What does Canada want now?

An all-party debate tackles the biggest issues of the election

What does Canada  want now?

Photograph BY Cole Garside

Last week in Toronto, Maclean’s and CPAC hosted an all-party debate entitled, “Election 2011: What Does Canada Want Now?” The participants included Jason Kenney of the Conservatives, Liberal David McGuinty, Peggy Nash of the NDP, and the Green party’s Rebecca Harrison. The discussion, which touched on everything from spending and tax cuts to government accountability and the country’s role in the world, was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and featured Maclean’s Andrew Coyne. The following is an edited excerpt.

Andrew Coyne: Let me put this question to David McGuinty. The Liberal party platform contains about $5.5 billion in new spending to provide a variety of social benefits for students, families with elderly dependents, pensioners. It does not, however, spell out a comparable array of spending cuts, just $500 million in unidentified efficiencies. Federal program spending is now in the range of $250 billion. Is there nothing else that you could find to cut from current federal spending?

David McGuinty: Absolutely there is. We’re going to be examining all government spending. We’ve seen an 18 per cent increase in government spending by the Conservatives before the recession hit. It’s the biggest-borrowing, biggest-spending government ever in Canadian history. We’re not confident that the Conservatives’ numbers are adding up right now. Let’s be honest, there’s only been one Conservative government in Canadian history that’s ever taken this country from a deficit position to a surplus position, and that was in 1889. We’re going to be doing a full government review. In the last four years, I think it’s important for Canadians to know, the Conservative government spent $450 million of our tax dollars on advertising, including $27 million for the billboards that we all have the pleasure of seeing on every street corner in this country. All unnecessary spending. We saw the $50-million slush fund used for Tony Clement’s riding up north, while Mr. Kenney’s own ministry cut $53 million for integration and settlement services in Ontario. So there’s all kinds of opportunity to find efficiencies—to work with our public servants—without compromising our cherished public services.

Rebecca Harrison: There are a lot of tax loopholes that happen and create tax havens and we’re dedicated to sealing those up. We’re going to get rid of the boutique tax cuts as well, and corporate subsidies. It’s interesting to note that the Conservative government signed an international agreement to end fossil fuel subsidies. We’ve only seen a small decrease. This is billions of dollars to the most profitable industries in this country. We believe that money can be better spent on Canadians and services for Canadians.

Peggy Nash: We would see our finances coming out of deficit in four years. Budgets are about choices, and one of the choices we would make in a New Democratic government is, of course, not continuing with the fossil fuel industry subsidies and investing in renewable energy. We would help Canadians by improving the Canada Pension Plan. We would, right away—within 100 days—take every senior out of poverty. That’s not something we’re going to wait—like the Conservatives, like the Liberals—until the economy recovers, because seniors today are not recovering, children are not recovering. We would take children out of poverty.

Jason Kenney: Andrew asks an important question. It deserves a serious answer. We propose to get the federal budget back into balance within three fiscal years without raising taxes, which is the key part of this. We do admit that there will have to be some reductions in federal spending. And he’s right to point out—as David did—that we’re spending a lot of money, $250 billion. It shouldn’t be difficult to identify $4 billion of low-priority or inefficient spending in an envelope of a quarter of a trillion dollars. We would do that through a comprehensive strategic review of all departments and programs, but one thing we won’t do is to follow the example of the previous Liberal government, which in part balanced the budget by cutting health care transfers to the provinces by 25 per cent. We will continue to increase health transfers to the provinces by the six per cent that was in the budget we presented last month, and in the fiscal plan in our platform. So we would guard those highest-priority programs without raising taxes, find $4 billion of efficiencies, and get back into the black within three years.

McGuinty: Well, it’s really interesting, because the parliamentary budget officer was a position that we created in Parliament, and the position was filled by the Prime Minister, to keep a watch over our public finances. And on every single occasion this parliamentary budget officer has examined the government’s books, he has said the numbers don’t add up. We’ve been asking now repeatedly for the $11-billion hole to be accounted for by Mr. Harper and his party going forward. We think Canadians have a right to know. I’m hearing from people: they want transparency, and they want to be able to be sure that the numbers actually add up. One of the things I’m hoping to do if I’m re-elected is to bring a bill that would compel the auditor general of Canada to actually conduct an audit of the national books on a go-forward basis before every federal election, whether it’s a minority situation, a majority situation. That would go a long way in making sure we’re all working from the same transparent and reliable numbers, and enhance trust.

