With enthusiasm, earnestness and a distinctly crooked neck tie, Yukon MP Ryan Leef delivered his first speech to Parliament yesterday.
He began with a joke about his peculiar location in the House. The Conservative majority is big enough that Leef and a handful of other government backbenchers are seated across the aisle, on the Opposition’s side of the Commons.
“I, for one, am agreeable and committed to working with members on the opposite side of the House,” Leef vowed, to a smattering of laughter and applause from his government colleagues.
Then he launched into an extended cheer for the federal budget, which was up for debate.
“A budget and a plan that’s good for the North is a budget and a plan that’s good for all Canadians,” he said.
Leef suggested that Yukon’s red-hot economy is mostly the doing of Ottawa’s stimulus splurge – and not, say, global commodity prices. Unemployment is currently at just four per cent in the territory, making it the envy of the rest of Canada, Leef noted.
Yukon’s freshly minted high school graduates should be pleased with the budget, he said. Thanks to it, “they will have jobs to go to. They will have options to pursue a career. Some will have savings to travel and explore this magnificent planet and others will seek new skills and opportunities through post-secondary education.”
Leef applauded the impending death of the “wasteful and ineffective” long gun registry. And he threw out props to both First Nation elder Alex Van Bibber and conservative columnist Murray Martin.
The federal budget remains largely unchanged from what the Conservatives proposed in the spring, prior to the federal election. One big change is the government’s new plan to slay the deficit one year early, by 2015.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty hasn’t specified how the government intends to trim $4 billion in spending each year. But he’s promised to not meddle with transfer payments to the provinces and territories.
Yukon’s three territories now net more than $3 billion in transfers annually, said Leef. That’s up from $847 million in 2005-6, he said.
Leef focused on the modest spending promises that would affect Yukoners. They include:
* $150 million to complete the Dempster Highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyakytuk;
* extending a 15 per cent mineral exploration tax credit for another year;
* A one-year extension of the ecoEnergy Retrofit homes program;
* $9 million over two years to expand adult education in the territories;
* Continuation of tax breaks for first-time homeowners and parents of young children;
* Bigger guaranteed income supplements for low-income seniors.
Like any federal politician worth his salt, Leef also rewrapped old spending announcements and made them sound new, by bragging about $3.2 million already spent on First Nations housing in the territory.
Leef’s comments were greeted with skepticism from the opposition.
Pierre-Luc Dusseault, the NDP’s 19-year-old MP for Sherbrooke, asked how the Conservative government would help students struggling to pay the bills.
Canada has broadened the eligibility requirements for student loan recipients, said Leef. And new doctors and nurses that move to rural areas will have their student loans forgiven, in an effort to lure these recruits to underserved areas.
Ted Hsu, Liberal MP for Kingston, asked Leef whether he was prepared to ask his government to spend large sums on addressing global warming.
First, Leef cautioned that more research is needed “on identifying some of the root causes of global warming.” He suggested federal studies would do just that.
Then, Leef agreed that climate change is “an area of key importance to the citizens of the Yukon.”
And Leef pledged to work with climate change experts in the Yukon and communicate their findings with the government.
Rick Norlock, the Conservative MP for Northumberland Quinte West, threw Leef a lob, asking him to offer more details on tax breaks for mineral exploration and small businesses. Leef obliged.
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