Debates of Feb. 10th, 1999
House of Commons Hansard #178 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was flag.
- Election In Newfoundland And Labrador
- The South Alberta Regiment
- Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.
- Western Diversification
- Social Union Agreement
- Health Canada
- Whitecap Dakota Sioux First Nation
- 2003 Canada Winter Games
- Bell Canada
- Social Union Agreement
- Electric Vehicle Project
- Bell Island Ferry
- Stuart Energy Systems
- Foreign Affairs
- Foreign Affairs
- Employment Insurance
- Farm Safety Net Income Program
- Aboriginal Living Off Reserve
- Year 2000
- Apec Inquiry
- National Revenue
- Technology Partnerships Canada
- Publishing Industry
- Business Development Bank Of Canada
- Year 2000
- Government Response To Petitions
- Social Union
- Employment Insurance Act
- Competition Act
- Criminal Code
- Questions On The Order Paper
- Motions For Papers
- Foreign Publishers Advertising Services Act
- Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act
- Foreign Publishers Advertising Services Act
- Holidays Act
Oral Question Period
Jim Pankiw Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK
Mr. Speaker, this government has a double standard. The justice minister tells firearms owners not to fear registration, but her government has declared certain registered firearms prohibited and will not pay compensation to thousands of dealers whose property will eventually be confiscated.
In August the government announced it will give El Salvador $130,000 for a firearms buy-back scheme. Will the minister explain why firearms owners in El Salvador get compensation but law-abiding firearms owners in Canada do not?
Oral Question Period
Anne McLellan Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Mr. Speaker, I cannot comment on the program that the member refers to in El Salvador, but I will certainly follow up on that with my colleague who is responsible for CIDA.
Let me say that it has been a longstanding policy of this government in terms of firearms in fact either to provide grandfathering provisions for those who presently own various kinds of weapons, or in limited circumstances, very limited circumstances, to provide compensation. That policy continues.
Oral Question Period
Christiane Gagnon Québec, QC
Mr. Speaker, the homeless are demonstrating outside the Parliament Buildings, while at the same time the government is amassing over $16.5 million daily in the employment insurance fund.
This government, which presents itself as the champion of the poor, is in fact the champion of poverty. The number of children in Canada living in poor families has increased by 60% in the past ten years.
My question is for the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister finally get moving and ensure that the coming budget contains the funding and other measures required to combat poverty?
Oral Question Period
Jean Chrétien Prime Minister
Mr. Speaker, the government has already taken action. We created tax credits for poor families. We put $1.7 million into that. This is a system that did not exist two years ago. The government has already committed the sum of $1.7 million, the biggest contribution to any program since we have been in government.
Oral Question Period
February 10th, 1999 / 3 p.m.
Libby Davies Vancouver East, BC
Mr. Speaker, today hundreds of homeless people came to Parliament Hill with a very simple mission. They wanted to tell the Prime Minister of the pain and the reality of being homeless in Canada. They were turned down in a meeting.
Will the Prime Minister demonstrate commitment and care today by ensuring that in the upcoming budget there are adequate resources to ensure that homelessness does not exist in Canada? Will he provide the funds in that budget to provide emergency shelters and housing?
Oral Question Period
Alfonso Gagliano Minister of Public Works and Government Services
Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for her question.
In the first week of January I met in Vancouver with the mayor of Vancouver and a group of people who are trying to help the homeless. CMHC has provided RRAP funding for a rehabilitation housing project on the east side for the Washington Hotel and the Sunrise Hotel in the member's riding. Thirty thousand dollars was provided for the Home Mutual Aid Society for a proposal to develop a low income housing project.
I would like to say to the member, who is an NDP member, that in British Columbia there is an NDP government and it is not participating in the RRAP.
Government Response To Petitions
Peter Adams Parliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 36(8), I have the honour to table, in both official languages, the government's response to 17 petitions.
Stéphane Dion President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs
Mr. Speaker, the framework to improve the social union for Canadians was signed on February 4, 1999 by the Prime Minister of Canada, all but one of the premiers and the territorial leaders after more than a year of negotiations which were superbly co-chaired by Saskatchewan's intergovernmental affairs minister, the hon. Berny Wiens, and our colleague, the Minister of Justice and chair of the cabinet committee on the social union.
I am pleased and honoured to pay tribute in the House to the immense service that the member for Edmonton West has rendered to our country.
