From a Canadian political perspective 2015 has been a big year as Canada now has a new 42nd Parliament with a change in Government, a change in the Official Opposition and a change in the third party. Aside from these obvious changes come new Ministers, a new Speaker in both the House of Commons and the Senate along with roughly 200 newly elected MPs. From a Provincial perspective a number of elections have also resulted in a change in Government and Opposition most notably in Alberta where for the first time an NDP Government is now in power.
Political change is a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy as citizens have the freedom to vote for the elected representatives and Government they feel will do the best job in providing good governance. I was reminded of the significant changes in Federal and Provincial Governments in late December as all Provincial and Territorial Finance Ministers gathered in Ottawa to meet with our new Federal Finance Minister, the Hon. Bill Morneau. Many of the Finance Ministers in attendance at this meeting were relatively new, a point that was well profiled in many media stories.
Unfortunately there was another point that in my view was overlooked by many: of the 14 Finance Ministers at this meeting (Including the Federal Finance Minister & Territorial Ministers) currently only two Ministers are presiding over a balanced budget- British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Ironically both of these Provinces have not recently had a change in Government. I raise this point largely because of the growing number of Governments that are increasing debt and deficits while media attention seems often focused on other subjects. As an example of my concern Ontario is now the largest sub-debtor in the World with a debt of $294 Billion that is more than double that of California, which has a much larger population. Already our newly elected Liberal Government who during the election promised to run “modest deficits” has revised this promise to indicate it was only a goal and not an actual promise in the face of rising deficit spending.
My point in this week’s report is not to revisit the election or single out specific governments but rather to remind citizens that this is our debt that continues to grow and payments on the interest of that debt leaves less capacity for spending on other much needed Government services. As it is often pointed out while we have three levels of Government in Canada, there is only one taxpayer. Democracy allows us to vote in Governments at all levels and one question we should all ponder as we head into 2016 is what fiscal priorities are most important to you. Do not be afraid to reach out to your local councillor, Mayor, area director, MLA or MP to share your views. I am available at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
Before I close I do have one small bit of positive good news to share for Canadian taxpayers. The new 42nd Parliament will be the first where newly elected MPs will no longer qualify for the former gold plated pension plan. MP pensions, much like the Federal public sector pension plan, will move towards 50/50 cost sharing and MPs will no longer be fully eligible until age 65. The combined savings from the changes to the MP and Public Sector pension plans is estimated to be $2.6 Billion over the next five years alone. On that note I would like to wish all citizens a happy and prosperous New Year.
I have always been a strong believer in accountability and transparency. It is for this reason that I have published an annual accountability report that discloses my total public spending, sponsored travel and other details to help ensure citizens can have this information easily available to hold me to account as it is not always easily located online. In fact I believe strongly that wages, benefits and spending of all democratically elected officials should be publicly disclosed and easily accessible. It is for these reasons that in the last Parliament I also voted in favor of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act so that band members could also access similar information for their elected Chief and council.
I raise the First Nations Financial Transparency Act as the Liberal Government has announced that provisions for not complying with the financial transparency act will no longer be enforced, thus in effect neutering the act for those Bands who do not provide fiscal transparency to band members. In my view increased fiscal transparency in first nation’s communities is important and I will provide a few examples on why that it is. In BC some members of the Shuswap First Nation were shocked to discover wages in excess of hundreds of thousands was being paid without the full knowledge of the community. This information was only revealed because of the financial transparency act and ultimately was information that was useful to band members in band elections. It was also the financial transparency act that revealed a First Nations Chief from the Kwikwetlem First Nation received over $914,000 in wages for 2013/2014 fiscal period. Once again this information was not widely known to the majority of the membership in that community prior to the financial transparency act.
Most important is that the two examples I provided were generally exceptions as the vast majority of Chiefs and council earn wages and benefits that are entirely reasonable for what is an increasingly complex and challenging position. The fact that many First Nations communities, estimated to be as high as ninety percent, complied with the legislation is a positive indicator for transparency and accountability so that all band members can be better informed. It is for these reasons that I am disappointed that the Liberal Government has decided to gut this particular legislation, more so as “open government” has been a stated goal of our new Liberal Prime Minister. To date these changes to First Nation’s fiscal transparency have been done through administrative changes and not a vote in the House of Commons. In the event there is a vote I will vote for fiscal accountability that includes ensuring wages and benefits paid to public office holders is publicly available to all citizens including first nations in an open and transparent manner. I welcome your thoughts on this subject.
