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PM's Speech in reply to the Speech from the Throne (SFT)

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Mr. Speaker, let me congratulate the Member for Davenport and the Member for Gatineau, the mover and the seconder of the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

I want to begin today by expressing my appreciation, on behalf of all Parliamentarians and indeed all Canadians, to those members who have not returned with us. We thank them for their service to their constituents and to their country.

I want also to offer a special welcome to all the incoming members of Parliament, the strong new voices that will sound in this place. We have been entrusted by the people to serve them, to represent them, to debate here and vote on their behalf. I say to you today: Let's make them proud.

I consider it a tribute to the diverse, multicultural nature of Canada that 34 members who sit in this House were not born in this nation but chose Canada and came to live here from a total of 20 countries. Our Parliament is richer for their presence.

Mr. Speaker, the work of the 38th Parliament has begun. The elected representatives of this great land have again gathered in this chamber, where Lester Pearson announced the creation of Medicare, where John Diefenbaker rose on Dominion Day to introduce a Bill of Rights, where Tommy Douglas told us it was not too late to build a better world.

As we stand and speak here today, as we engage in this ceremony of renewal, we are adhering to a tradition older than our country itself. On this day, Parliament is at the centre of the national conversation. It must remain there.

The achievements we forge in this place and in our nation will not be those of one person or one party. We act here and speak here on behalf of the people of Canada, almost 32 million strong. Our accomplishments, our triumphs and so too our failings will become part of the collective legacy of our time.

What are we as Canadians to pass on to those who one day will work where we do and live where we do? What kind of Canada will it be? Will we honour the sacrifices of the past by handing over an even better country for the future?

If our answer is to be yes, and the answer must be yes, then we in this minority Parliament have a critical role to play in building a 21st century economy, in protecting and strengthening our social foundations and in securing for Canada a role of pride and influence in the world.

I know a lot of people are wondering, in this chamber and across the country, if we can make this Parliament work for Canadians. If we can make co-operation not just rhetoric but reality.

In this House, we feel strongly about our beliefs, and we express them with vigour. This is a place of passion and partisanship. That will not change,  nor should it.

But in a minority Commons, we all have a responsibility to make Parliament work for the people. And we will fulfill that responsibility -- if we embrace and build on the democratic reforms initiated during the last session, if we are prepared to allow the partisan to give way to progress.

Mr. Speaker, the Governor-General spoke yesterday to the values we share across this country. She also spoke to this government's commitment to uniting Canadians in common purpose and building a better future for all.

As we pursue these goals, let us understand that nothing we want to do in our country, nothing we want to help do in the world, can be accomplished if we again allow ourselves to be caught up in the vicious circle of fiscal irresponsibility.

Keeping the budget in balance is about providing opportunity for Canadians. It's about government doing all it can to create the conditions for Canadians to prosper.

I am part of a generation that for decades borrowed against tomorrow to pay for the needs and desires of its day. For 27 consecutive years our national government was unwilling or unable to make ends meet. The result was an ever-rising national debt and an underachieving economy. For Canadians, it grew harder to find and keep a job, harder to afford a house, more difficult to pay the bills.

We were caught in a trap of our own making – a vicious circle in which our chronic deficits contributed to economic lethargy, which in turn contributed to even higher deficits, and then to greater malaise.

We could not let that stand. We did not let that stand.

Ten years ago, we stamped an expiry date on the federal deficit. We said we would eliminate it, and we did. And as the budget returned to balance, as Canadians began to grow more secure in the finances of their nation, the economy, too, began to thrive. Today, interest rates are low. Inflation is low. The rate of unemployment is almost 40 per cent lower than it was a decade ago.

Our growth in living standards: first among the countries of the G-7.

Our job growth: fastest among the countries of the G-7.

Our budgetary surplus: alone among the countries of the G-7.

There is today a new confidence among Canadians. We are focused on possibility. We are ready to compete, to excel, to showcase what we have to offer.

The vicious circle has been shattered. Canadians now enjoy the benefits of the virtuous circle. Our balanced budget helps foster a strong economy, which in turn increases business and consumer confidence, which further fortifies our economic success.

