Response to Throne Speech in the Legislature

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ms. Chartier: — Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I’m pleased to have an opportunity to respond to the recent Throne Speech. But first of all, I want to extend my congratulations to the member from Northwest for his victory in the by-election. I have no doubt that the member from Saskatoon Northwest will serve his constituents well. I’m quite happy to abdicate the role of the newest MLA to him, too.
Before I begin my remarks on the Throne Speech, there are a few very important people I want to acknowledge. I have exceptional staff who have served the constituency of Saskatoon Riversdale very well. Thank you, Yvonne, Tammie, and Chris, for your hard work, your commitment to the people of our constituency and for helping make my job so much easier.

As a mom with young children, I would not be able to do this job well if I didn’t have such a strong support network. My parents, both of whom are almost 80 years old, spend one day a week with my preschooler. Ophelia really is the most amazing little girl, but she’s also a bit of a tornado, and is more often than not completely exhausting for everybody around her.

An Hon. Member: — A special girl.

Ms. Chartier: — Very special girl. But for my parents who are, as I said, advanced, getting older and older, but still incredibly spry, for them to commit a day a week to spend with my daughter, it means a great deal to me. I think it’s pretty special for them, pretty special for Ophelia, and it’s also incredibly appreciated.
My sister Michelle, who actually says I should stop making so many thank yous and I should keep my speeches a bit shorter, she’s one of the people that I also want to thank. She spends tons of time with both my girls and makes a pretty darn good substitute for me. In fact Ophelia had her first night away from me just a couple of weeks ago and fared incredibly well, thanks to Auntie Mich.

So Michelle’s point is well taken that quite likely not everybody wants to hear how thankful I am for all the people in my life. But because of the way this job is structured and because my long-term goal is to see this legislature far more reflective of the makeup of this province, I believe I need to draw attention to the fact that this job really needs to be a team effort, especially if you have care responsibilities. This legislature and this work currently aren’t the most family friendly, but I believe this could and this should be very different. And while I’m here, I will strive to initiate changes I think could make it easier for those with care responsibilities of either children or elders to serve as an MLA or to even just contemplate putting their names forward to run.
I want to thank my children, Hennessey and Ophelia, for putting up with the past two years of our crazy lives. There’s been some ups and downs, and it’s been a period of adjustment for all of us. And both Hennessey and Ophelia have been real troopers, and they also continue to be my inspiration or the reason why I put my name forward to do this job in the first place.

My husband Blair has put his own career on the back burner to be home with Hennessey and Ophelia. Although women have done this for their political husbands forever, it is a rarity to find a man willing to put his children and his wife’s needs before his career. I can’t emphasize enough how much this means to me. Honestly, as the person who was home with Hennessey, my oldest, for almost seven years, Blair being home really is the piece that has created the space in my brain to be able to do this work. I can do this job confident in the knowledge that the girls are in the care of someone who loves them as much as I do, so thank you, Blair.

Last but not least, I want to thank the good people of Saskatoon Riversdale for giving me the opportunity to be their voice in this legislature. I’m working hard to ensure they know they made the right choice in the by-election last year. It really is a privilege to be their voice here in this legislature. I couldn’t think of a better job in the world, so thank you.
With my thank yous completed, I think — I hope that I haven’t missed anybody, but I’m sure I possibly have — there are a few things . . .

An Hon. Member: — Seatmate.

Ms. Chartier: — My seatmate, thank you to the member from Regina Rosemont for being a good mentor along the way here. I think that’s all the thank yous.

I’m going to talk about this government’s approach to women in leadership positions and the lack of the necessary perspective around the decision-making table, this government’s less than auspicious record of financial mismanagement and its impact on the people of this province, the government’s Throne Speech nod to the need for picture ID in order to vote, and finally some of my perceptions of the reality and the spin that has gone on in this place recently.

It was hard not to notice this past spring when the Premier embarked upon a cabinet shuffle that saw two women leave the cabinet and one woman enter, for a net loss of one female from around the decision-making table. I think one of the most telling signs of this government’s perspective on women was the removal of the member from Martensville from her role as the minister of Environment and her subsequent placement in the very backbenches of government to the seat as far away from the Premier as possible. There is no doubt The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act was a poor decision. But we all know this really wasn’t this minister’s legislation, that it was in fact at the behest of the Ministry of Agriculture that this legislation went forward. The former minister did not handle this file well, but she has also taken the fall for her Sask Party government.