This framework agreement has been very well received across the country, but there is still concern about the fact that the Premier of Quebec did not sign the agreement. There is a fear that Quebeckers may not reap the benefits of the agreement to the same extent as other Canadians. This is a legitimate concern which I would like to address here today.
Although the premier of my province did not sign this framework agreement, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Hon. Jean Chrétien, has promised to make sure his fellow Quebeckers benefit from it as much as possible. This is good news for Quebeckers and for other Canadians. I will demonstrate this by examining a number of the major elements of this agreement.
The agreement comprises seven parts. The first sets out a number of principles committing governments to promoting greater fairness, equality and respect for diversity throughout Canada. The Government of Canada is naturally committed, within the limits of its constitutional powers and jurisdictions, to ensuring that Quebeckers benefit from the promotion of these fundamental values as much as other Canadians.
The second part is about mobility. It commits governments to eliminating harmful or unreasonable barriers to the free movement of Canadians throughout Canada. The Government of Canada, as the only government elected by all Canadians, is determined that Canadians be considered Canadians everywhere in Canada. This is an essential element of Canadian citizenship. The objective is obviously not to have “one size fits all” public policies and government practices throughout the country. Rather, the objective is to give all Canadians equal access to our country's rich diversity.
The Government of Canada hopes that the Government of Quebec will participate in these negotiations on mobility in order for Quebeckers to benefit fully from them.
The third part commits governments to keeping Canadians better informed and to acting with greater transparency. Each government will work to enhance its accountability to its constituents, known as public accountability. But governments will not be accountable to one another.
The Government of Canada is committed to enhancing its accountability to Quebeckers as it will to other Canadians.
The fourth part of the agreement commits governments to working in partnership while respecting their constitutional powers and jurisdictions. They will share information so as to learn better from one another. They will consult one another on their respective priorities and opportunities for co-operation. They will give one another advance notice prior to implementation of a major change and will work to avoid duplication while clarifying their roles and responsibilities. They are committed to more effective co-operation with aboriginal peoples throughout Canada.
The Government of Canada is committed to working in partnership with the Government of Quebec as it will with all other governments in Canada.
The fifth part commits governments, specifically the federal government, to using the federal spending power more co-operatively so as to improve social programs for Canadians. This means that with respect to any new Canada-wide initiatives in health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services that are funded through intergovernmental transfers, whether block-funded or cost-shared, first, the Government of Canada will no longer decide on its own to launch new initiatives. It will have to consult each province and territory and will consider proceeding only if it obtains the approval of at least a majority of provinces on objectives and an accountability framework.
Second, the Government of Canada will no longer impose programs, but will let each province determine its own programming for attaining the agreed objectives.
Third, the Government of Canada will no longer require that the total transfer be devoted to a given objective. A provincial government that, because of its existing programming, does not require the total transfer to fulfill the objective, may use the balance for other purposes in the same or a related priority area.
With respect to federal spending initiatives through direct transfers to individuals or organizations for health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services, the Government of Canada will no longer be able to implement new initiatives without first giving three months' notice and offering to consult the other governments. Those governments will have the opportunity to identify potential duplication and to propose alternative approaches to achieve flexible and effective implementation.
These undertakings set down significant new constraints on the federal government. They go beyond the provisions on limiting the federal spending power contained in the Meech and Charlottetown agreements. Independent observers in Quebec recognize the significance of these provisions.
The Government of Canada is committed to respecting these new requirements for co-operation and consultation and to ensuring that all governments benefit from this process, including the Government of Quebec.
The sixth part of the framework agreement on the social union commits governments to respecting a new dispute avoidance and resolution mechanism. This mechanism provides for joint negotiations and the participation of third parties for fact-finding or mediation. Even the Premier of Quebec has acknowledged that this new mechanism is a sign of progress. It will be available to him, as it is to all governments.
The seventh and final part provides for a full review of the framework agreement on the social union by the end of the third year of the agreement. Once the agreement has been put through its paces, it will be possible to identify its strengths and weaknesses and make improvements to it. The Government of Quebec will be invited to participate in this review. Quebeckers and all other Canadians will thus have an opportunity to express their views.
So this is what the Government of Canada intends to do to ensure that Quebeckers reap the full benefits of this agreement. To this end, it will offer its full co-operation to the Government of Quebec at every opportunity. Quebeckers want their governments to work together.
