Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in the debate on the prebudget consultations. I want to share with the House and Canadians the results of a number of prebudget consultations which I held in my riding and also throughout the city of Toronto.
Since being elected in 1997 I have annually held prebudget consultations with individuals, members of not for profit organizations, and representatives from business organizations. This year in my role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, I also held consultations with representatives of the greater Toronto area's artistic and cultural organizations to determine what these organizations need and what our government could do to help artists and arts organizations achieve and maintain greatness in their respective fields in Toronto.
If we can help Toronto's artists and arts communities achieve greatness, because these organizations and artists are integral to the economic and social life of the city of Toronto, then we can create a blueprint to allow all artists and arts organizations to excel in Canada.
In December I held a prebudget consultation meeting at Swansea Town Hall. The notice calling the meeting asked a very basic question especially in light of the announcement on November 16 by the Minister of Finance of a $9 billion surplus for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004. The question was simple. What should the federal government do with any future surpluses?
Along with this general question the following four supplementary questions were asked: First, how should the federal government allocate any future discretionary finances between tax relief, new spending and debt repayment? Second, if taxes are to be cut, which ones should be reduced and to whom should the cuts be directed? Third, if the government is to spend more, which new or existing programs should receive this spending? Fourth, if the federal debt is to be further paid down, how much should it be reduced versus spending more and/or taxing less?
Prior to entertaining budget suggestions from the floor, we also presented and reviewed a federal budget history chart. It summarized revenues, expenses, international debt payment and any surplus or deficit from the fiscal year 1993-94 to and including the fiscal year 2003-04. We also reviewed a chart summarizing federal debt history from 1993-94 to 2003-04 and reviewed recent major initiatives regarding taxes and debt, as well as the government's recent major initiatives regarding spending.
My constituency office prepared these summaries. I would be more than pleased to share them with members on all sides of the House.
At our meeting there were a number of budget items that received overwhelming consensus. I am sure this will be hard for members of the official opposition to believe but no one at that meeting called for immediate tax cuts. On the other hand there was widespread agreement that the government should continue to pay down the debt but to do so gradually, however, not at the expense of the social programs that are integral to our values as Canadians.
A number of constituents also suggested that perhaps it was time for the federal government to put in place some type of mechanism which could more accurately anticipate surpluses prior to the year end. Initially Canadians could understand that budgeting very conservatively led to huge surpluses and currently these huge surpluses were immediately applied to the debt when in fact if the proper budgeting had been done, these moneys could have been spent on programs or tax cuts during the fiscal year.
There is also a very important thing which I learned a number of years ago which I would like to share with the House. It is something which was told to me by a constituent during prebudget consultations a number of years ago and which it is important for all of us in the House to keep in mind during the budget process. A constituent wrote and reminded me that in deciding on budget priorities, one must never forget that the fiscal choices we make reflect the kind of society we want.
In terms of spending initiatives, certainly in my riding in the city of Toronto there was unequivocal support for additional funding for cities and also for communities. The need for an immediate investment in public transport was paramount not only in terms of the TTC in Toronto, but also in terms of the GO train, the train that connects the greater Toronto area to the city of Toronto. My constituents were unequivocally clear that they did not want money spent or wasted on the Front Street extension, which abuts my riding and which would cause major chaos in my community.
The second most important priority in my riding was the need for housing. Notwithstanding the successful federal-municipal partnership of the supporting communities partnership initiative, or SCPI program, an excellent program in the city of Toronto to address homelessness, I regret to say that homelessness continues to be a problem. There is also a need for more low income housing in Toronto. It was highly recommended that any such initiative emphasized green affordable housing, which is a project being considered in the part of my riding known as Parkdale.
The next priority in my riding and in the city of Toronto is immigration which, as hon. members all know, is an integral part of Toronto's landscape. It desperately requires additional funding. It was recommended that additional funds be allocated for resettlement purposes. Language training programs should be enhanced. The government should and must set aside funding to assist newcomers in obtaining professional accreditation.