There has been no shortage of ministerial mess-ups in the past three years, including the former Finance minister’s $2 billion blunder on potash forecasting and the former advanced education, immigration, and labour minister’s complete inability to engage with working people. However the Finance minister stayed in place until he decided to leave on his own terms, and the Advanced Education minister is still sitting very close to the Premier although the Labour portion of his portfolio has been removed from his responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think you could call me a fan of the member from Martensville. In fact last spring in the debate on sitting extended hours, I was the subject of vitriolic heckling from many members across the way when I argued that sitting 8 a.m. to midnight is one of the many deterrents that keep good women from putting their names forward to run for nominations for any party. Both the member from Martensville and the member from Estevan, two women I might add, were particularly small-minded with their heckles and completely off base, I might add. I recall these women pointing out that this job is 24-7, 365 days a year, among other things.

Well though I would agree that it is imperative MLAs remain responsive and available in a timely fashion to constituents to deal with their concerns, I think one of the reasons my constituents elected me is because I’m doing what so many of them are — trying to balance work and family. Like so many of my constituents, I’m working hard to be a good employee — their employee — and still remain an engaged, connected parent. In fact I think my dual role helps make me a more effective MLA, better equipped to understand the needs and concerns of my constituents.

All that said, as someone who wants to see more women elected, because I know diverse voices around the decision-making table make for better public policy, it is distressing to me that the Premier has removed a young woman wholly and completely from this table.
Mr. Speaker, I would be remiss if I did not use this opportunity to discuss the Sask Party government’s financial mismanagement and its impact on the average person in this province. In this Throne Speech, Mr. Speaker, we got to hear all this government has done previously and very little about what they will do going forward on the so-called new road. Well first of all, I’m still pretty new here, but I have always understood a Throne Speech is supposed to detail a government’s vision for the future, not its memory of its past. While listening to the speech, I couldn’t help but think that all these past accomplishments took place while this government was ripping through the more than $2.3 billion they inherited from the previous NDP administration. It’s easy to govern when you have buckets of money. But when finances get a bit tighter, it’s not quite so simple.

It amazes me that in this past budget the government has made cuts and told organizations and individuals that we will all have to do our part and tighten our belts. Mr. Speaker, for the past two years, our province has taken in more than $10 billion in revenue — $10 billion, Mr. Speaker. This is billions of dollars more than any NDP administration ever had to work with, billions of dollars more. The Sask Party government has run deficits two years in a row, has expected us all to pay for their mismanagement through harmful, misguided cuts, and has projected provincial debt to rise by more than $4 billion in the next few years.

Having lived through the 1990s here in Saskatchewan where the Romanow government inherited a province on the brink of bankruptcy and how tough times warranted incredibly difficult decisions, and particularly as a mother of two children, I’m worried about my children’s future here and our collective futures as citizens of this province. I’m worried that if we stay on this new road, it will lead us right back to where we started after the Premier’s mentor, Grant Devine, lost his last election in 1991. That would be in a deep financial hole that will take a very long time to climb out of.

Hennessey is only about five years away from university. Although her dad and I have been putting a little bit of money away every month for her education since her birth, I’m beginning to worry that with escalating tuition costs, it’s still not going to be enough. I know from experience that it can be difficult to juggle employment, to pay tuition, and to rely on inadequate student loans. I don’t want this for her. I don’t want this for any Saskatchewan youth. I want Hennessey to be able to focus on school and not have to graduate with crippling debt. I want her to have the option to pursue whatever education she needs to in order to create the future she wants and to not be hampered by finances.

I have known far too many people who graduate with student loans well over $30,000. Coupled with exorbitant housing costs, Mr. Speaker, young people graduating from university with this kind of debt or more cannot dream of owning a home any time soon.
I met a young couple on the doorstep a little while ago where they both had student loans and were renting an apartment. Their rent had recently gone up by 30 per cent, which seems to be about the average increase in rent people have faced in my constituency in the past couple of years. This couple has a daughter who was nine months old when I met them.