It is understandable that the Government of Quebec may feel that the progress achieved through the agreement is not enough. But it is reasonable to expect the Government of Quebec to accept the progress offered to it, even if it believes it is not enough.
Quebeckers, like other Canadians, must have full access to the immense potential of their country and to all of the opportunities for mutual assistance provided to them through the Canadian social union, one of the best in the world, which we will make even better through this agreement.
Stéphane Bergeron Verchères, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would just like to point out to the minister, and especially to his speech writers, that it is the tradition in this House to not call members by name.
Some hon. members
The Deputy Speaker
Order, please. The hon. member for Verchères—Les-Patriotes is absolutely right. Our standing orders provide that members not refer to one another except by riding name or title.
I am sorry the Chair did not pick up on the slip the hon. member is referring to. I was involved in a discussion, therefore missing what was said just then. Normally, the Chair would interrupt a member who makes this kind of slip to correct him or her.
Val Meredith South Surrey—White Rock—Langley, BC
Mr. Speaker, I think it is no surprise to the House that I have had deep reservations on the social union agreement that was struck on February 4. I hate to rain on the minister's parade, but it is interesting that just six days after the fact, the C.D. Howe Institute has released a report by William Robson and Daniel Schwanen entitled “The Social Union Agreement: Too Flawed to Last”. It states that while Canadians “might reasonably have expected to strike a deal that would have sorted out federal-provincial overlap, made federal-provincial transfers fairer and more transparent, and brought Quebec in as a more co-operative partner, the agreement reached on February 4 failed on all these counts”.
The federal government can spend money in areas of provincial jurisdiction with the support of six provinces. If it is the six smallest provinces in Canada it could mean that as little as 15% of Canada's population will determine the programs. I suggest to the minister that the seven provinces representing 50% of the population would have been much more representative and much fairer to Canadians. This is the recommendation the Reform Party has made in the new Canada act.
Under this arrangement the federal government will still be able to initiate programs like the millennium scholarship fund with the exception that it now only has to give the provinces three months notice. It is not going to stop the interjurisdictional conflict that has existed in this country for the last 50 years.
While the richer provinces will be paying the lion's share for any of these new programs, it is the poorer provinces which can dictate what programs will be activated.
The C.D. Howe report also shows that residents of the three so-called have provinces, B.C., Alberta and Ontario, will loose money with the announcement of more dollars for health care because of the federal bias in the transfers to the provinces. It is not just with equalization where this happens, it is with the transfer of programs that the federal government has to the provinces.
For every additional dollar spent on health care the residents of Ontario and Alberta will have to contribute an additional $1.30. To get that additional dollar British Columbians will have to contribute $1.10. For the provinces of Ontario and Alberta for that extra $100 the federal government transfers for health care they will in actuality only receive about $60. One has to ask how this agreement managed to find signatures on it.
As has also been reported, the proposed tax cuts in the federal budget will automatically result in less tax revenue for the provinces with the exception of Quebec. Where will there be actual dollars to put into health care?
The C.D. Howe report also mentions the concern of isolating Quebec. The minister made great efforts this afternoon to assure the people of Quebec they will be considered the same as all other Canadians. This agreement leaves two classes of Canadians, those in Quebec who will not be subject to the mobility and non-discrimination commitment, and those outside Quebec who will be.
For example, Quebec is the only province to charge higher tuition for out of province students. Quebec's failure to sign on will leave this situation as it stands. How long will the people outside Quebec tolerate Quebec students being able to pay the same tuition as their children in their provinces, while their children who want to study in Quebec will have to pay more?
As I mentioned last week, the Prime Minister missed a wonderful opportunity to sign a truly historic agreement that was all inclusive. The only reason for this missed opportunity was this government's reluctance to give up power, control and credit.
Members opposite want to get pictures of themselves handing out the cheques. What they fail to mention is that the money that is the basis of those cheques does not belong to the federal government. It belongs to the taxpayers of Canada.
Why do they fail to mention that? Why do they practice photo opportunity politics?
The report recommends that the provinces must seek ways of reopening the social union contract so that Quebec can sign on. Since the agreement contains provisions for re-evaluation after three years, an opportunity to establish more extensive opting out provisions balanced by more stringent obligations of transparency, portability of programs and credentials, and respect for the citizenship rights of all Canadians will arise shortly.
Preparing in advance would help to ensure that this accord's failings, Quebec's exclusion prominent among them, are not repeated. In other words, the federal government should have followed the Reform Party's new Canada act which gave good guidance in how Quebec could have signed on.