Nash: Do we really want to spend multi-billion dollars on F-35 fighter aircraft, or do we want to invest in post-secondary education? I talk to students who have tens of thousands of dollars of student debt—it’s ridiculous—and seniors who are worried about losing their homes because costs are going up. Do we want to go down that path of more fighter jets? Or do we want to go down the path of investing in Canadians? Do we want to make sure that the health care system is there for all of us, and that we’re expanding into home care and long-term care that Canadians need?

Kenney: Well, that’s really a false choice. We can invest in higher education and have a credible armed forces at the same time. With respect to the fighter jet acquisition, this is a program begun by the previous Liberal government in co-operation with several NATO allies. They identified, after investing several hundred million dollars in the process, this particular fighter as the most efficient for our needs. The current CF-18s run out of their useful life in about 10 years’ time. They either have to be replaced or we do what I think the NDP wouldn’t agree with, which is to tell the Americans that they’re going to be in charge of securing our airspace and our coastlines. I don’t think we want to sacrifice Canadian sovereignty, nor do we want to give our men and women in uniform second-class equipment. We want to give them the best equipment possible and that’s why we’re pursuing the Liberal plan to acquire the F-35.

Coyne: Mr. Kenney, after two prorogations, the Afghan documents affair and the unprecedented vote declaring the government in contempt of Parliament, among a long list of other controversies, the criticism is often heard that this government, simply put, does not respect the will of the House of Commons. Now I’m guessing you disagree with that, but let me ask you this. As a former member of the Reform party, do you think there’s a problem institutionally? Does Parliament have the powers it needs to hold government to account, or would you change anything about the current set-up?

Kenney: I’ve always thought that our institutions aren’t perfect, but they’re the best democratic institutions, probably, in terms of durability and in terms of accountability. Yes, they’re imperfect, and yes, we always, from all parties, must strive toward ever-greater democratic reform in our parliamentary system. We’ve been in this peculiar situation in the past five years, or actually, more like 6½ years with the previous Paul Martin Liberal government, of minority governments that have the de jure confidence of the House of Commons, but not necessarily the de facto confidence. I think it’s a challenge for all of us, but fundamentally, you know, I think we’ve done pretty well. We have the longest-serving minority government in Canadian history, for five years. We got a lot of things done. I brought in a fundamental reform of our refugee asylum system and got it through on a unanimous basis in the House of Commons. I’d like to think that’s an example of how we can all work together to get good legislation passed.

Nash: Obviously there are situations where parties can work together. But I think there is a kind of a cynicism that gets bred when parties campaign for greater accountability and then get held in contempt and have less accountability, parties campaign to make life more affordable and then increase taxes with the HST. Frankly, Mr. Kenney, you may want to consider an apology: you campaigned on never having an unelected senator go into the Senate, and now the Senate is stuffed with political appointees, and they’re now campaigning for the Conservatives, and some of them are up on charges.

McGuinty: What Canadians are telling me every day is they want to see 308 parliamentarians working on behalf of 34 million people. I want to illustrate, though, the level of toxicity that’s come into the House in the past five years. In standing committees, 27 are committees where we do our heavy-lifting work, our bread-and-butter work, justice, or transport, or foreign affairs. The government prepared a book for the Conservative chairs of those committees some four years ago. It was a manual on how to obstruct the work of committees. They were basically given techniques to trip up [witnesses], or to hold back their testimony, or to discredit the testimony. That’s not how Canadians expect us to work.

Harrison: It’s funny, there was a question online the other day that says there were three prorogations in the history of parliamentary democracy to avoid political scandal. What countries did they happen in? The answer was Canada, Canada, Canada. And when this contempt issue came up, I thought to myself, “We’re going to have a prorogation for the royal wedding, next.” To be completely honest, this is the government that took the words “duty to act honestly” out of the code of conduct of their cabinet members and civil servants as well. We’re talking about an Accountability Act that has 12 exemptions, blanket exemptions, for hiding documents, exemptions that allow them to hide a document from a whistle-blower for 15 years. We also have an ethics commissioner that reports to the PMO, that reports to the Prime Minister. How are they supposed to tell the Prime Minister, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do”? We need to change that around and they need to report to Parliament.