Sadly they told me about not being able to use the full year of parental benefits under employment insurance because 55 per cent of one of their salaries wasn’t enough to make ends meet to cover all their costs. So instead of getting to be home for that first year of their daughter’s life or even one of them being home, they both had to return to paid employment. Complicating matters, they had a difficult time finding child care, so they decided to tag team and schedule their shifts so they would never have to use child care. This is great for their little girl, but it means this young couple rarely gets to spend time together. Not only are they strapped financially, but their relationship has added stress and strain. If this is the new road, Mr. Speaker, I don’t want my children travelling on it.

I see in here on a daily basis, Mr. Speaker, how this government is failing many people in my constituency of Saskatoon Riversdale. For example, in my constituency there is a wonderful not-for-profit seniors home that should be well supported by government. This one home serves about 10 singles, mostly women, but there is an increasing demand for the organization to build a second facility that would create the same home-like environment but this time for couples. Unfortunately this organization is not in a financial position to build this second home and is feeling the pinch in operating its first home.

The board and its volunteer executive director that oversee the home have done their best to keep rates to the residents affordable as possible so people from our community can actually live there. But with the combination of residents on fixed incomes, increased property taxes and utility rates — this organization just had their first electricity bill, over $1,000, Mr. Speaker, in August — keeping the lights on and the doors open becomes increasingly difficult. In a time when the demand for affordable housing for everyone including seniors has far outstripped the supply, government should be coming forward and supporting such projects.
A regular call into my constituency office is that of individuals: what can be done about their rapidly increasing rent? Rent has continued to go up, sometimes even by a few hundred dollars in one shot, Mr. Speaker. If people facing increased rent could find suitable accommodation for less money, they would move in a heartbeat. However this is often next to impossible, and instead we have people making a choice between paying rent, buying food, or sometimes going without needed medication. This is a reality, and this is simply unacceptable in a country like Canada and in a province like Saskatchewan.

In this Throne Speech, Mr. Speaker, we heard about the new housing program that will build 1,000 new homes in the next five years. As a proponent of home ownership and believing that good housing and strong roots for families make for healthy communities, I will commend the government for committing to this and look forward to its implementation. However this is just a drop in the bucket and will do little to ease the housing shortage around the province.

Like my colleagues, I spent a large part of my summer travelling to communities outside our province’s larger centres. It doesn’t matter where you go in this province, Mr. Speaker; affordable housing is an issue. It might look a little bit different in various communities, depending. It could be oil workers in southern Saskatchewan, or seniors who have nowhere to live so they’re staying in homes that they can’t handle. Meanwhile there’s young families who would love to purchase their home. So it looks a little different around the province, but it’s an issue everywhere, Mr. Speaker.

The government needs to put a serious, long-term plan in place to meaningfully address this housing shortage. They boast of the increased population numbers but have not put their money where their mouth is, ensuring all residents have a decent and affordable roof over their heads. Rather we see a lack of vision that translates into actions like mean-spirited cuts in the last budget to a community organization that has helped put many families into homes in my constituency. Mean-spirited cuts, that’s what this vision is of this government, Mr. Speaker.
In this Throne Speech, Mr. Speaker, there was no plan for a much-needed rent control. There was no mention of policy around affordable tuition. There was no mention of help with increasing electricity bills. And there was no new commitment to child care, either in creating spaces or ensuring there’s enough trained staff for these facilities, Mr. Speaker. There was nothing in this Throne Speech that would address the concerns of the young family or the seniors I mentioned earlier. There are thousands of people out there like them who are working hard to make a good life here in the province or who have contributed greatly to this province over the years. But they need support, Mr. Speaker, real support.

A few days ago, we heard the Social Services minister tell us how well individuals who require income support are doing under this government. There is no doubt this government made some positive changes for those on social assistance when they were first elected, but I might add these changes were all made when this government had a huge pot of money to work with. I can tell you, now that they have mismanaged their finances and now that money is tighter than when they took office, people on social assistance are paying the price.
I’ve only been in this job for a year, but I have the benefit of having an assistant who served Premier Calvert since 2001. Yvonne is the front line for all the calls and concerns we receive in our constituency office. Aside from serving as a constituency assistant under both the NDP and the Sask Party government and seeing how individuals who are having difficulties are treated comparatively, she also has another perspective — a before and an after the 2010-2011 budget view. Yvonne was off for eight months this year receiving treatment for breast cancer. From her departure last fall until her return this summer, times have changed for those on social assistance, she says, and it is apparent ministries have been directed to cut costs wherever and however they can, no matter what the consequences.
There have been Social Services ministry policies that have changed in the past few months which appear to be directly tied to saving pennies here and there on the backs of the most marginalized citizens of our province, Mr. Speaker. For example in the past if a client received an overpayment, they would of course be expected to pay it back. However a client could point to hardship and make smaller payments over a longer period of time — $15 off a cheque perhaps rather than 25, where an extra $10 can mean a bit more food in their children’s bellies, Mr. Speaker. This hardship clause is now gone.