The official opposition hopes that a new spirit of federal-provincial co-operation has indeed occurred. However, rest assured we will be prominent in pointing out any and all instances where this government is letting down the Canadian people.
Pierre Brien Témiscamingue, QC
Mr. Speaker, on Thursday, February 4, 1999, nine provinces, two territories and the federal government signed an agreement on the social union, and all ten provinces and the two territories signed an agreement on health care.
At the time this announcement was made, some of the premiers apparently forgot what the Prime Minister of Canada said on referendum night, in November 1995. I would like to quote the Prime Minister, who said:
We have made to those Canadians who demonstrated their attachment to Quebec a commitment to change Canada. You called on Quebeckers not to let Canada down. You have been heard. Now I call on you not to let them down.
Once again, nine premiers have entered into an agreement with the federal government without Quebec's consent. This feels strangely familiar in Quebec.
After last Thursday's announcement, Friday's press conference by three ministers of this government, and a string of public statements over the weekend, the federal government is at it again today, telling us it knows what is good for us and we should do as it says.
Despite the fact that none of the political parties on the Quebec scene—the Parti Quebecois, the Quebec Liberal Party and Action démocratique—would have wanted to sign such an agreement, the federal government, in its great wisdom and superiority, tells us it understood what was best for us: a framework agreement.
This is the same government which has, in recent years, implemented a Plan B, made a reference to the Supreme Court, started such initiatives as the millennium scholarships, done a number on the provinces by cutting transfer payments for health care, and now it is touting itself as a great saviour.
What is there in this agreement? First of all, the great values and principles, with no reference whatsoever to the lead role played by the provinces in the health field. On the contrary, the door is being opened to the federal government's having a major planning role in social programs, health services and education.
Nowhere in the document, moreover, is there any firm financial commitment, even in the principles that relate to sectors so crucial to the future.
Third, this government, which had promised a commitment to a specific, unique status for Quebec, and so on and so forth, thumbed its nose at all that. Nowhere in the document, either, is there any recognition of Quebec's contribution to Canada as a society that is different, a people that is different. Now there is no longer any attempt at pretence. They do not even take the trouble to put this into the key principles behind this agreement.
The second element is mobility within Canada, a point that surely led to passionate discussions. In this regard, the government introduces the possibility of barriers to mobility where reasonable. We know full well, and we heard it in a speech earlier, that outside Quebec there has long been criticism of the fact that there is a difference between tuition fees charged students from outside Quebec and those charged Quebec students. What they never say, however, is that these students still pay less than they would in their own province. Will that be called into question by such an agreement. That remains to be seen, it will depend on the reasonableness test.
It is clear, however, and the minister knows it for a fact, that at the discussion table the matter was raised by many provinces. It was even raised, on a few occasions, by another of the opposition parties here in the House. This is one of the areas some provinces want to attack in connection with Quebec. I could provide examples of other areas, but there is not enough time this afternoon to do so.
The third point is accountability. I am extremely surprised to see in this agreement that they are trying to impose accountability criteria on the provinces. As if they were not already accountable.
I would point out that the provinces, and the case in point, Quebec, are democratic. Each year, before the budget, there is a practice, known as budget votes, involving a parliamentary commission, a debate in the National Assembly and a public presentation by the media and the opposition parties. Accountability criteria already exist and they apply to provincial governments, which are accountable to their electors.
The federal government now wants to get involved in that and give itself the job of evaluating provincial accountability. The provinces will therefore get a report card from the federal government with a thinly veiled threat that funding is tied to the achievement of cross Canada objectives, something no Government of Quebec has ever supported or ever will.
Fourth, to work in partnership with Canadians. In the real world one must also walk the talk. It was just a year ago that the government introduced the millennium scholarship initiative. The same government that promised to take a co-operative approach unilaterally established this program to subsidize or grant scholarships to students on merit and performance, arguing that it was fulfilling a priority in education at the expense of the provinces' own priorities. Would Quebec's priorities in this respect not been different?
Now there will be no choice; $80 million will be invested in this area every year and priorities will be set by the federal government, not by the Quebec government, the one responsible for managing the whole education system. It is one thing to make grand statements of principle, it is another to put them into practice.
Fifth, and this is the crux of the problem, federal spending power, this constitutional plague. Every attempt to negotiate and come to an agreement inevitably stumbled over the issue of limiting federal spending power. The minister claims this goes much further than what was called for in the Meech Lake accord. He has a very biased view of reality and I will refresh his memory on a few points.
