Rafferty column

This past week saw important developments in both the riding and Ottawa.
Week 2 of the flooding crisis in and around Thunder Bay saw some progress on repairing the damage to public property, but less so on the private property side.
I spent the better part of last Monday touring in and around the City of Thunder Bay, as well as Oliver-Paipoonge, Conmee, and Neebing. Good progress has been made on repairing many damaged roadways, but clearly the sewer and drainage systems require further attention in some areas.
The private property of residents, though, is clearly another story. Many homes still are waiting to be drained or remediated, and the monetary damage is quickly adding up for families.
This is, of course, on top of the emotional damage, which also is increasing despite the hard work of volunteers and neighbours.
Thankfully, the City of Thunder Bay and the Province of Ontario have now declared the area a disaster zone, which is crucial since financial aid now can begin to flow.
Should the provincial government begin gathering estimates and should it exceed $13 million, which it most clearly will, then federal assistance can be sought.
I also have urged the various townships and road boards in surrounding areas to include their damage with the City of Thunder Bay as one related weather event so they can get access to federal funds, too.
Following some extra days in the riding, I headed back to Ottawa. The recent announcement of the end of federal funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, and more word that the Harper government has been wasting more of our money on needless travel expenses, were on the agenda when I arrived.
The cuts—except to the travel budgets of ministers (more on that in a minute)—keep coming from the Harper government and they are starting to put our future health at risk.
Take the funding cut to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) near Kenora. The ELA is a unique and internationally-acclaimed freshwater research area that has made ground-breaking discoveries which reduced acid rain and mercury contamination from coal-fired plant emissions and led to the banning of phosphorous in detergents, among other findings.
The ELA has had a direct positive impact on our regional and national economy, environment, and the health and well-being of families, all of which made it a perfect target for the Harper government’s spending cuts.
New Democrats, scientists from around the world, and citizens living in rural Northwestern Ontario have begun to fight the $2-million funding cut and impending closure of the ELA next year.
If you would like to lend your voice to our growing movement, visit www.saveela.org for more information.
The other budget related news that greeted my arrival in the capital this past week was the disclosure of more abuses of taxpayer dollars by ministers in the Harper government.
A recent Access to Information request showed that International Co-operation minister Bev Oda, the Conservative with a penchant for five-star hotels and $16 glasses of orange juice, has been altering the financial information on file for several of her recent foreign trips.
If we give Ms. Oda the benefit of the doubt, then it would seem the best-case scenario was that she was paying taxpayers back for more questionable expenses. But then, of course, she would have had to misspend our money in the first place to be able to do so.
Unfortunately, Ms. Oda is not alone when it comes to such abuses. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last year, Finance minister Jim Flaherty, then Industry minister Tony Clement, then Trade minister Peter Van Loan, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper racked up a $23,000 bill for limousines at the four-day meeting.
The only problem is that the meeting was held in a small ski village in the Alps where one easily could walk between meetings.
The $23,000 limo expense seems to have been well-wasted since the combined cost of gas for the four limousines, over four days, and including trips to and from the airport and idling time, came to just $123.50.
Moving forward, I will be keeping an eye on the flood situation at home to make sure that when the call for federal assistance comes, the money soon follows.
I also will keep working in Ottawa to make sure our health and well-being are not being put at risk by senseless budget cuts at home while the Harper government jet-sets around the world blowing our money on five-star hotels and limos.