Before I close I would like to take a moment to wish all citizens a very merry Christmas and happy holidays. It is an honour to be one of the elected representatives for this region and I would like to thank the many citizens who take the time to share questions, concerns and ideas with me on a weekly basis. Your time and feedback is always appreciated. I can be reached at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
This week began with several media headlines from Ottawa suggesting that the Liberal Government was not ruling out a tax increase to the GST to help pay for the rising Liberal deficit spending. It was not long after that I heard from many upset citizens on this subject as a GST increase was not in the Liberal platform. Fortunately our new Finance Minister, the Hon. Bill Morneau has stated through social media that these headlines were misleading and that the Liberal Government is not considering changes to the GST. It may seem unusual for an Opposition MP to help clarify that the new Liberal Government is not pondering a GST increase, however I feel that it is important to do so.
One of the things I discovered as a member of the Government caucus in the last Parliament was that all too often Government policy was reported in an erroneous and sometimes misleading way. In my view miscommunication of government policy not only does a disservice to elected officials, but more importantly the citizens they represent. As an Opposition critic it is my duty to hold Government to account however as a Member of Parliament I believe it also important to communicate Government policy and positions accurately, regardless of the Opposition position. The need to work constructively to try and raise the bar in our electoral governance and its institutions is an important one. While Government is often blamed for cynicism of voters, there is also room for Opposition to take action and that includes addressing misinformation when it occurs. As always I welcome your views on this subject.
Although the House of Commons is currently adjourned until Monday, January 25, 2016, there is still a large amount of events occurring. Throughout Canada including here in our region of British Columbia, the first Syrian Refugee families are now arriving. While the Government has been keen to take credit for much of this work it is also extremely important to recognize that many of the current refugees arriving are privately sponsored. We all at one point or another have faced a new situation whether it was starting at a new school or job and how stressful it can be, particularly if you find the environment less than welcoming. One can only imagine then the stress of leaving one’s home to another country entirely. I would like to personally thank the many individuals and organizations who are working tirelessly together as private sponsors to ensure that our newly arriving Canadian citizens are successfully welcomed and become proud members of our Canadian family.
Also occurring in Ottawa this week is the release of the full report from the Truth and Reconciliation Report that summarizes one of the darkest times in our history as the result of aboriginal children being forced to attend residential schools. While we cannot change our past we can learn from this chapter in history and use this experience to build on a better future. The Government has indicated that they will accept all of the recommendations from this report and work towards implementation. I will report further on this subject when more information becomes available.
Finally this week is the subject of town halls. A number of citizens have suggested they would like to see community town halls where citizens can meet directly with their Member of Parliament to discuss matters of importance and also to pass on comments and concerns. One area I have heard a number of complaints from is citizens who worked during this past election and still have not been paid or encountered other difficulties. While this is just one example there are others that have encouraged me to investigate the idea of hosting a number of community forums throughout our region. My question to citizens is a community forum something you would be willing to attend and are there specific concerns you would like to see addressed or more of an open format? All responses will be treated in confidence. I can be reached via email at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
Since my report from last week, the new Liberal Government has had its throne speech presented and has revealed its priorities for the upcoming legislative session of Parliament. As you may have heard this throne speech was a short one and focussed on five general topics. The first topic related to proposed taxation changes and spending priorities, a subject I will refer to further later in my report as it is also the subject of new legislation.
The second topic of the throne speech relates to government openness including a promise to end our first-past-the-post voting system and also reduced partisanship in the Senate.
The third topic of the throne speech relates to promises such as putting a price on carbon and introducing changes to the environmental assessment process.
The fourth subject area of the throne speech promised new efforts to focus on the relations between government and First Nations, to continue efforts with the resettling of 25,000 Syrian refugees and increased support for the CBC and Radio Canada.
The final subject area of the throne speech was varied and included promises to downsize our military, legalize marijuana, as well as a commitment to continue to pursue trade opportunities and to provide greater support for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The above is a brief summary of some of the key points within the throne speech that was also heavily criticized for being silent on agriculture, efforts to increase jobs and support the economy and also a real concern for British Columbia and our region – no mention of the expired Softwood Lumber agreement. This is a point I have been active on, raising in the House several times already, given the importance of forestry to communities such as Princeton, Merritt and West Kelowna who are home to lumber mills that are significant employers. Having no new arrangement to replace the Softwood Lumber Agreement creates uncertainty, chasing away much desired investment from our economy. Fortunately the BC MPs I have discussed this with on both sides of the House have positively responded and are calling the Government to make this a priority.