He uses one point in the Meech Lake accord to say that, in the future, federal spending power will be restricted even further that was provided for in Meech, but he fails to mention—and I will remind him a thing or two about Meech—that there was nothing in the Meech Lake accord about the provincial responsibilities for mobility, accountability and transparency.
Granted, in Meech the opting out provisions only applied to cost-shared programs. Everyone agrees on that. However, no provision explicitly recognized a legitimate federal role in health, education and welfare.
There was no mention of the federal government's power to spend through direct transfers to persons, which is a key feature of this agreement. This meant that Quebec could always assert that it did not recognize this federal power.
Moreover, in the Meech Lake accord there was a safeguard clause, which basically stated that this provision did not extend the legislative authority of parliament or the provincial legislatures.
I might add also that Mr. Bourassa, then Premier of Quebec and not a sovereignist, specified that the new provision had been drafted to address the right to opt out without recognizing or defining the federal spending power. To make very certain—we can see that he was wary too—we insisted that an escape clause be added to the effect that the legislative powers of the federal parliament would not be increased”.
There are therefore several differences between this agreement and the Meech Lake agreement. There is also a new rule requiring the federal government to have the support of a majority of the provinces. The federal government will be able to go ahead with the support of six provinces. What does this actually mean? It means that the four maritime provinces, with two of the other smallest provinces, or 15% of the population, could impose Canada-wide standards on the social programs of Quebec, which represents 25% of the Canadian population.
There is something very wrong about this. Even advocates of the agreement admit that this is a major problem. This is a new low with respect to the criteria the federal government must meet in order to flex its spending power which, it should be said, it has extended unilaterally on more than one occasion, relying on the supreme court, the Criminal Code, national interest, and a series of supreme court rulings. Each time, they have encroached a little bit more.
Now, with this framework agreement, the provinces have cut them a little more slack.
There are two other points: a dispute settlement mechanism and a review of the agreement after three years. In light of all that, it is obvious that the Government of Quebec could not sign. I would like to read from an editorial that does not come from Quebec but rather from the National Post , which is hardly known for its sovereignist slant. Journalist Andrew Coyne wrote as follows:
“Let us consider what the federal government has gained and what it has given up. It has gained first and foremost provincial acknowledgement of the legitimacy of its own involvement in the social policy”.
He recognizes that there has been a very clear gain for the provinces in this agreement. My time is running out, so I will cut to the conclusion. Having analysed all the federal government gains, he says this:
“You would think the premiers would never sign such a document. But with at least two and probably four facing elections this year, the allure of more money for health care proves irresistible. Money can buy happiness but it seems it can buy provinces”.
Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB
Mr. Speaker, the New Democratic Party sees the social union as a potentially positive development in the kind of co-operative federalism New Democrats have long advocated.
The NDP has long supported the principle of co-operative federalism. Most recently, an NDP panel of party members presented a report to our federal council endorsing a social union based on the co-operative development and enforcement of standards for nationwide social programs.
To the extent that the social union framework is an attempt to establish such a framework of co-decision with governments working together in building programs that meet the needs of Canadians, it is a first step in the right direction.
The NDP welcomes the fact that the development of new and better social policy appears to be front and centre on the public agenda. We hope this agreement will break the impasse that has blocked the introduction of urgently needed national programs such as the national child care program and the national home care program, not to mention a national pharmacare program, all of which have been promised at one time or another by the party in power at the moment.
We believe therefore that the social union is a first step in the right direction toward a co-operative and less conflictual federalism where governments work together to meet the needs of Canadians in a context that affirms national standards and the continuing relevance of the federal spending power.
One of the biggest threats to Canada-wide social programs in recent years has been the federal government's unilateral withdrawal of funding. For instance, the federal share of health costs has fallen from 50% when medicare began to less than 15% now.
The social union framework comes with no specific offer of federal money nor a firm mechanism to ensure that the federal government will maintain its fair share of contributions to social programs over time.
The social union will only work if the federal government comes through with that commitment and if at the same time the agreement is amended to prevent unilateral action, particularly when it comes to unilateral reductions in federal contributions.
We believe therefore that the social union will only work if the federal government pays its fair share, is committed to do so in future years and is willing to forswear unilateral reductions in transfer payments.