The virtuous circle enables us to lower taxes in an equitable way and to invest in social programs. We will continue in this vein. But we must remember that the virtuous circle is not a birthright. To protect the collective future of Canadians, we will continue to budget a contingency reserve – a practice that has kept us out of deficit even as many other countries have returned. We will provide transparent, accountable management, treating every tax dollar with respect. And we will continue to bring down our national debt -- to 25 per cent of our GDP within the next decade.

We will do this not to thrill the economists of the world but to ensure that future generations of Canadians have even greater freedom to make their own decisions.

To that same end, we will as a government work to ensure Canada and Canadians remain competitive in the global economy. We will help workers to upgrade their skills and provide small business with venture capital. We will make it easier for new immigrants to quickly find their way into the work force. We will introduce the Learning Bond, to better enable low-income families to save for post-secondary education. And we will continue our government's successful efforts to fund innovation and research and development, so that Canada is on the cutting edge of new technologies.

For that reason, Mr. Speaker, I am announcing today that the government of Canada will mandate the Canadian Academies of Science. We seek to create a national alliance of leading scientific and engineering societies, one that will operate at arm's length from government and receive operational funding of $35-million over the next 10 years.

The new Academies of Science will be a source of expert advice on scientific aspects of important domestic and international issues, and will give our country a prestigious voice among the choir of international science groups.

Mr. Speaker, Canada has had two Speeches From the Throne this year. It has had an election campaign. Canadians know what this government stands for and what we have pledged to accomplish for them: on health care, on Aboriginal issues, on early learning and child care, on cities and communities, the environment, and the international stage. Our focus is now exclusively on the work ahead.

We began in the summer by addressing the top priority of Canadians and working with the provinces and territories to secure a 10-year agreement for better health care.

The accord will kickstart a reduction in waiting times for key medical procedures, such as heart and cancer care, hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and diagnostic imaging. It also mandates robust reporting requirements – requirements that include science-based benchmarks and targets that will be made public, driving change, enhancing accountability to Canadians and shifting the focus to the needs of the patient. It will improve access to health care professionals, launch the expansion of home care and pharmacare, and address the unique health needs of Aboriginal Canadians and the far north.

The health accord sets out common objectives, but recognizes the different needs and circumstances that exist among the provinces and territories. By recognizing these, by pursuing an asymmetric approach, we find strength in our diversity.

This 10-year agreement will initiate tangible change. It was signed by all the first ministers. And it enjoys the support of health care stakeholders across the country.

Over the next decade, the federal contribution to health care will increase by $41-billion. That is a lot of money, but we believe as a government that our investment must be sufficient to bolster Medicare and bring real reform to the number one priority of the people who sent us to serve here.

Furthermore, I set out during the First Ministers' Meeting a proposal to address the concerns of premiers about the funding and predictability of Equalization and Territorial Formula Financing – programs whose volatility make it difficult for provinces and territories to plan and budget for health, education and other public priorities.

On October 26th, I will meet with the first ministers to put in place some of the most meaningful reforms to Equalization since it was introduced almost 50 years ago. Reforms that will lead to improved public services for Canadians.

In essence, what will happen is that the federal government will make the most of its sound management and fiscal health and take on the challenge of assuming more of the risk in managing the country's swings in economic fortune.

Mr. Speaker, prior to our meeting on health care, the premiers and I sat down with Aboriginal leaders and agreed to work together to develop a blueprint to improve the health status of Aboriginals. The government of Canada announced a new investment of $700-million -- money that will be used for health promotion, disease prevention and better health results for Aboriginals.

Better health is just part of what's required to ensure that for Aboriginal Canadians, the future is more likely to be one of prosperity than poverty. Our government will continue to focus on the areas that hold the most promise to improve living conditions: lifelong learning, better and more affordable housing, good jobs and clean water. We will continue to ensure –step by step, day by day – that the gaps in life chances between Aboriginals and other Canadians are reduced. We look forward to a second meeting of Aboriginal leaders and First Ministers to pursue agreement on a comprehensive agenda of action for the benefit of all Aboriginal people.