Kenney: I’m sure that came off the forum at some kind of crazy blog, but the ethics commissioner is actually an officer of Parliament—doesn’t report to the Prime Minister in any respect. The Federal Accountability Act is the most sweeping measure for reform of government and transparency in our modern political history. I don’t know what exemptions you’re talking about. I’m not aware of any change, the oath we take is the same oath that ministers have always taken. I think it’s prescribed in the British North America Act, so I don’t know what she’s talking about.

Harrison: With all due respect.

Kenney: No, I really don’t.

Harrison: I can show you after if you want to stick around.

Kenney: I’m a fairly alert parliamentarian, and I’m sure David would have brought these things to my attention in question period if they were true. In terms of Peggy’s point, though, you know what? I agree about the elected Senate, and we’ve appointed the only senator who has been elected, we’ve asked other provinces to hold Senate elections, we’ve brought a bill to limit Senate terms to eight years, and I hope that other provinces will adopt Senate election legislation so we can start appointing elected senators.

McGuinty: I think there are all kinds of measures we can bring to improve Parliament. I think parliamentarians do want to work together. I think Canadians expect us to work together. For example, why don’t we have face-to-face meetings amongst the leaders of all parties on a regular basis? Why can’t all the leaders get together with the new Speaker of the House and invest in that new leader additional authority, if required, or a certain modicum or standard of behaviour? There are all kinds of ways we have to revisit how we do what we do in Parliament. Canadians are losing confidence and trust. This is of deep concern to us.

Nash: We’re certainly committed to fixing what’s wrong in Ottawa. There’s been a real sense that Ottawa has been focused on scandals and too much with insiders and they haven’t been able to get things done for Canadians.

Coyne: We’ve been talking about accountability of government to Parliament, but there’s also a problem of accountability of the entire political system to the electorate, whether it’s the proliferation of attack ads, the long history of broken promises by politicians on all sides, the hamstringing of MPs’ ability to represent their constituents independent of the party line. Many Canadians have tuned out of politics altogether, which is most visible in declining voter turnouts. What practical steps would your party take to repair Canadians’ trust in their political system?

Harrison: I represent a demographic that only had 37 per cent of us turn out to vote. If we let that go we’re going to have a voting crisis, so something needs to be addressed now. I’m not going to stand up here and pretend to know exactly what type of electoral reform this country needs, but I think Canadians deserve to have all of the information and make a decision for themselves.

McGuinty: We’re proposing a number of measures that we hope will actually enhance democracy and build confidence and trust in the system. I mentioned one, which is the auditor general poring over our books on a regular basis and making sure that the numbers we all work from are accurate so there are no shell games with money, people’s money. Number two, we think there’s all kinds of advantages now for Canadians to be able to offer all kinds of information online. Every grant, every contribution, every contract should be available online. Every access to information request and answer should be available online. Every Order Paper question going in from MPs and answers should be available online. We’re proposing a people’s question period once a week where everyday citizens will be able to ask questions of ministers, once a month of a prime minister. I think those steps would go some distance. The face-to-face leaders’ meetings I proposed earlier, sitting down with the Speaker to get decorum enhanced in the House and in the standing committees. I think we owe that to the Canadian people.

Nash: It does start with the tone of Parliament. But I think it is more than that: I referred earlier to the unelected Senate. But also we would bring in legislation to prevent the prorogation of Parliament by a government that simply is running from a lack of confidence in the House of Commons.

Kenney: Let’s be clear. Had there not been a prorogation in December of 2008, prime minister Dion and, I don’t know, maybe finance minster Layton would be in the government today. That’s something that about 75 per cent of Canadians said they didn’t want. It’s a coalition that people didn’t run on in the last election, they didn’t have a mandate to do it, they tried to force it, and the Prime Minister used that constitutional fire extinguisher to calm things down because Canadians did not want the coalition. So I think in retrospect it was the prudent thing to do.

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