Budget Debate
(25 March 2015)

From Hansard - 25 March 2015

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The Speaker: — I recognize the Minister of Agriculture.

Hon. Mr. Stewart: — Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And I want to thank the people of Thunder Creek for the opportunity of allowing me the honour and the opportunity to come to work every day in this place, this great place where many of my mentors have served before me. The history in this place is special and it is a beautiful building. It’s probably the most beautiful legislative building in the country. And it’s just a great honour to represent the people of Thunder Creek and have the privilege of coming to work in this place, Mr. Speaker.

This political life can be difficult for families. And I want to talk a little bit about mine, maybe a little bit more than usual. We always mention our families, but you know, sometimes I don’t think we give them the credit we should, and I want to take a little more time for that today.

My wife, Linda, just retired at the end of the year and so she has more time to come up with jobs for me to do, and that’s great. My daughter Stephanie, who’s the oldest of my children, just turned 40 on Monday, which makes me feel way older than that. And she and her husband, Gabe, live in Ottawa and have three children. My next one, Alison . . . Stephanie was a great basketball player when she was younger. Alison was a great hockey player playing for Team Canada and Cornell University. She lives in Ottawa as well with her husband, Sean, and their daughter. And my son Lee lives on the farm, and he was a fantastic lacrosse player and a good hockey player and still plays hockey — very slowly I might say. He hasn’t speeded up much over the years but he’s gained about 100 pounds since he was a teenager. But it’s still good to watch. It’s good hockey. And his wife, Jessie, who stays at home with their beautiful daughter. They make sacrifices for us in this job, Mr. Speaker, and I don’t think we always give them the credit that we should.

My dad who . . . I have trouble talking about my family. My dad who just turned 100, 100 years old . . . and I better get this together, because he’s watching. I know he will be. And he’s a tough old bird; I’ll tell you that. The things he’s seen in his lifetime, in his 100 years, Mr. Speaker. Horses were the main power on farms when he was born and the main means of transportation. Cars, there were cars around but they were seasonal at best, and most people didn’t have them in 1915. But they were coming into prominence and my dad, because of the time he was born, was a great horseman all his life and has a way with horses.

He’s seen steam locomotives turn to diesel, and he was way into middle age when the first man landed on the moon. And he’s seen the computer age, and he’s very sharp, Mr. Speaker. He’ll be watching this and critiquing all of our speeches, and he’ll have a few things to say to me the next time I visit him. And for his 100th birthday we gave him an iPad mini so he can skype with my grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, and my kids. And of course he can’t skype with me, Mr. Speaker, because I don’t know how. But he does, and I think that says something about that man. He’s been the greatest role model of my life, and I just thank him.

Mr. Speaker, I think about, at budget time, where Saskatchewan has come from in the few short years that I’ve been coming to this place. And I remember a Saskatchewan where people were leaving and young people didn’t even plan on staying here for the most part. They’d plan on going someplace else. The choice was, where? Staying just didn’t seem to be an option. You know, jokes were made about the place. Will the last one out shut off the lights? Things of that nature. We made excuses why we liked to live here. Our relatives and friends from other places would say, why do you even stay there? It’s a hopeless situation. It’ll never amount to anything. Everybody wants to leave. Why don’t you?

And so we’d make excuses, but the truth is a number of us stayed because we love the place, you know. And I’m glad we did because it’s a different place now. And I remember in 2007 at election time, I remember the way people used to feel about this place. We weren’t proud. We weren’t proud of the way it was . . . it was. There were no opportunities and people kind of shuffled around and hung their heads and made excuses about staying here. But after election day in November of 2007, you could feel the difference, Mr. Speaker. People walking down the street would walk more erectly and hold their heads up and they looked happier and more proud, and things started to change right away, Mr. Speaker. And it’s because of budgets like this that they did.

And I’m very proud of this budget, Mr. Speaker. And I’m proud to be associated with the Minister of Finance for so long and saddened that he’s announced that this is his last budget and he’s going to be moving on. I know the Minister of the Economy made a wisecrack about his poor choice in hockey teams, and I have to say I haven’t seen the Leafs play for years, but then I only watch playoff games, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, this budget is remarkable in the circumstances of what’s happening in the oil industry, Mr. Speaker. Revenues are flat. Of course costs continue to escalate for everything. We know that from our own personal lives. And certainly on the scale of a provincial budget, it’s even a bigger deal to contain costs. And you know, since 2007 this government has delivered record property tax cuts, record income tax cuts, over $5 billion in tax relief to Saskatchewan people altogether. And the members ask where the money’s gone, Mr. Speaker. That’s one of the . . . those are some of the places that the money’s gone, to tax relief for every Saskatchewan person.