Mr. Speaker, during the election campaign, we talked often to Canadians about the need for a New Deal for our cities and communities, the places where we live and work and raise our families, where our cultural industries thrive, where new Canadians enrich our perspective, the places where national policies touch individual lives.

This is an issue that needed to be brought to the national table. Canada's communities, large and urban, rural and small, face very different challenges and require very different solutions. But both are key if we are to achieve our social goals and ensure our economic competitiveness. And both are facing enormous financial pressures.

They're having trouble finding the money they need to build good roads, to maintain clean parks, to provide better transit. They're struggling with the challenge of coming to grips with the need for affordable housing. Our government understands this. And we're doing something about it.

Our New Deal for Cities and Communities is about making the lives of Canadians better by making the places they live better. It began in our first budget with a rebate for municipalities on the GST – which translates into a federal investment in communities of some $7-billion over 10 years. It will continue this fall as we work with provinces, cities and communities on the mechanism and ramp-up for our transfer of a portion of the gas tax – which will mean an additional federal investment of $2-billion a year when fully implemented.

Understand, Mr. Speaker, that the GST rebate and the gas tax transfer amount to a permanent source of new revenue for municipalities. Our goal is to ensure these funds are predictable and reliable enough for every community, should it wish, to go to a financial market and use this ongoing federal contribution of new money to access funds more immediately. The choice and the freedom will be theirs.

We will also be working with the other orders of government on infrastructure and regional development. We are committed to strengthening our regional resource economies – to ensuring our resource sectors benefit from modern technologies, to building on our core strengths in agriculture, fishing and the range of our natural resources. Because we believe that Canada is strongest when all its parts are strong.

Let me speak here of a region of particular challenge and of remarkable opportunity: our Far North. As a young man, I worked on a tug barge, riding the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea. Like anyone who spends time in the North, I was enthralled by the majesty of the land, by the very idea of its vastness. I touched the Beaufort again this summer while spending several days in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon. I spoke with elders and walked out on the tundra. In Whitehorse, I was presented with a gumball by an 8-year-old boy whose uncle had as a child presented a gumball to Pierre Trudeau. I didn't know whether to turn it over to the National Archives or eat it.

The North is a land of mythic grandeur – of mountains rising through the clouds, of valleys carved deep by glaciers, of icebergs shaped by wind and wave. But it is also a part of the world that is on the ecological front lines, a fragile place where we can see the unsettling effects of pollution and global warming.

The modern North retains the echo of the ancient, but it is a place of great promise for the future. As a government, we will work with the territories and Aboriginal groups to further develop the economy of the North -- and we will do so in a way that sustains the environment and benefits the people.

The government of Canada is committed to supporting science and research in the North, both on our own and in collaboration with our circumpolar partners. And let there be no doubt: we will protect our sovereignty in the Arctic.

As we look more broadly to the future, Mr. Speaker, we understand that our success and our quality of life are increasingly tied to our relationship with our environment. The decisions we make now have profound implications for the future. For instance, we need to align our policies and incentives to advance Canada to a position of leadership in the fields of renewable energy, efficiency and conservation.

Environmental stewardship reflects a key element of our heritage. It is both a shared value and a fundamental imperative. For it is vital not only to our health and well-being but to our economy and our competitiveness. Vital to the ability of our cities to attract talent and investment.

That is why, for instance, the Kyoto accord on climate change – a treaty that is now more significant because of the Russian decision to ratify – is important for Canada. And that is why we will devote a significant portion of the net proceeds from our sale of Petro-Canada, at least $1-billion, to support, develop and commercialize new environmental technologies – technologies that will help not only Canada but other nations achieve a healthier environment.

Mr. Speaker, during the campaign we spoke to Canadians of our plan to create a nationwide program of early learning and child care – a high-quality system, open and available to all, affordable and geared to development.

This represents a major initiative. It is going to take some time. But it is worth the effort and it is worth the investment because of the potential benefits – to our economy, yes, but most importantly to the lives and the future of our youngest Canadians.