New Democrats are pleased that the social union framework and the exchange of letters between the premiers and the Prime Minister have reaffirmed the principles of the Canada Health Act which protect publicly provided universal health care.
The social union framework must therefore be used to stop the trend in some provinces toward American style two tier health care.
The framework agreement contains numerous references to transparency, public accountability and the involvement of third parties. This is to be welcomed but the language is very vague.
Indeed the process of negotiating the social union was seriously lacking in transparency. We would like to register our own criticism and the criticism of many other Canadians about the way this agreement was arrived at in spite of whatever virtues it may contain. The process was seen by a great many Canadians, and rightly so, to be terribly lacking.
The federal NDP will therefore be watchful to see if governments follow through on these promises with effective measures on transparency and accountability.
On the important issue of having a watchdog to allow Canadians to assess whether both levels of government are meeting their obligations under the social union, the framework agreement is incomplete.
The accountability framework for new social initiatives has not yet been agreed on. The agreement provides for individuals to be able to “appeal unfair administrative practices” but the mechanism is to be provided by the government providing the service itself, not an independent agency as proposed by the NDP panel report to our federal council a couple of weeks ago.
Canadians want to have a say about how well their social programs like health care are serving them. New Democrats will be watching carefully to make sure the social union develops in a way that allows them that kind of input.
Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and other international covenants that set out Canadian social rights. The social union framework makes no reference to Canadian social rights, nor does it establish any mechanism to ensure that both levels of government are respecting them. In our view this is a serious shortcoming and something that perhaps could be remedied in future amendments or changes to the social union.
New Democrats want to see a social union that recognizes the social rights of Canadians and we will work toward this goal.
The framework agreement does declare with respect to aboriginal peoples that nothing in the agreement will take away from aboriginal rights and the signatory governments do commit themselves to work with aboriginal peoples “to find practical solutions to address their pressing needs”. We will insist that these consultations are meaningful and that they result in concrete action.
Finally, the Government of Quebec has not agreed to this social union framework and the social union will not be complete until all the provinces agree.
We do see in the social union a form of asymmetrical federalism by default. We do not find this to be as disturbing as others in the sense that we have always seen a form of asymmetrical federalism as that which is needed in order to address Canada's national unity problems. We have shared the concern of others in the past about having to decentralize at the level of 10 provinces in order to meet this distinctive special needs of one province.
We see in the social union more by default that by design an aspect of asymmetrical federalism which at the same time creates a situation in which the needs of Quebecers as citizens of Canada will be met and they will not be left out of the benefits of the social union.
Perhaps federalism is working in mysterious ways. We see here the seeds of a new beginning. We hope they will come to fruition.
André Bachand Richmond—Arthabaska, QC
Mr. Speaker, I want to make a few comments before dealing directly with the social union framework. I listened to members from the other parties and I want to take a minute to comment on their remarks.
First, let me say that it is strange to hear Reformers say there are small and big provinces, and that the small provinces could not tell the big ones what to do. The Reformers are once again changing their mind. The provinces are all equal when Quebec or other issues are concerned, but when the issue is social union, the small provinces must not control the big ones. Such is Reform politics. It can change at any time, depending on which way the wind blows.
It is also strange to hear comments about Quebec being isolated. During the last federal election campaign, no other party isolated Quebeckers more than the Reform Party did. People are becoming increasingly aware of this, on the eve of a weekend of activities that seems to be lacking on the organization side, on February 19, 20 and 21.
As for my Bloc Quebecois friends, they perpetuate historical fears. They often talk about traditional demands. Our sovereignist friends have a historical fear, that of Quebec getting along with Ottawa. They talk about Quebec's traditional demands, but this also has to do with traditional fears in Quebec because if ever Quebec gets along with Ottawa, they can kiss sovereignty goodbye. I think it is imperative that we get rid of this more extreme view as soon as possible.
Coming back to the framework agreement on social union signed last week, it was odd to have the minister talk about discussions over the past year. He knows very well that negotiations, often sectoral negotiations, on health, for instance, and even negotiations between the finance ministers, have been under way since 1995. That said, we can say that the federal government has been on board for the past year and the provincial government, Quebec in particular, for a few months.
There is one player missing in this social union deal today, but earlier on, there were actually two players missing, both Quebec and the federal government. Closer scrutiny may reveal that this deal was doomed to fail from the start, to a certain extent.
With respect to the agreement per se, I would have one request. This is very important to us. