Dennis was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election on November 15, 1999 to represent Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. In his first speech, he paid tribute to MPs who had preceded him in the riding, and he promised to work for equality and social justice.
Mr. Dennis Gruending (Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, NDP): It is an honour to speak in the House for the first time. There is no higher calling than public service and no higher place to serve than in the House of Commons.
I begin by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the people of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar who elected me in the by-election on November 15. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve them. I will do so with all my energy and to the best of my ability.
Following Great Parliamentarians
I find it humbling to follow in the footsteps of the great parliamentarians who have preceded me in this vast prairie constituency. The list includes honourable social democrats such as
M. J. Coldwell, Woodrow Lloyd, Alf Gleave and Chris Axworthy. It includes as well the Right Honourable Ray Hnatyshyn, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who later became our governor general.
Mr. Coldwell represented this riding in parliament from 1935 to 1958. He led the CCF in the 1940s and 1950s. He worked tirelessly to bring about many of the great social advances that have shaped our country. These include hospital and auto insurance, pensions, family allowances, labour and welfare reforms.
Woodrow Lloyd served Biggar in the Saskatchewan legislature for 20 years, from 1944 to 1964. In 1961 he succeeded Tommy Douglas as premier. With great patience and great courage, Mr. Lloyd prevailed over the tumultuous strike by Saskatchewan’s doctors the following year. Our cherished national medicare system is at least in part Mr. Lloyd’s gift to Canada.
M. J. Coldwell had an abiding commitment to social justice. Woodrow Lloyd had a clear and ringing view of social democratic philosophy. “Ours is not just a gimme or a gouge the rich philosophy,” Woodrow Lloyd said. “It matches claims with obligations, imposing on each of us a greater individual responsibility than is imposed by other political parties”.
I am also guided by the legacy of Alf Gleave who represented the Saskatoon-Biggar area in parliament from 1968 to 1974, and who earlier was one of the pioneers of medicare. When Alf died last summer, journalist Barry Wilson in his eulogy quoted Alf’s own words, summing up his life as a family man, a farmer and an elected representative. “At the beginning of the century,” Alf wrote, “the people who came to the prairies and those who followed them, the next generation such as myself, made a more secure and bountiful life here by working together, by sharing the load”.
This need to balance claims and obligations, to work together and to share the load has never been more relevant than it is today, as the 20th century comes to an end and a new century and a new millennium are about to dawn.
The Farm Crisis
Nowhere is this need to work together more evident today than in the farm crisis that now engulfs western Canada, a crisis that tears at the heart of so many of the families I represent in Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar. What my NDP colleagues have said so often in the House is tragically true. That is that western farmers are gripped by the worst crisis since the 1930s, and in some respects, a crisis that is greater than that of the great depression.
The pain and misery are unprecedented economically and emotionally. Farm stress has reached epidemic proportions. Families are disintegrating. Bankruptcy is driving people from their homes and from their way of life.
An astonishing 46% of western farmers are now seriously considering leaving the land. What this means, should it come to pass, is a mass exodus of as many as 16,000 farmers across Saskatchewan and Manitoba within the next short period of time. The impact of this calamity would be unimaginable.
Why is this crisis occurring? It is happening because our national government, in its cult-like adherence to the ideology of free trade, has cut support for grain farmers by 60% over the last eight years. The government has accepted the free market mantra of the Business Council on National Issues and embraced the global gospel of the World Trade Organization.
The Liberal government has played a destructive game giving away much more in trade negotiations than it has gained in return. Western farmers have been ambushed on the free market road. Consider that European farmers receive 56 cents in support for each dollar of wheat that is sold. American farmers get 38 cents. Canadian farmers today get a paltry 9 cents.
This is happening at a time of unprecedented federal wealth. Our government, as we have heard here today, is projecting almost $100 billion in surpluses over the next five years. If he wanted to, the Prime Minister could deal with the farm crisis and he would scarcely notice the amount of money that it would take. But he refuses. He is caught like a deer in the headlights on the free market road.
II join with my NDP colleagues in pleading for a change of heart. I urge the Prime Minister to return at least $1 billion of the money that his government has scooped out of the Saskatchewan economy in recent years. This is just 1% of his forecasted five-year surpluses. Farmers need help desperately and they need it now.
This is an immediate measure. In the medium term the government must re-examine the AIDA program to see if it can be fixed. In the longer term, a combination of supports and cost cutting measures and diversification will have to be adopted if western agriculture is going to survive.
Unfortunately the deafening silence of the government in response to the plea of farmers also extends in many cases to society as a whole. We see this only too clearly in the majority report of the Standing Committee on Finance with its empty rationale recommending $46 billion in tax cuts for mainly high-income earners over the next few years. This is wrong as my colleague the member for Regina — Qu’Appelle pointed out in his minority report.
Trickle Down Economics
The finance committee report continues the bogus philosophy of trickle down economics preached for the last 20 years by leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Brian Mulroney. This dreary message is always the same. It goes something like this: give the horse enough oats and the sparrows will eventually be fed. This has never been true and we will only make matters worse if we repeat the same mistakes again and again.
Tax cuts that benefit mainly the rich will widen the unacceptable gap that already exists between the wealthy and the poor in our society. This gap has gone from embarrassing to offensive to downright obscene.
New Democrats advocate a fair and sane approach, one that will work, if only the government will adopt it and implement it. We believe that the surpluses projected over the next few years give Canadians a rare opportunity to return to the philosophy of redistributing income to those who need it most. We can undo the damage that successive waves of government cutbacks have inflicted on families, on public services and on living standards in the 1990s.
There is only one real test of any economy that matters and that is, does it serve its people? New Democrats believe that the debate over surpluses must focus on improving the quality of life for all Canadians. We can deal with the farm crisis, child poverty and homelessness. We can give our children the best possible start in life. We can preserve public health and expand it to home care and pharmacare as the Liberals had promised to do in 1993. We can foster world-class education and training. We can invest in roads and public transit. We can provide tax relief by making an initial 1% cut in the GST. We can, as Canada’s churches have asked, have our country forgive the debt owing to us by some of the world’s poorest countries.
I commit myself, as my social democratic predecessors have done before me, to work tirelessly to achieve these just and time honoured goals. I will not rest and my predecessors will not rest in peace until we have built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land.