Let me say: One of the accomplishments of the Liberal government of which I am most proud is the introduction in 1997 of the Canada Child Tax Benefit. That too was a government program that started small. But look how it has grown. Look how it has made a difference in the lives of families and children. By 2007, the government's annual contribution through the credit will be more than $10-billion – money that directly helps the children who need it most.

Our plan for early learning and child care will follow that pattern. Once established, it will grow, helping more families, teaching more children.

Because the program will be focused on early learning and development, it will help children be ready to learn when they start school. It will give them a tangible head start and set them on the path to lifelong achievement.

Because the program will be open to all, it will level the playing field for children who are disadvantaged by birth or background.

Because the program will be affordable and high-quality, parents who choose to participate more fully in the paid work force will be able to do so with the comfort and security of knowing their children are in a nurturing, stimulating environment.

We are dedicated to working with our provincial and territorial partners to make this program a reality. We are dedicated because we believe that a strong, Canada-wide program of early learning and care for our children is the single best investment we can make in their future and in ours.

It is my belief that like those who were in this place at the creation of Medicare, and who decades later look back with such pride at that defining moment in Canadian social policy, so too will members of this House recall the forging of this important social achievement.

Mr. Speaker, government cannot do everything, nor should it try. Let us understand that when we face challenges as a society we prevail because citizens in every part of the country take responsibility and take action. We see this in the flourishing volunteer sector. In the expanding and exciting social economy where Canadians young and old are joining together in new forms of public enterprise to fight poverty and promote social responsibility.

It is in this spirit, Mr. Speaker, that we will work with the provinces, the territories and stakeholder groups to increase support for family caregivers – Canadian women and men of dedicated volunteerism, who have made the choice to care for aged relatives or adult relatives with disabilities.

And that is why we will increase payments to seniors under the Guaranteed Income Supplement -- to reflect the fact that wages are growing at a rate greater than inflation, to ensure our least wealthy seniors are able to live better and with dignity.

Mr. Speaker, in our current age, the changes to the world's economic, security and political landscapes are increasingly seismic, the global faultlines more unstable and numerous. We see it in the headlines of our day. We feel the anxiety of a world on edge.

As Canadians, we must be active beyond our borders to protect our values and our interests – security in the face of terrorism, the increasing threat of nuclear proliferation and our trading relationships with the United States, Mexico, and throughout the world.

In all that we do, it will be Canadian interests that will prevail – and that will be the case with Ballistic Missile Defence. And. as we've said before, that's why we will have a debate in the House prior to a government decision.

But we must also seek to advance the concerns of embattled peoples who seek freedom, stability, democracy and above all, a better life.

Canada has answered the call in the international fight against AIDS, leading the way in efforts to combat the disease in the developing world. Canada has answered the call in Afghanistan. Canada has answered the call in Haiti. Brave members of our military and police are helping to secure the peace and build the institutions that are crucial to thriving states.

We as a government will expand Canada's ability to play this kind of essential role by increasing by 8,000 personnel the Canadian Forces and the Reserves. And we will continue to urge the world to act collectively on the basis of our common humanity.

Specifically, we will speak out for reform of the United Nations. We will speak out for the establishment of guidelines to enable the international community to intervene more swiftly and effectively inside sovereign states that perpetrate or fail to stop massive human suffering, such as the ongoing tragedy in Darfur.

During the late 1990s, at meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, Canada took an important lead in working to reduce the debts of the world's poorest nations. Many of these are in Africa, and we will continue to help them. At the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Prime Minister Chretien urged the world's richest governments to focus compassionately on the needs of Africa and its people. We will continue this work.

We stand ready to build on both our commitment to Africa and our tradition of peacekeeping. I am proud to be able to tell this House that we are offering to train African military specialists how best to secure and preserve the peace, so that they in turn can build and train an effective homegrown force that is attuned to the cultural, geographic and historic realities of conflicts on that continent.

There are so many instruments of war in our world. Let Canada continue to be an instrument of peace.

