress the revelation that Ottawa spent $5million on a TV advertising blitz surrounding the Vancouver Olympics.
In a tense exchange of e-mails over a two-day period, ministerial aide Ryan Sparrow blocked attempts by bureaucrats to reveal the price tag of the ads that aimed to promote the Conservative budgetary measures. . . .
"No figures," bureaucrats were told by Mr. Sparrow, the director of communications in the office of Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development.
The Prime Minister's press office has a whopping 27 people on staff. Don Martin, columnist for the Calgary Herald, remarked: "That's a lot of staff to not get back to you." That is also an expensive office budget. It may be frozen, but what is the point if the budget was padded to the max before the freeze was imposed?
This government also has an interesting view of what all these people in the press office are suppose to do. It seems their primary purpose is not to provide information to the press, but rather to suppress it. For example, after many months of stonewalling, the government has finally admitted that its illusory tough on crime agenda will cost Canadian taxpayers approximately $3.1 billion by 2012-2013. This is a 27 per cent increase to the Correctional Service of Canada's prison budget over the next three years. It is occurring while crime rates have been falling for years and virtually every expert says that the government's law and order agenda is fundamentally flawed and wrong-headed.
An Hon. Senator: It is a housing program.
Senator Cowan: Canadians need investment in research and development and in science and education. We know there will be strains on our health care system and our social safety net as our population ages. Instead, we get bloated prisons and a bloated PMO. Is this the Harper government's vision for Canada?
Look at where the government has announced it will cut back to fight the deficit it created. In the 2010 Budget, the Department of Public Safety, for example, is directed "to eliminate research programs where capacity now exists in other organization such as universities." The savings are $200,000 per year. Public Safety is responsible for our national security, emergency management, corrections policy and law enforcement. Some of the organizations that fall under their purview are the RCMP, CSIS, and the Canada Border Services Agency.
We recently learned that practically all of the money that will be saved next year by these supposedly critical cutbacks on policy research will be spent on one single contract — for a decorator for this year's G8 and G20 summits. I suppose we should not be too surprised at this news since this is a government that prefers window dressing to substantive policy for Canadians.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Cowan: Note the careful wording mandating the cuts to the policy research for Public Safety. It is not that the research is actually being done elsewhere; it is simply that "capacity now exists" elsewhere to do the research. University research may be focused on something completely different, but that is apparently irrelevant. The funding will still be cut.
Honourable senators, I fear the issue is not only about how this government mismanages fiscal priorities, but it goes to how it treats public policy research itself. Many of us in this chamber on both sides have asked to see research on which various public policy proposals were based. We were shocked to discover that no studies exist.
This has been a critical issue for senators studying the mandatory minimum prison sentences proposed by this government. Some of those proposed policies run counter to the research studies that have been conducted. Is this why the Department of Public Safety is being directed to make these cuts in spending on public policy research because the government does not want to confirm uncomfortable truths about its policies on things like corrections and law enforcement?
Last year, the McGill Institute organized a panel discussion on the question: "Does Evidence Matter in Policy-making?" John Geddes, a well-known journalist with Maclean's, wrote in his blog:
To some of the other panellists, and I would guess to most of those in the roomful of academics and bureaucrats listening, the assumed premise was that evidence — facts, objective analysis, expertise — should matter a great deal more in policy than it does now.
He was shocked to hear Ian Brodie, the Prime Minister's former chief of staff, casually dismiss it as irrelevant when stacked up against winning political points.
In an article entitled: "Ian Brodie offers a candid case study in politics and policy," Mr. Geddes wrote:
Ian Brodie, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, delivered an astonishingly frank explanation today for why the Conservative government cut the Goods and Services Tax, and why he's glad they did, even though just about every economist and tax expert said it was a terrible bit of public policy.
Mr. Brodie said:
"Despite economic evidence to the contrary, in my view the GST cut worked. . . . It worked in the sense that by the end of '05-'06 campaign, voters identified the Conservative party as the party of lower taxes. It worked in the sense that it helped us to win."
It's not really surprising, of course, that campaign calculations lay behind the GST cuts, which have cost the federal government about $12 billion a year at the worst possible time. That's been obvious all along.
