Hon. Art Eggleton:
Honourable senators, I’m delighted to respond to the Speech from the Throne. It was one of the shortest in history and, I must say, the most progressive in the last number of years.
The new government has laid out a bold vision in its plan for Canada. For those who say there were some items they didn’t see in there, I would draw your attention to the ministerial mandate letters. They are the most extensive and comprehensive in history, and they lay out a significant number of issues that I’m sure would cover the kind of things that some people might be concerned about.
First of all, since this Speech from the Throne, the government has already moved, in fact, to create a new tax bracket for the wealthiest 1 per cent of Canadians and to lower taxes for the middle class.
As we know, Canada is struggling with increased income inequality where the top 1 per cent of income earners are taking 30 per cent of the overall economic growth in the last 30 years, according to the OECD. Not so for the bottom income group, as they saw their income fall in that period of time. For the middle, their earnings are basically stagnant. The new tax bracket is a good step in reversing this trend, but more work needs to be done on the issues of income inequality, wealth inequality and inequality of opportunity.
A good place to start, I would suggest, would be if the government reviews the Income Tax Act. It hasn’t been reviewed in a major way since 1967, and at that time it was reduced to about 300 pages. Now it has managed to grow to over 400 pages, with loads of loopholes and all sorts of other provisions that should be reviewed.
I think this would be a good way to further combat inequality, leading to more fairness in our tax system and sharing of our prosperity, as I hope the economy does grow to that extent in future years.
As we also know, talking about the lower-income people in this country, there is poverty in every region, every city and every town in this country. Over 4 million people are living in poverty, and over 1 million of them are children. In spite of the resolution of the House of Commons to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000, there are still over 1 million children in that category.
Every day people in poverty struggle with the most basic situations in life: how to pay rent, how to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. These kinds of issues also need to be addressed.
I am delighted that the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, has been tasked with creating a poverty reduction strategy.
This chamber and the Social Affairs Committee have done a lot of work with respect to poverty issues. The report In from the Margins, produced a few years ago, helped lay a good foundation that I think should be brought to bear in the further discussions about poverty reduction strategies. Therefore, I think this Senate can certainly help the minister.
Creating this strategy will take a whole-of-government approach, with close consultations with the provinces, with local governments and with those who have lived the poverty experience themselves.
We know there is a substantial overrepresentation in poverty for certain groups: lone parents, mainly mothers; minorities; newcomers; the disabled; and our Aboriginal population.
We also know that having a job is not a panacea to lift someone out of poverty. Many people with many different jobs are still struggling to make ends meets. We also have a broken — and I’m glad this was addressed in the speech — Employment Insurance system where only 40 per cent of the unemployed qualify for benefits; less than half the people paying into it qualify for benefits. It needs examination and overhaul.
Honourable senators, compounding this is the need for affordable housing in Canada. There are millions, again, who are struggling to find affordable housing. By “affordable,” I’m using the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s standard of about 30 per cent of income going to housing that is in adequate and suitable condition. Many are paying much more than that; some are paying 50 per cent or more, which leaves little opportunity for them to acquire other necessities, such as food and clothing. It’s a key reason, for example, why food banks are on the rise.
Then there are 235,000 Canadians who experience homelessness in the course of a year, and 1.6 million more are at risk of losing their homes, according to CMHC. All this misery in this land of wealth, while study after study shows that it’s cheaper for the public purse to house someone than it is to leave them on the street, moving in and out of shelters, emergency hospital rooms and jails, in some cases.
So the new government has said they will develop a strategy to re-establish the federal government’s role in supporting affordable housing. That’s good news, but it will take a lot of commitment and resources to fix and to build new affordable housing.
I know this intimately, as I have this year been chairing a volunteer task force put in place by the new mayor of Toronto to look at Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the largest social housing provider in Canada and second only to the New York Housing Authority on the continent. It’s big. Many buildings run by TCHC are in dire straits, and it’s welcome to know that the federal government is going to get back into helping to develop affordable housing.
Honourable senators, the cost of raising children is onerous for many families, with families in my home city of Toronto paying an average of $1,324 a month for child care. That’s a lot of money. This is a significant financial burden, and the instruments that were put in place by the last government are inadequate to meet it. I’m encouraged that the government will bring in a new Canada child benefit. The proposed benefit not only will give Canadian families more money to raise their kids but also hopefully will contribute to poverty reduction; the government estimates it will lift some 315,000 Canadian children out of poverty, as they promised to do during the election campaign.
Honourable senators, the government has also committed to work with the provinces to develop a new health accord. Here, again, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology did the statutory review of the health accord in 2012. Many of the recommendations in the report called Time for Transformative Change, which was unanimously passed by the committee and this chamber, will find their way into the discussion the new Minister of Health will be leading in terms of attempting to provide for a new health accord with the provinces going forward.
I would add my own hope that pharmacare is finally going to be a part of that. It was also recommended in the report adopted by this chamber.
The result of all of this — this new federal leadership in collaboration with the provinces — will result in a better health care system for all.
Finally, I want to talk about the commitments with respect to the Senate that were made both in the Speech from the Throne and previously by the Prime Minister in his former role as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. They are good moves. I think they will lead to a less partisan, more independent chamber. It isn’t going to be easy getting from here to there, but the appointment of a government leader would only have perpetuated the traditional adversarial system, which is the system that we should be moving away from.
So I applaud their efforts and the fact that there will be a different exercise in the appointment of senators that will allow for some vetting of applications. A different kind of chamber and progress for this institution are most welcome.
Honourable senators, these are a few of the commitments and priorities that have been set out by this government. We must make sure that these commitments are met and that we are of assistance to the government in helping to make these necessary changes for Canadians, because they are what Canadians need and want.
Thank you very much.