Money for youth programs was also considered a priority. Programs for retraining should be enhanced. The cost of post-secondary education continues to need to be addressed, along with the continuing problem of escalating student debt. We cannot forget our young people when we look at our priorities and when we look at our needs as a nation.
Last but not least, and I am sure hon. members will not be surprised to hear this, enhancement of funding for the arts was also noted. One cannot overlook the importance of the arts, especially in terms of the cities' and the communities' agenda. Our artists and cultural organizations play a key role in the economic and social well-being of our cities and communities. The arts are the essence and the vibrancy of our communities and cities.
At this point and before going on to share with the House a number of the priorities of the arts and culture sector, I would like to take this opportunity to commend and to thank the chair of the Standing Committee on Finance, the member for Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, and the other members of the standing committee, including my colleague from the greater Toronto area, the member for Beaches—East York, for their report and recommendations on culture. I believe that this is the first time since I was first elected in 1997 that culture received more than just a passing mention.
There are seven pages on the cultural sector in the finance committee report. I did look at the dissenting opinions and I cannot say that anyone dissented or disagreed with investment in the arts. I believe it was the Bloc which encouraged that while some of the recommendations with respect to culture were very good, a key item had been left off, and that I believe was the GST on books. In a minority government, I take that actually as a round of applause and unanimous support for Canada's cultural sector. I have to tell the finance committee how proud I was when I read that report.
I would like to read out loud to Canadians and members of the House who may not be familiar with the specific recommendation. Recommendation 11 reads as follows:
That the federal government provide stable, long term funding to the following elements of federal support for arts and culture: the Tomorrow Starts Today program; the Canada Council for the Arts; Telefilm Canada; the Museums Assistance Program; the Community Access Program; the Canadian Television Fund and initiatives designed to promote Canadian culture internationally.
Moreover, the government should increase funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio-Canada.
As well, the government should allocate funds to build capacity and assist archives with respect to archival content.
Finally, the government should increase the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit to 30%.
I cannot help but note that I am actually watching the vice-chair of the heritage committee who is listening quite attentively. The vice-chair sat on the previous Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage when we drew up what has come to be known as the Lincoln report, entitled “Our Cultural Sovereignty”. Some of the recommendations that are found in the finance committee's report were actually in our standing committee's report, so it looks like we are actually listening.
I would like to take this opportunity to urge my colleagues in the House to also urge the finance minister to implement in its entirety recommendation 11 of the Standing Committee on Finance.
As I stated at the beginning, I held a number of consultations with various arts groups in the city of Toronto and the greater Toronto area last year. They reconfirmed that a revitalized arts and culture sector is integral to the success of ensuring that Canada's cities and communities are safe, prosperous and stimulating places to work.
We all now know the work of Richard Florida, the urbanist. We seem to quote him again and again. Ever since Richard Florida wrote about it, we know how important the arts are to our communities, to attracting people and citizens to our communities. It has been a long time coming that we finally sat and listened to this.
It is important to note that not just Richard Florida, who is a U.S. author and urbanist, wrote about this but even our Federation of Canadian Municipalities has recognized how important the arts and culture sector is to our Canadian cities and communities. There is not a magazine that we can pick up that the FCM has distributed where arts and culture is not front and centre. The FCM has a subcommittee which deals in particular with how we enhance the arts and culture sector not just within our large cities but also in our communities.
I would like to share with members some of the comments and recommendations that I received from some of the larger arts organizations that participated, including the Stratford and Shaw festivals. One meeting I held was with the larger cultural institutions. When I say larger cultural institutions I do not mean just the Toronto based ones but the large Canadian based cultural institutions. There is no doubt that in Canada they are seen as jewels in the crown but unfortunately they lack stable adequate funding. This is a constant threat to their continuing excellence.
What is interesting to note is that they pointed out to me that they are not asking for new funding models or new funding programs, because those are not necessarily the best solutions. We need to look at the enhancement of existing programs that work, more specifically, Tomorrow Starts Today.