Another area under Social Services in which there seems to be a change is around the special diet program which provides additional money for people who have concerns like diabetes. People have been denied additional support for their special diet or have seen money for it reduced for no apparent reason.

Away for eight months, Yvonne says the difference upon her return is profound. We have had people come into our office looking for help who are desperate but completely apprehensive to be there as they’ve been told by their workers not to come to MLAs’ offices. Yvonne explains that she and other constituency assistants have always had good working relationships with supervisors in Social Services and could in the past deal directly with them to try to resolve issues. Now supervisors are also hesitant to talk to opposition CAs. Instead Yvonne finds herself having to go directly to the minister’s office to attempt to resolve issues for clients.

This nickel-and-diming on the backs of our poor citizens is not about legislation that we can all read and debate here in this Chamber or grand policy announcements for the media. Rather this is about internal policy that is hidden from view from most of us except for those who are impacted by it. These consequences of these internal policies mean the difference sometimes between food on the table or a decent roof over one’s head. This is all happening under a government who has squandered our collective future and tries to claim it’s the champion of the most marginalized.

I have spent a great deal of time in this speech speaking of what was noticeably absent in this Throne Speech. Now I want to address one item that cuts to the core of our fundamental right as citizens. This is the Sask Party government’s proposal to require voter identification in order to vote. The first question one must ask is, why is this even necessary? The government might answer this is to address fraudulent voting, which would be a good response if the Sask Party government could illustrate this really is a problem here. According to the Acting Chief Electoral Officer, David Wilkie, he is not aware of any recent election where the issue of identification came into play. Not a problem here.

My next question would be, is this really, is this really the most pressing piece of legislation the Sask Party can produce for the people of the province? I can tell you people are not flooding into my constituency office or stopping me at events to discuss the need to address voter fraud. Rather they’re talking to me about the need for support to pay their rent or mortgage or about the huge wait-list for affordable child care or of their struggles with health care and the rising cost of living. Those are the issues people are talking to me about. And I suspect they’re probably talking to people all around Saskatchewan about those issues.

Aside from voter fraud being a non-issue here in this province, I have to comment on how this will impact many people who live in Saskatoon Riversdale and across the province, for that matter. The Minister of Justice made the comment that people would have time to get their affairs in order to get ID, and he also pointed out that for seniors, SGI [Saskatchewan Government Insurance] issues picture ID for free.
He seems to say, what’s the big deal? This is no big deal. But it is. First of all, the member from Saskatoon Southeast and this government clearly have no concept, not a clue, of the kind of challenges some citizens face here in this province on a daily basis — that sometimes basic survival, putting food on the table, getting kids to and from school, and getting to work or to school in a day is more than challenging enough. And add to that the bureaucratic shuffle of getting photo ID, of getting your affairs in order, this is going to be the last priority of marginalized citizens who will continue to remain marginalized, especially if they cannot vote.

This minister clearly has no idea what some of the barriers to obtaining ID can be. Although finances do come into play and it’s good that at least seniors have access to free photo ID, there are a whole host of other issues. For example, if you have a driver’s licence, you are okay. You are in good shape as you already have picture ID along with your document with your signature, so you can prove who you are. However, if you don’t have a driver’s licence, this is where the problem would occur. And I would encourage the Minister of Justice to listen to this.

You need to have two pieces of ID to get photo ID, including one piece with your signature to prove who you are. Everyone has a health card and that has a signature. However the other piece of ID that people can obtain is a birth certificate. In order to get a birth certificate, you need two pieces of ID. Most people are able to get or replace a health card but the other piece is harder to get so it becomes a vicious circle. It can be even tougher for someone who doesn’t have the correct spelling of his or her parents’ names. That happens, Mr. Speaker. That happens when you might have been in the foster care system for most of your life. You might not know how your parents’ names are spelled on the birth certificate. So it becomes increasingly difficult, and getting this ID does still cost money, Mr. Speaker.