Mr. Speaker, our priorities as a government serve our goals as a nation: prosperity, opportunity and security for the Canada of now, for the Canada to come. A system of early support so kids get the best possible start in life. Vibrant cities and communities that are great places to live. And better health care so Canadians have the confidence that the system will be there whenever and wherever they may need it.

These are the issues that today rank among the highest priorities of Canadians. And they fall within areas where the provinces and territories have frontline responsibilities and are accountable to their own citizens. As a government, we have no desire and no intention of infringing in these domains. But neither do we believe that Canadians want the federal government to be absent on the issues that matter most to us collectively.

Mr. Speaker, there is nothing we cannot achieve if we come together in common purpose – if a strong national government articulates and defends our shared interests, and each of us rallies to national objectives.

When the first ministers met in Ottawa to discuss health care, we found common ground in the needs and the desires of Canadians. The people around that table stood up for Medicare, stood up for our country and signed their names to a deal for better health care, a deal for a decade.

When the government of Canada brings together its 13 territorial and provincial partners, when it agrees with them on a 10-year plan that will mean shorter waiting times and improved access to health professionals – that is a testament to the strength of our federation.

Canada is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. True national leadership recognizes the diversity among our provinces and embraces it as an asset, a source of creativity and innovation. But at the same time, true national leadership is about naming a destination down the road and helping to forge the national will and consensus to ensure we get there together.

You see the importance of national will in the health deal. Because of our agreement, there will be greater accountability. Data on waiting times will be published. Benchmarks and targets will be set, marking progress, unlocking and unleashing ingenuity.

You see the importance of national will in defining Canada's place in the world. More than ever, our prosperity and security -- the quality of life in our communities and the strength of our families -- depends on our ability to access markets, to compete with determination and resourcefulness, to attract talent and investment, to build multilateral approaches to peace, security, human rights and environmental stewardship.

And you see the importance of national will in protecting the values that define and inspire us.

Let us understand that within our Charter of Rights are enshrined our basic freedoms – and we as a nation of minorities must never allow these fundamental rights to be compromised if we are to protect our national character and our individual freedom.

And let us understand that the pride we take in our diversity, our linguistic duality and our rich multicultural society, the satisfaction with which we present ourselves to the world as a country of inclusion, will ultimately erode and be lost if we are not vigilant, if we do not vigorously combat racism and exclusion, if we do not together stare into the face of hate and declare: This is not our Canada.

In conclusion today, Mr. Speaker, let me say: On June 28, each of us earned the privilege of a seat in this chamber and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Canadians and the life of Canada. The message of the election is clear: Canadians want us to do better as a government. We have heard that message and we carry it with us. The demand going forward is equally clear: Our government and all parties must make this minority Parliament work for Canadians.

For me, the election campaign ended with a 24-hour sprint across Canada and back – a race to the finish that started in Halifax and ended in Montreal, with eight stops, two oceans, 10,000 kilometres and about 30 cups of coffee in between.

We started in the early morning. We crossed Nova Scotia by bus. We boarded our campaign plane and stopped in Gatineau. We touched down in Toronto and Winnipeg. As darkness fell, we went on to Vancouver. We had dinner at midnight.

As we flew back east, the plane was silent for the first time in 36 days. Yes, Mr. Speaker, even the media had finally succumbed. We arrived in a beautiful summer dawn in Montreal. I had a chance in the quiet hours of that morning to reflect on all I had seen and heard during the five weeks of the campaign, during my seven months as prime minister, during my 16 years as a member of Parliament.

And I remember thinking: What an incredible country this is. What a vast and diverse and magnificent land. And how privileged we all are to live here, to feel our bold national spirit, to contribute to our nation's rise to excellence. That feeling never left me, not during the long night of election returns, not in the weeks that followed. That feeling has never left me.

Our goal in this Parliament, in all our pursuits, must be to ensure that future generations of Canadians have every reason to feel the same way about their country. To feel the way we do. To experience that surge of pride, that jolt of confidence, that intangible but unmistakable feeling that we are all part of something special.

The work of building an even better country begins today. Let's get to it.