Hon. John McCallum
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this opposition day motion. The burden of my argument is that the request we are making to the government is so utterly reasonable that any decision by the government not to accede to this request will be seen by all reasonable people to be utterly unreasonable.
It is reasonable because, with regard to this $3 billion fund, all we are asking from the government is that it provide a modicum of accountability to the people of Canada. It could do so at absolutely no cost in terms of any significant resources required and no cost in terms of any delay in getting the money out the door.
It is quite reasonable to ask the government for some transparency and accountability, especially since there would be no delay in terms of spending the money needed to boost the economy.
Let me begin first by explaining what it is we are asking for. The government has asked, through the estimates, to have this special $3 billion fund under the so-called Treasury Board vote 35. These funds would be spendable over the period April to June of this year. Liberals do not have any objection to that in principle because we acknowledge the urgency of getting money out the door. The problem is the government will not tell Canadians what the money is to be spent on.
In the estimates there is the statement that the funds will be used “to supplement other appropriations” as well as to provide for budget initiatives. In other words, as written, it is a blank cheque because the funds can be used for purposes stated in the budget and to supplement other appropriations, in other words, anything under the sun. This is what we deem to be unacceptable. Canadians should be informed as to at least the general nature of these expenditures rather than delivering a blank cheque to the government.
The Liberal request comes in two parts. First, we want the government to provide to Parliament and Canadians a simple list of the programs and departments that will be covered by the $3 billion by April 3. This is hardly an onerous request because I have actually seen such a list in a private briefing received from Treasury Board officials. The list already exists, so I see no reason why the government should hesitate to provide that list to Parliament and to the people of this country.
The second thing we are asking is that the government table after-the-fact reports, and I stress the term after-the-fact reports, on spending projects. This involves no delay because it is after the fact and it involves no significant additional work because all of the work would have been done, in any event, to obtain the Treasury Board approvals. All we are asking is for the government to provide a list of programs and departments, which it already has, there is no cost involved, and an after-the-fact report on spending projects which the government would have in its hands, in any event.
Let me quote some Conservatives who wax eloquent on the subject of accountability and should agree with us in the Liberal Party when all we are demanding is a modicum of accountability.
The then Treasury Board president in 2006 said, “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”.
The same minister in April 2006 said, “Canadians said loudly and clearly that they wanted an open, honest and accountable government. They want their taxpayer dollars spent wisely and well”.
This statement was made in the Conservative Party election platform in 2006:
Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances.
Therefore, when we on the Liberal side ask simply that the government provide a list that it already has as to which departments the $3 billion will be coming from, we are not asking too much. It is entirely consistent with the stated views of the Conservative Party.
I saved my best quote for the end because this is a quote from the Auditor General of Canada on March 23, 2009, which addresses the very issue that is before us today. She stated:
It’s not unreasonable. $3 billion is a fair bit of money and they must have ideas, even in broad strokes, how that money will flow between April and June. I must say that I don’t buy the argument that they can’t tell them something — maybe not the detail of, say, what festival, or how much, but they could at least say where the money is going, whether it’s (to) infrastructure or festivals.
That was stated by the Auditor General of Canada. We are not even asking for festivals and infrastructure. In the list, we are simply asking for the amounts of money by program and department, and an after-the-fact accounting of where that money goes.
Imagine the now Prime Minister in his role as leader of the opposition if the shoe were on the other foot and if a Liberal government were to have the temerity and the lack of accountability to propose a $3 billion blank cheque, or slush fund some might call it, without indicating to Parliament or to Canadians any idea at all of how a putative Liberal government would spend that money. I contend that the Prime Minister would have had an absolute hissy fit at the very notion that such a blank cheque should be delivered to a Liberal government, but now seems to want it delivered to his own government.
The need for accountability is compounded by the fact that the government has shown itself to be untrustworthy. I refer to the information we have had for some time now that in terms of infrastructure projects a disproportionate amount of infrastructure projects ended up in Conservative ridings. An even more egregious case which was reported only yesterday by David Akin of Canwest News that with regard to the program new horizons for seniors, since February 17, distributions of approximately $20,000 per case were made in 33 ridings. It is difficult to believe this is the case, but according to Mr. Akin, of those 33 ridings, 32 were held by Conservatives. I would contend it goes beyond any reasonable statistical probabilities that this was a purely random event; 32 out of 33 is a very high fraction.
I think that the government has only one defence against the proposal we are making today, and that is that the money must go out the door quickly because Canada's economy is in crisis and it is imperative that there be no delays.
On this we are 100% in agreement. It is we who have said for months that the Conservatives' delay in bringing forward a decent budget was delaying infrastructure projects, shovel ready projects, and if they acted earlier many more thousands of Canadians would now be employed.
We rushed this budget through at lightning speed, notwithstanding its inadequacies, because we recognized that the top priority had to be to get the money out the door. We have agreed as well, in terms of us putting the government on probation, that one of the things we will be watching like hawks is whether it does indeed get the money out the door because we all know its record, for example in infrastructure, has been dismal, getting less than 20¢ on the dollar out of the door in terms of every dollar it has announced.
We also know that the Business Development Bank of Canada committed to billions of dollars of much needed business credit lending but has yet to get any money out the door or even to have something that could be described as a plan.
It is the Liberals on this side, as much as anyone on the government's side or any other party, who have been seized with the urgency of fast action to get money out the door, but the point is that the modicum of accountability that we are proposing will not delay this money by one nanosecond.
Let me just repeat that, in case somebody on the other side has missed the point. The first thing we are asking for is a list, which already exists and which I have seen with my own eyes. All the government has to do is produce that list of proposed expenditures by department and by program by April 3, so clearly that will cause no delay. The other thing we are asking for, after the moneys have been approved, is a reporting to Parliament of what those projects are.
The idea that it cannot do this because of the urgency of getting money out the door is an argument that has no foundation whatsoever. To put it differently, the Conservative government should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. It should be able to both provide to Canadians at least a broad explanation of how it proposes to spend taxpayers' money and it should be able to get that money out the door expeditiously.
Canadians should not be asked to choose either accountability or rapid fiscal stimulus. Canadians should be entitled to both. In terms of the specifics of our motion, I have demonstrated very clearly that there is no choice required. There is no trade-off here. It is entirely possible and extremely simple both to get the money out the door quickly and to do so in a reasonably accountable fashion.
My last point is this. What is the reasonable person, the non-partisan person, to conclude if the government says no to this ultra-reasonable request by the Liberal Party of Canada? A reasonable person would have no choice but to conclude that the government must have some ulterior motive because if it is able to provide this accountability at no cost in terms of delay, at no cost in terms of the resources of the public service, then what would be the reason to say no?
I can honestly think of no reason to say no unless the government has some agenda to use this $3 billion for purposes not stated in the budget, for purposes of a Conservative riding-directed strategy of the kind described by David Akin in the case of new horizons for seniors, or of the kind documented by infrastructure expenses.
I conclude by saying to the government that what we have asked of it today is so eminently reasonable, so modest, so appropriate, so costless to do, that if the government refuses to do this, a reasonable person would have no alternative but to conclude that the government has something to hide.
Subtopic: Business of Supply
Sub-subtopic: Opposition Motion--Vote 35 in Main Estimates 2009-10