Hon. Art Eggleton (York Centre, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, in addressing the Speech from the Throne I want to focus my time on the new deal for cities, or “new deal for communities” as it is fashioned in the speech.
I have three reasons for doing that. First, my riding of York Centre is located at the geographical centre of Toronto and when I go door to door and visit with my constituents I hear a lot more about high property taxes and complaints about inadequacies in municipal services than I do about federal problems.
Second, I bring a perspective as a former mayor of Toronto for some 11 years, and the issues of the financial squeeze that cities are facing is something that I personally understand.
Third, I am chair of the GTA caucus, which is a caucus of some 40 Liberal members of Parliament who represent a population of almost five million people in an urban situation.
The Speech from the Throne is outlining what I would see as the beginning of an urban strategy, and it is a needed urban strategy. It is something I have advocated for a long period of time. After all, 80% of the people of this country live in urban areas. The engines of our economy are urban areas. They are very important parts of the cultural mosaic of this country, so we need to have an urban strategy, just as we need a rural strategy, for dealing across departments on a horizontal level with the various issues we face.
In this throne speech we see GST relief for municipalities. That is a good thing. It puts money very quickly back into the hands of the municipalities. In my case, in the City of Toronto it is some $52 million. Also important is the fact that some $20 million will go to the benefit of the Toronto Transit Commission, the TTC, which it needs badly to help cover its deficit situation in terms of the provision of public transit.
The GST relief is a measure that has been applauded by municipal leaders. It may not be the opposition applauding, but certainly we have heard from the mayor of Toronto, the mayor of Winnipeg and the mayors of a whole lot of other cities who are unanimously and very vocally in favour of what has been provided in this Speech from the Throne. It was a very specific measure that was announced.
Second, there was the acceleration of infrastructure last year in the budget. We, for the first time, went to a lengthy period of time: 10 years for an infrastructure program. That is good, because what the municipalities want is some predictability. They want to know that over a long period of time they can plan and rely upon that money coming in. It is good that in the infrastructure program we lever provincial money and we lever municipal money. That helps add to the pot to do more to help strengthen our infrastructure and stop the deterioration of our infrastructure in our urban areas.
So now we are talking about accelerating, and we need to accelerate because we need to get more money in subsequent budgets. The infrastructure program, which I was pleased to have been able to start for the federal government when I was minister of the Treasury Board back in 1993-94, I think is a solid program of great need for urban areas right across the country.
Third, the throne speech says that city hall will get a place at the table and I think that is vital as well. There are three orders of government, maybe only two of them officially in the Constitution, but to the citizens out there who are the taxpayers for all three levels of government they are all important and we need to have the perspective of our municipal leaders at the table.
I can remember that back in the mid-1970s when I first became a municipal politician we had things called tri-level meetings, that is, federal-provincial-municipal. Those were great days in terms of dialogue and cooperation. There was even an urban affairs ministry of the federal government. I think we can get back to a table that does have three orders of government planning together. I think we could see agreements between those three orders of government that would help make our cities, our urban areas, more liveable places in continuing to contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of our country.
I think the throne speech is a solid, welcome piece of work.
As next steps, there are other urban issues and other aspects of the new deal that need to be examined. In Toronto, for example, we are in a crisis situation on two big issues, urban transit and affordable housing. In many other urban areas across the country those two issues are significant. However, overall, all municipalities are facing infrastructure problems.
Let me highlight the two problems because I think they are important. We cannot leave these problems to the municipalities. We cannot expect that the GST relief will cover these areas. There is a lot more that needs to be done. We need to be a partner with them. All three levels of government need to be partners in dealing with issues such as urban transit and affordable housing.
The problem of urban transit in Toronto results in the city suffering from gridlock. The board of trade says that we are losing $2 billion a year in our economy because of this gridlock. Part of the answer to that is to get people on public transit. However in the last few years we have been making it more difficult for people to get on public transit. There have been cutbacks in service and in maintenance, and higher fares.
The Toronto Transit Commission receives less government support than any major transit system in the world. It receives 20% support from the provincial government at this point in time. It was getting 50% support and 75% for capital. It receives a lot less but receives some support from the provincial government.
If we were to look at some of the major transit systems in the United States we would see that they get federal support as well. In fact, their total government support far exceeds what ours is, even in other parts of Canada. For example, in Montreal I think we would find 30% or 40% government support versus the 20% support that exists in Toronto.
Therefore the province needs to do more and the federal government needs to do more in terms of urban transit if we are to solve this gridlock problem. We have to solve it if we want to keep our cities viable and keep them as the economic engines of our country. Toronto, like a lot of the other cities, is very important to the coffers of the government as well.
I will now turn to affordable housing. This is a very sad situation. We need a housing strategy in this country. We need a federally led housing strategy with a partnership with the other levels of government as well. We need to deal with the problem of homelessness and the problems that seniors face.
In Toronto we have some 70,000 people on a waiting list for housing geared to income. Those people are being told they will have to wait seven or eight years. That is unacceptable. These are people who are spending 50% or 60% of their income in some cases on rent. They do not have enough money to make ends meet. In fact, they have to go to food banks. We have over 6,000 children who live in homeless shelters. We have seniors, even though there is indexing in their pensions and it is geared to the cost of living, the CPI, whereas rents in Toronto have been increasing twice as fast as that particular rate has. Therefore, they are into a squeeze as well.
I have had seniors in York Centre tell me that they are paying 50%, 60% or more of their income on housing. Again, that is a terrible situation in which to put our seniors. A lot of people are suffering as a result of this housing crisis.
We need a housing strategy. We need to get on with developing affordable housing with the other levels of government and we need to do it now in both of these cases because we are in a crisis situation.
The throne speech clearly says that in the new deal this is a down payment. That is welcome terminology because it means that there is a lot more to be done. I know the Prime Minister and his parliamentary secretary have a long list of things they want to do. We have talked about the gas tax, and that is certainly one item that I think can go a long way toward helping meet the transportation costs in our municipalities, whether it is roads or urban transit. Urban transit, certainly in the greater Toronto area, needs the major amount of focus.
Yes, the throne speech is a good down payment and a good start but there is more to do. I am glad we are heading down the road of an urban strategy. I congratulate the Prime Minister and the cabinet for helping move us in that direction in this throne speech.
Topic: Speech From The Throne
Subtopic: Resumption of Debate on Address in Reply