Mr. Speaker, spending was held to a 1.2 per cent increase from last year: key investments in health and education and social services and assistance while managing operating spending, Mr. Speaker; changes to tax credits to ensure sustainability and manage costs.

Even with the revenue challenges that we are experiencing this year, Mr. Speaker, investments, substantial investments are being made in infrastructure again, a new four-year Saskatchewan Builds capital plan: twinning and passing lane projects on Highways 5, 6, 7, 16, 39; interchange projects at Warman and Martensville; the next phase of the Regina bypass, Mr. Speaker; continued progress on the Swift Current long-term care centre; construction to begin on new schools in Regina, Sacred Heart and Connaught, plus nine joint-use schools around the province; a major renovation at Hague High School and St. Brieux; and the Saskatchewan Hospital at North Battleford of course, Mr. Speaker.

This budget supports employment training and job creation, Mr. Speaker: two new growth tax incentives for job creation and capital investment; increasing training seats for apprenticeship, medical training, and adult basic education.

This budget keeps Saskatchewan strong by investing in people through significant investments in health care including new investments in seniors’ care to increase choice and flexibility in care options and to support caregivers, Mr. Speaker; funding to reduce emergency room wait times and improve patient flow; increase supports for K to 12 [kindergarten to grade 12] students; increase support for people with disabilities and low-income seniors.

Mr. Speaker, I remember, while we’re talking about health care, I remember during the time when those members opposite were in charge around this place. I remember that we had the longest wait-lists in Canada. Now, Mr. Speaker, we have the shortest wait-lists for surgeries in Canada. And that’s a credit to budgets like this, balanced budgets, good budgets that provide benefits for the people of Saskatchewan, Mr. Speaker. That’s where the money’s been going.

This is a balanced budget, Mr. Speaker, with a surplus of $107 million. And, Mr. Speaker, I think that’s all I’ll say about the general budget. I know that we’re under time constraints because a number of people want to speak, but I’m very proud to be the Minister of Agriculture in this province, Mr. Speaker. Agriculture in this province is our second-largest industry in normal times. Maybe this year it’ll be the largest because of the unfortunate temporary downturn in the oil and gas industry, Mr. Speaker.

In any event, it’s extremely important to the economy of Saskatchewan and the people of Saskatchewan, all of our standards of living. Crop production: second-largest crop ever this year in the province at 30.7 million tonnes, Mr. Speaker; record crop production the year before at 38.4 million tonnes. We’re experiencing strong cattle prices after a long sort of downturn following the discovery of BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] in 2003. Western livestock price insurance is a new program that we were proud to introduce last year, Mr. Speaker, and it exceeded our enrolment expectations in the first year of the program.

Realized net farm income was 2.46 billion, 30 per cent above the five-year average of 2008 to ’12. A record 13.9 billion in exports, ag exports in 2014, Mr. Speaker, our fourth consecutive year of record exports. We lead the nation in ag exports.

Under the NDP in their last year in power, it wasn’t $13.9 billion, Mr. Speaker. It was 6.4, $6.4 billion only, Mr. Speaker, less than half, less than half. I’ve woken up the member from Athabasca, Mr. Speaker, and it’s always a pleasure to hear from him. He doesn’t stand up very often, but he likes to make a lot of noise from his seat.

Mr. Speaker, canola was our top export commodity in 2014 at $2.5 billion just for canola. Value-added is another area of opportunity in agriculture, Mr. Speaker, and we’ll build on our strength as a primary producer and expand that, and continue to expand that.

Mr. Speaker, I just want to brag a little more about agriculture before I get onto the agriculture portion of the budget. We produce here 99 per cent of Canada’s chick peas, 95 per cent of Canada’s lentils, 86 per cent of Canada’s durum wheat, 83 per cent of Canada’s flax seed, 70 per cent of Canada’s mustard, 60 per cent of Canada’s dried peas, 49 per cent of Canada’s canola. I think I better move on, Mr. Speaker. I’m going to run of time.