Also occurring in the House of Commons this week is the debate on a government bill to change the Income Tax Act, a subject that is generating a fair bit of discussion in Ottawa at the moment. During the election, many will recall that the Liberals promised a revenue neutral middle class tax cut as part of a fully costed Liberal platform. Now it has been revealed that in fact the Liberal math was in error and this tax cut actually creates another deficit of $1-2 Billion annually, possibly more.
The NDP has also raised opposition on the fairness of the Liberal tax cut. For those low income families most in need earning up to $44,700 per year there is, as the NDP points out, no tax cut at all from these proposed Liberal tax changes. In fact, the proposed Liberal tax cut will only apply to income earners in the next tax bracket who earn between $45,000 up to $ 90,000 per year. However the way Canadian taxes are structured, the lower income tax rate on this amount of money earned also applies to those who earn between $90,000 up to $199,000 as the Liberals plan to increase taxes on those who earn over $200,000 per year. In other words a family earning $44,000 per year will receive no income tax cut whereas a family earning $199,000 per year will see a tax cut. As the Liberals have a majority it is expected these tax changes will be passed in time for the next taxation year.
One other change is that the Liberal government will also decrease the maximum contribution limit for a TFSA account after it was just increased to $10,000 annually in the 2015 budget. It is expected that the Liberals will reduce the TFSA deposit maximum back to $5,500 so 2015 may be the only year it is possible to contribute the current limit of $10,000. Also expected this week is an announcement from the Prime Minister on when the first chartered or possibly military aircraft will arrive to Canada with Syrian refugees. If you have comments, questions or concerns I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
This will be the first full week that all Members of Parliament will be back in Ottawa and already a heavy partisan overtone is descending upon Parliament Hill. The issue buzzing around Ottawa at the moment is news reported from the CBC that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is billing taxpayers for the cost of two nannies. As CBC also reported this is in stark contrast to the comments made by Mr. Trudeau prior to the election that wealthy Canadian families did not need universal daycare subsidies. A point that also resonates with many in the NDP as a national daycare program was part of the NDP platform as opposed to a daycare plan solely that benefits the Prime Minister who currently earns $334,000 per year. From my own perspective as a Member of Parliament who is also a father to a family of four I do not believe taxpayers should provide special childcare subsidies to elected officials.
Other news released this week less political in nature is from Statistics Canada confirming that Canada’s GDP grew .6% in the third quarter ending in September. Expressed as an annualized rate this translates to real GDP expansion of 2.3% in the third quarter– a rate that also exceeded real GDP growth in the United States during the same time frame. As many will recall the Liberals were promising multiple deficit budgets on largely on account of inaccurate claims that Canada was in a recession. Will positive GDP growth result in revised Liberal Government deficit spending? Unlikely. Late last week the Trudeau Liberal Government announced a spending commitment of $2.65 Billion over the next 5 years to help other developing countries fight climate change. The list of other countries and how this money will be spent was not revealed however as this announcement was not part of the recent Liberal campaign promises and is not in the current budget it is widely expected that deficit spending will increase.
On the subject of deficit spending this week the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report indicating that the new Liberal Government is not expected to balance the budget in the 2019-2020 fiscal period as is currently promised. According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer the projected deficit in 2019-2020 will be roughly $4.6 Billion and not a surplus of $1.7 Billion as forecast by the Liberal Government. Much of these projections are based on economic growth assumptions and as is always the case of Government there must also be consideration for Government spending increases or decreases. It will be critically important in this next Parliament that we work proactively and constructively on policies that will help encourage economic growth.
As mentioned previously with all Members of Parliament back in Ottawa this will be a very busy few weeks. On Wednesday all caucuses will be meeting as is common practice when the House of Commons is in session and on Thursday our new Speaker will be voted in with a new preferential secret ballot process that will be more timely then the run off process that has been used traditionally. On Friday Canadians will hear the new Liberal Governments throne speech that will outline the commitments and priorities of the new Liberal Government that can be expected in this session of Parliament. On Monday, December 7th, the House will officially resume in what is expected to be a one week session before the Christmas break begins. In next week’s report I will cover the throne speech and whatever bills are put before the House. As always I welcome your comments, questions and concerns. I can be reached at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.