What's noteworthy is that Brodie, who is now a visiting fellow at the McGill institute, doesn't shrink from publicly asserting that such a major public policy decision can still be deemed a success — even in the face of "evidence to the contrary" — if that move paid the desired political dividends.
In other words, honourable senators, in order to win votes, Stephen Harper — an economist — introduced a fiscal policy that he knew was bad for Canada. According to Mr. Brodie, this is how business is done under the Harper government — all politics, all the time, and do not confuse us with the facts.
Is this the kind of policy-making that went into the design of the economic action plan? Is that why we are facing a $54 billion deficit?
What jobs have been created so far during the height of the recession by this economic action plan? The government will not say. We do not know whether that is because they are ashamed of the lack of results for Canadians or because they do not know themselves.
Last year, the government promised to directly create 190,000 new jobs over two years. Statistics show that since October 2008 — back when Mr. Harper was saying that there would not be a recession in Canada — more than 300,000 Canadians lost their jobs and are still out of work.
Canada has an unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent — that is 1.5 million unemployed Canadians. According to Food Banks Canada, in 2009 Canadian food banks experienced the largest ever year-over-year increase on record. Close to 800,000 people turned to food banks in March 2009, which was the month of the study — more than 72,000 of them for the first time. These Canadians need more than politics. They need serious policies that will build good jobs for now and for the future.
The National Post did a major piece on the economic action plan, asking on the front page "Did Stimulus Really Work?" Let me read to you some of the examples from that article describing how Canadian taxpayers' money was spent in the name of the economic action plan.
When the Conservative government announced in August it was sending nearly a quarter-million dollars to Calgary's GlobalFest, organizers were delighted.
The money was part of the government's "Economic Action Plan" to stimulate the economy, a tourism boost "to attract visitors to Calgary from throughout Alberta, across the country and around the world," Local MP Devinder Shory said.
The problem was that when the money arrived the festival . . . was already set to begin. There would be little hope of attracting any new tourists to Alberta in time to visit Calgary for the showcase, admitted Ken Goosen, the festival's producer.
Such was the fate of a number of other Conservative stimulus initiatives, according to the article.
An obvious question for all of us is whether the Harper government's stimulus spending is responsible for the green shoots we are finally beginning to see in our economic landscape.
On March 24, the Ottawa Citizen reported:
The federal government's $47.2 billion Economic Action Plan contributed little to the economic turnaround in 2009 and will do more harm than good in 2010, according to the Fraser Institute.
It claims the money has not gone to create jobs for Canadians and has not helped to bring Canada out of the recession. Is it at least being used responsibly to lay a strong foundation for good jobs for Canadians in the future?
This brings us back to "the vision thing." It is abundantly clear that this government has no vision for Canada and is not interested in a vision for Canada.
I mentioned the demographic challenge we face in this country with an aging population. Seniors are now the fastest growing segment of homeless persons in Canada. They have been hard hit by rising housing and energy costs while the economic meltdown decimated their savings and pensions.
All of us received a brief from the National Pensioners and Seniors Citizens Federation, an organization that represents over 1 million seniors. Their brief called for a national pharmacare program to stabilize the terribly high costs of pharmaceuticals. It called for an extension and reform of medicare. They called for national standards for home care and home support, and for attention to the housing crisis facing seniors. The federation called for a national pension insurance plan.
As they wrote in their brief:
Many seniors are spending sleepless nights worrying about the security of their retained earnings, pensions and investments incomes.
The Harper government did acknowledge that our seniors helped to build Canada. The Speech from the Throne correctly pointed out:
Canadians believe sacrifice and hard work should be recognized. As we strive to create an even better future for our families and communities, our government will stand up for those who built and defended this country.
How did the government stand up for these Canadians? Its response to the serious concerns was to offer a seniors day, mere window dressing.
Honourable senators, when I reread the submission from the pensioners foundation, I did not find a request for a seniors day. I do not believe anyone was spending sleepless nights worrying about that.
What was the government's answer to the concern about retirement income? A promise to engage in more consultations.
Honourable senators, what has the Harper government been doing these past few months? Consultations and a greeting card policy — Happy Seniors Day — not real help or serious solutions. Our senior citizens surely deserve better.