If this sounds complicated to you, try being the individual attempting to obtain that picture ID. And this, Mr. Speaker, is what our Sask Party government wants us to do to be able to practise our right to vote. This is shameful, and completely not necessary.

On a final note, I just want to talk a bit about potash and how these past few months have played out. When the news of this hostile takeover first broke, my leader and my party took a strong position early on. We’ve been advocating that no matter who owns the companies that mine our potash — doesn’t matter who: PCS, BHP Billiton, or any other possibility — the people of Saskatchewan need to get a better deal for our potash.

This hostile takeover opened the door. This is a great opportunity to talk about royalties, to talk about taxes, to talk about equity shares, and to talk about a company’s commitment to this province. This is about guaranteeing these resources do what we need them to do: ensure all the people of Saskatchewan have the right mix of programs, services, and taxes to live our best lives possible and to fulfill our potential. Ultimately this is what the potash file is all about.

It’s absolutely amazing to me that the members opposite could ever say my leader and my colleagues gave up — and myself for that matter — gave up on Saskatchewan, the line they were using last week in this Chamber. This is all Sask Party spin and absolutely reprehensible, as nothing could be further from the truth, Mr. Speaker. The opposition NDP and our leader are, and have been all along, pushing this government and this Premier to get what we need for our resources since the emergence of this issue, providing real leadership.

The people of Saskatchewan deserve a plan. Where is the Sask Party plan to secure maximum benefit for our resources? We haven’t seen any sign of a plan yet, despite asking repeatedly during question period in this Chamber for the past few days, and despite the fact time is still ticking on the final Industry Canada decision.

It would be amusing, if it wasn’t so sad, that the only reason the Premier took his position over the past couple of weeks and came out, at least on the surface, looking like a leader, was simply because his attempt to receive a one-time $1 billion payment and some infrastructure money for a domed stadium failed.

When he botched his negotiations with BHP Billiton, or as these negotiations have been referred to by the media, a tawdry shakedown, and BHP Billiton called him out on it, that’s when he chose to don his Captain Canada cape, take the NDP position, and see the light about social democracy, Mr. Speaker. And power to him. He appears to have done it well, at least for a week or two. There is no doubt our Premier is the master of the spin.

We are all pleased on both sides of the House thus far that Minister Clement has not approved the Billiton offer. But we want the Premier to shore up our province’s position and to encourage PCS [Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc.] to help us to do so by putting its seven-point advertising pledge into a real document with real signatures and real consequences for failing to live up to it. A pledge in a newspaper is not enough, Mr. Speaker.

And I’d be remiss actually if I didn’t set the record straight today, Mr. Speaker, when the member from Meadow Lake, among other members from across the way, have made some incredibly disparaging comments about my leader today. Mr. Speaker, I’ll say it here — and this is not news to anyone who knows me — the member from Douglas Park was not my first choice in the NDP leadership race. But I have had the opportunity this past year to get to know him, to see his incredible work ethic, and to see first-hand why my fellow New Democrats chose him as our leader. I respect him immensely and believe his leadership qualities have shone during this potash debate. It is my leader’s knowledge and his approach to the potash debate that has helped bring the Premier to the place he is today.

I had one of my proudest moments as an NDP MLA last week when my leader, the member from Douglas Park, spoke here in this Chamber about how we should be tackling the issue of our natural resources, how we should be having a debate and discussion about this. My leader is thoughtful, knowledgeable, passionate, and most importantly, guided by social democratic principles — that we should all get to share in the wealth of this province.

Mr. Speaker, given the choice between my leader or our current Premier when it comes to qualities of leadership, experience, and depth of knowledge on just about any issue, there is no question. The member from Douglas Park is a clear choice. I will spend the next year ensuring people in my constituency and throughout this province see my leader as I have had the chance to get to see him.

Mr. Speaker, I will not be supporting the amendment. I will be supporting . . . [inaudible interjection] . . . They’re awake over there, Mr. Speaker. They’re awake. I will be supporting the amendment, and I will not be supporting the motion put forward by the Sask Party government. I’m glad to see they’re awake over there. They were pretty quiet. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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