I just spoke about the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. At its last annual meeting a resolution was brought forward by cities either in Alberta or British Columbia to urge the federal government to renew the Tomorrow Starts Today program. For those who may not be familiar with it, the Tomorrow Starts Today program was announced by the government in May 2001. The government provided a brand new total of $560 million, which is the largest reinvestment in the arts in Canada in the last 40 years.
There were various envelopes to that program, including the culture capitals program, the arts presentation program, an endowment program, Canada culture online, additional moneys to the book publishing industry and, very importantly, additional moneys for the Canada Council.
The Canada Council came up during our discussions as well. It was felt that one way to support all of our arts and cultural sectors across Canada was to perhaps refocus the priorities of the Canada Council. We also duly noted, as we all should in this House, that the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council is coming up in 2007. In fact, this could be used as a springboard for new funding and new programs.
There is no reason to recreate the wheel. What we should do is build on our successes and build on the excellence and build on what we know in Canada. This works not just in the large urban areas but also in all of our communities.
Another important issue that was brought up was the importance of touring. Again, financial constraints preclude the major organizations from active touring, both nationally and abroad. Touring was seen by most participants as essential to showcasing the best of Canadian culture, attracting new audiences and providing new fora for our performers and creators. I personally would like to add that it is a wonderful way of ensuring Canada's place in the world as one of pride and one of influence.
It has recently come to my attention that the arts promotion program under the Department of Foreign Affairs is being scheduled for a 35% cut in funding in March 2005.
According to Martin Bragg, the artistic producer of CanStage, one of the country's largest performing arts companies and a company that is a beneficiary of this program to tour its production of The Overcoat, notes that there will be severe consequences and the impact of this cut will have a terrible effect on the arts and cultural sector.
In his letter, Mr. Bragg states the following:
The Arts Promotion Program has been the primary source of finance assistance from the Canadian government for the promotion of Canadian culture, both nationally and internationally.
This proposed cutback would drastically reduce the trade and commerce of Canadian culture around the world by over 50%. Currently, almost half of all applicants to the program are declined funding. The cutback would increase that percentage to 85% for all applicants in the performing arts.
He then goes on to note:
As it stands, the funding available through the Arts Promotion Program is not enough. When set against our G-8 counterparts who annually commit over one billion dollars per year, Canada's contribution to the international arts promotion is extremely humble. This funding must be increased, not cut, if Canada is to strengthen our presence in the international markets through the development of cultural partnerships, the fostering of cross-cultural exchanges with emerging markets (i.e. China, Brazil, India) and the initiation of Canada-U.S. culture diplomacy programs, among other efforts.
Another recommendation the finance committee made with respect to culture and an important fund for our television and film sectors, and one which I strongly support and I know members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage have supported, is to provide stable, long term funding to the Canadian television fund, the CTF, one of our great success stories.
Just last week I received a letter from Michael MacMillan who is the chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis which makes the social economic case for establishing the CTF as a permanent fixture and to maintain funding at the current level of $100 million per year.
As I am running out of time I would like to make my last submission from a cultural, economic and social argument as to why this fund is as important as the other programs that support our arts are important.
Mr. MacMillan writes:
While Canadians are wholeheartedly aware of the many choices faced by your government in delivering a fiscally prudent budget, we believe it is important to consider the CTF funding in the context of its benefits to an economically and culturally vibrant Canadian industry. Of the $3 billion that the government spends annually on culture each year, this sector directly contributes $27 billion to our gross domestic product. Since 1996, the CTF has provided $1.7 billion in funding towards the creation of 18,000 hours of programming in English, French and Aboriginal languages. The total value of these productions is currently estimated at $6 billion. As these numbers illustrate, the CTF is a major contributor to the ongoing vitality of the Canadian broadcasting sector.
I know I have run out of time but perhaps we can continue this discussion another time. I hope members on the opposite side will support me in these recommendations.