We just celebrated International Women's Day, and were reminded that women in Canada earned just 70 per cent of what their male colleagues earn, regardless of education level. In 2010, 40 years after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, we still face this shameful disparity.
Child care is an absolutely essential requirement if a mother is to work outside of the home. The government of Prime Minister Paul Martin understood this; then Minister Ken Dryden succeeded in obtaining signed agreements with all 10 provinces on child care. The Harper government tore them up.
Diane Finley, the Human Resources Minister, in her first meeting with the Canadian Child Care Federation had this to say:
I'll be damned if anybody tells me how to raise a child.
Honourables senators, by eliminating child care options, this government is eliminating choice and is telling parents across the country how to raise a child — how to raise a child in the officially approved Conservative way.
The problem, honourable senators, is that this approach may reflect the preference and dreams of the Conservative Party's base, but it is not the Canadian reality of 2010.
Instead of addressing any of the serious concerns facing women today, the Harper government's Speech from the Throne proposal for women was to change the words of O Canada. It has been reported that this idea was suggested to the government by Senator Nancy Ruth and, in fact, was advanced by a number of Liberal women senators several years ago.
Let us be clear: Changing the words to O Canada will not address the wage disparity between men and women. It will not fund one child care space. It will not help one abused woman. In any event, we all know what happened. Not 48 hours after the Speech from the Throne was delivered, the proposal was taken off the table by the Prime Minister himself. This abrupt about-face presents us with an interesting and unusual predicament. As we all know, the Throne Speech explains why Her Majesty or Her Majesty's Representative has called Parliament into session. The motion we are debating today states that we in the Senate "offer our humble thanks to Your Excellency for the gracious Speech which Your Excellency has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."
However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Her Excellency's most senior advisor and servant in Parliament, has publicly proclaimed that he has no intention of meeting one of Her Excellency's expectations. In view of what has occurred, I am surprised that Senator LeBreton, who is Prime Minister Harper's senior representative in this chamber, has not proposed an amendment to the Address in Reply motion to make it clear that, although we thank Her Majesty for her gracious address, we do not agree with her instruction that a parliamentary committee examine the wording of the national anthem. I have never heard of any prime minister anywhere so quickly disassociating himself or herself from the pronouncements of Her Majesty.
Honourable senators, this government is trying to change the way we talk and think about Canada, and is determined to dismantle the social infrastructure that generations of Canadians have built so painstakingly. I wish to quote from Frances Russell's column in the Winnipeg Free Press on January 20, 2010, to show how the Prime Minister is trying to change Canada. She wrote:
On the domestic front, that same social conservative base and the Conservatives' determination to return Canadian federalism to the 1867 British North America Act era are combining to shred what little progress this country has made in creating a pan-Canadian social and educational policy framework.
Since 2006, the Conservatives have either axed or slashed funding for the Canadian Council on Learning, the Status of Women, the Canadian Council of Social Development, the Court Challenges Program, the Canadian Policy Research Networks, the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Volunteer Canada, the Canadian Health Network, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, Family Service Canada and Centres of Excellence, among many others.
The gutting of the Canadian Council on Learning, which was leading the push for national standards for post-secondary education, comes at a time when the Obama administration is launching a massive $250 million education initiative, claiming education is key to America's future prosperity. But the council was never popular with the provincial-rights premiers and it is an affront to the Harper government's belief that all social policy is provincial, if not family-based.
Of course, those organizations were prepared to challenge the government, and this government cannot abide challenges. In 2005, when he was leader of the opposition, Mr. Harper said:
When a government starts trying to cancel dissent, or avoid dissent, is frankly when it is rapidly losing its moral authority to govern."
I could not have expressed it any better.
Honourable senators, I will conclude today as I concluded in reply to the previous Speech from the Throne. We on this side of the chamber will do our best to fulfil our constitutional role as members of an active, thoughtful, dedicated opposition exercising our mandated role of sober second thought. We intend to scrutinize carefully the government's legislative agenda and will propose legislative measures of our own. Where we find fault with bills, we will propose amendments to improve them. If on the other hand we find favour with the government's proposals, we will support them. 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.
There are serious issues facing our nation. I regret that I do not see an equally serious vision presented in the Speech from the Throne. Honourable senators, Canadians deserve better, and we on this side will do what we can to see that they receive it.
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