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E-mail interview

What the Liberals want

MP Scott Brison on what specific measures his party would like to see in the federal budget, and the challenges of opposition during a recession

Globe and Mail Update

Adam Radwanski, globeandmail.com: Thanks, Scott, for again taking the time to answer a few questions. You've been travelling the country on a "listening tour" with Mr. Ignatieff in advance of next week's budget. What's been the prevailing message you've heard from Canadians?

Scott Brison, Liberal Finance critic: Canadians want a budget that address three core priorities: one, protects the vulnerable; two, helps protect Canadian jobs today; and three, helps create the jobs of tomorrow.

A consistent issue in every region has been the credit crunch. Business people, particularly small-business people, are telling us that the increased cost of capital and the decreased access to capital could push their businesses over the edge during this downturn. These business people are confident of their capacity to survive this downturn and protect Canadian jobs if they get access to the credit they need. The Harper government has been slow to act and largely ineffectual on this issue. Among other things, the Canada Small Business Financing (CSBF) Act (previously the Small Business Loans Act) can be reformed, modernized and strengthened to help backstop bank lending to small businesses at this critical time.

We also hear that Canadians don't want us to waste taxpayers' dollars with ineffective short-term gimmicks that do not help build a more competitive, productive, and eco-efficient economy in the long-term. Canadians clearly want to avoid a long-term, permanent structural deficit that lingers long after this economy recovers.

Finally, a consistent theme we are hearing is the need to invest in training, re-training, and life-long learning now and in the future.

Adam Radwanski: You mention the need to avoid a structural deficit. What are some ways in this budget to prevent it from spiralling out of control? Should the government be presenting a plan to get us back out of deficit within a specific period?

Scott Brison: The government has a responsibility to provide a clear plan, or exit strategy, from short-term deficits that is realistic and achievable. This is one of our greatest concerns with the Harper government. Its big spending increases and bad tax policy have led us to a deficit position even before any stimulus measure is adopted in the coming budget. In other words, the Harper government spent the cupboard bare during the good times, limiting its capacity to help vulnerable Canadians today during the tough times.

I think every measure in this budget ought to be judged on the three principles Michael Ignatieff has espoused: protect the vulnerable; create jobs today; and create the jobs of tomorrow. In terms of the third category, where possible, measures ought to strengthen Canada's long-term competitiveness and productivity. That is why we should make investments in smart green infrastructure and measures which help Canadians and Canadian businesses reduce their energy costs (and GHGs). This is both good for the economy today and in the long-term, and will also help us protect our environment.

The Harper government has been prone to gimmicky tax-and-spend measures in the past that were more focused on buying votes than building productivity. This is no time for gimmicks and games. With this budget, the economic stakes are simply too high.

Adam Radwanski: That touches on the widely acknowledged challenge of finding infrastructure projects that have long-term value, but can be gotten off the ground quickly. Are there particular investments your party would like to see the government focus its attention on?

Scott Brison: Public transit investments, gateway investments and green municipal infrastructure investments all need to be accelerated.

The Conservative government has a habit of committing large envelopes of money to infrastructure projects and then being notoriously slow and bureaucratic in getting those projects off the ground. In terms of meeting short-term stimulus goals of creating jobs today, the lowest hanging fruit is in repair and retrofit infrastructure projects. Every municipality in Canada has repair projects ready to go. That is why increasing the gas tax transfer to municipalities may be a more effective way to get shovels in the ground fast.

Finally, cleaner energy production and transmission infrastructure investments represent another opportunity to strengthen Canada's long-term competitiveness and eco-efficiency.

Adam Radwanski: There are economists who will tell you that 2009, from an economic perspective, is basically unsalvageable. What's a realistic expectation for when and how strongly the stimulus offered in this budget will be felt?

Scott Brison: Let me give you some specific examples of measures in terms of their efficacy in the short-term.

The Bush broad-based tax cuts did not provide effective stimulus to the American economy because almost all of the money was either saved or spent on imported goods. A similar approach in Canada has the potential of being even less effective as short-term stimulus, given typically higher Canadian savings rates and a more export-driven Canadian economy. So what could work?

Infrastructure repair and retrofit projects can create jobs almost immediately. Investments in greening and making government buildings more energy efficient can be implemented quickly. Measures which help Canadians invest in and green their homes to reduce energy consumption can be highly stimulative for the local economy in creating new green construction jobs at a time when the Canadian home construction industry faces challenges. Governments can co-invest (for example, through the tax system) with Canadians to buy new windows, doors, solar hot water systems, heat pumps, geothermal systems, etc., and create local jobs in the short term while we help build a new industry in green construction for the long-term. These are just some examples of what could work.

Reforming the SR&ED [Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive] program, creating more effective investment tax credits, providing incentives for businesses to green their facilities and operations, and taking a more aggressive approach to accelerated capital cost allowances can help Canadian businesses invest now to protect jobs today and improve our long-term competitiveness.

We are told that access to venture capital money in Canada for biotech, cleantech and other emerging industries has largely dried up. We need to work with the VC community to put in place measures that ensure money flows to science-based entrepreneurs today, if we are going to create the jobs of tomorrow. The effect of a slow venture capital industry now will be a dearth of scientific discover or opportunity in Canada five or 10 years from now. We cannot afford to let that happen.

Universities and community colleges across Canada have a massive infrastructure deficit, largely repair and retro-fit based. We can work with provinces to help ensure that Canadians of all ages have access to life-long learning in world-class educational institutions. Furthermore, now is the perfect time to work with provinces to build a PSE system that is able to train and re-train Canadians throughout their lives. This work can start immediately.

As well, strengthening and improving access to the E.I. program and other measures to help low-income Canadians are essential in order to help some of the most vulnerable through this downturn, and back to work.

Adam Radwanski: Given the emphasis being placed on consumer confidence right now, how difficult is it for the Official Opposition to do its job? How do you criticize the government's performance and highlight problems in our economic performance without being accused of talking down the economy?

Scott Brison: It would be irresponsible for us not to be critical of this government's performance on the economy. Unfortunately, this government has made it easy.

It was this Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, who told international investors that the last place in North America they should invest in is Ontario. The misinformation, inconsistency and erratic statements from this Prime Minister have done a lot to shake confidence in the Canadian economy. It took the Prime Minister a mere few weeks to go from saying there would be no recession to speculating on a full-scale depression. It was this Prime Minister who told Canadians that if we were going to have a stock market crash or economic downturn that it would have already happened. And it was this Minister of Finance who introduced an economic statement that tried to hide the truth from Canadians (that his government had already put Canada into a deficit position).

With his economic statement in November, Stephen Harper turned an economic crisis into a political crisis. He has a responsibility not to repeat that mistake in next week's budget. Michael Ignatieff, as leader of the Liberal Party, will put people ahead of politics, provide an economic vision, and give Canadians the truth they deserve. We will be responsible in our deliberations and seek to be constructive, offer workable solutions, and provide hope to Canadians during these difficult times.

Thank you, Adam, for this opportunity to chat with you today.

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