November 10, 2008
The federal government and Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders agreed on Monday to speed up infrastructure investment to spur the country’s economy in the face of the global slowdown, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
“We all agreed, I think, that we should see infrastructure spending accelerated,” Harper told reporters after the three-hour working lunch in Ottawa.
“This will help support general economic activity. I am very confident that that is going to occur over the next year.”
Harper said he was “primarily in listening mode” during the preliminary meeting to incorporate the regional concerns into Canada’s position ahead of a summit of the Group of 20 major economies later this week in Washington.
Harper also said the premiers came to the meeting with a set of “common concerns” on pension regulations, while adding he hoped that the Office of Superintendent of Financial Institutions, the government regulator that oversees pension issues, will consider their proposals.
“There clearly are some issues in the pension area that are causing some concern for senior citizens, and within our fiscal capacity, we will be taking a look at what we can do about those things,” Harper said.
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who was among the premiers pushing the federal government to act quickly to protect Canadians’ pension plans, also said he expects action soon to help retirees hurt by the stock market collapse.
Several premiers have called for the mandatory age for Canadians to convert their RRSPs into retirement income funds, currently at 71, should be increased to allow their savings to recover from the current financial turmoil.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, who waged a campaign against Harper’s Conservatives in the recent federal election, described the tone of discussions as “cordial” and added he and the prime minister shook hands at the start and end of the meeting.
Auto sector woes discussed
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Quebec Premier Jean Charest were expected to argue hard for a rescue package for their province’s battered manufacturers, especially in the auto sector.
Following the meeting, the prime minister said the government is “well aware” of the “deep problems” some companies in the auto sector are facing, as well as actions by the U.S. government to help struggling auto giants to survive the economic crisis.
He said the government will “examine all possibilities.”
“We haven’t ruled anything out or anything in,” he said. “We will look at all the options that are before us.”
But he added that all parties want to see a strong auto sector in Canada going forward as part of a North American industry, and not a sector “permanently supported by the government … that would not otherwise be financially viable.”
Speaking to CBC News senior parliamentary editor Don Newman after the meeting, McGuinty said Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have indicated they are willing to offer more help to families of auto workers as the industry sheds jobs.
“I got the strong sense today from the prime minister and by examining the comments earlier by Minister Flaherty that they know we are going to have to do more together,” McGuinty said.
He also said the bailout package being planned for the auto sector south of the border would have a massive impact as Ontario struggles to stay competitive in the industry.
“If it was just a matter of myself competing against the governor of Michigan, I could handle that fight, but I’m up against the U.S. Treasury,” he said.
While other countries have provided funds to bail out financial institutions and industries left crippled by the crisis, Harper’s government has faced criticism for failing to take enough action.
Last month, the Conservative government agreed to buy up $25 billion in bank-held mortgages in an effort to inject liquidity in the system and free up credit funds for Canadians.
The auto sector and a broad coalition of industries, however – especially in hard-hit central Canada – have separately asked Ottawa for similar aid to weather the current economic storm.
The Ontario premier also said he and Charest spoke to the prime minister about one high-priced infrastructure project they believe will help the economy while building up the nation – a high-speed train between southwestern Ontario and Quebec City. Harper said his government has committed to a study examining the rail link.
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