I want to talk, I want to brag some more about agriculture, but this time the agriculture budget. This is a $362.4 million budget in agriculture, Mr. Speaker, a budget that supports a growing agriculture industry, and it builds on the second-largest crop ever, as I mentioned, Mr. Speaker, at 30.7 million tonnes and record exports of 13.9 billion.

Business risk management programs under this budget are 240 million, Mr. Speaker: AgriStability, 47.1, up 4.4 million from last year; AgriInvest, 38.5 million, up 4.4 million, Mr. Speaker; crop insurance, 154 million this year which is down 11.1 million because of a strong record of crop production and low payouts from crop insurance. And so that makes the program cheaper and, as a result of that, our coverage is up to $183 an acre on average across the province, Mr. Speaker, up from $162 last year, and premiums down, Mr. Speaker, from $7.47 an acre on average last year to $7.06 an acre on average across the province this year.

Oats, in the changes to the crop insurance program, Mr. Speaker, we were able to increase the base grade for oats from a 3 CW [Canada Western] to 2 CW, which will put a lot more money in the pockets of oat producers around the province. And we added hemp as an insurable crop, Mr. Speaker. Hemp in the past has been a small acre crop, but two years ago we grew 25,000 acres of hemp in Saskatchewan and this past year over 40,000, Mr. Speaker, so it warrants crop insurance coverage. And we hope that this will allow hemp growers to expand their production even more.

Unseeded acreage coverage changed this year, Mr. Speaker. Four coverage levels available: 50, 70, 85, and $100 per acre, and the unseeded premium will now be charged on all acres normally seeded.

Agriculture research budget, Mr. Speaker, of $26.7 million, same as last year, includes $2 million for the Global Institute for Food Security. Irrigation bridges, 500,000 for that, Mr. Speaker. It’s the third year of the program.

Growing Forward 2 strategic initiatives, $71.2 million, Mr. Speaker, and that includes such programs as agriculture, research, pest control and disease surveillance, rural water infrastructure, farm business management, trade and market development, agriculture awareness, value-added business development. A total Growing Forward 2 commitment of $388 million over five years remains the same as we’ve said in the past, Mr. Speaker.

I’m skipping over some pieces of this, Mr. Speaker, because the member from Athabasca is restless and I need to make time for other speakers.

Mr. Speaker, you know, the NDP budget day news release and backgrounder was all doom and gloom as usual. However they got the cuts to ag wrong in their backgrounder. They highlighted the fact that the AgriStability program delivery costs have gone down by $1.4 million. I don’t know if they proofread their news releases or not, Mr. Speaker, but this is good news. There’s more money available for the program and less for administration. This is what we were trying to do when the previous Ag minister brought AgriStability back to Saskatchewan in the first place, and we’ve succeeded in doing it, Mr. Speaker. Since we’ve taken over the administration of AgriStability and settled that office in Melville, which the members opposite would not even fully fund back in those days when they were in power, we have been able to find efficiencies in administration and save producers millions.

Overall budget of 362.4 is the seventh-largest Ag budget ever. Average budget over the last eight years under this government, Mr. Speaker, is 395 million. Average agricultural budget over the last eight years of the NDP government, Mr. Speaker, 278 million only. Research funding now is 96 per cent higher than under the NDP in the last year of their government.

I’m getting a signal from the House Leader that I’m taking a little too much time, so I think I’ll try to wrap up here as quickly as I can.

Mr. Speaker, this budget is about making choices. Let’s take a look at the choices that the NDP made when they had budget challenges. They raised taxes 17 times, including the PST three times, income taxes twice, business taxes four times, and that doesn’t even count all the education property tax hikes. They stopped investing in infrastructure and closed facilities: 176 schools, closed 1,200 long-term care beds, 52 rural hospitals, and the Plains hospital in Regina, Mr. Speaker. That’s how they dealt with tough fiscal times.

This Finance minister, Mr. Speaker, took a different approach. He’s delivered a growth budget, a balanced budget, Mr. Speaker, and I’m very proud of it, Mr. Speaker. Accordingly, I will be supporting the budget but not the half-baked amendment from the other side of the floor, Mr. Speaker.

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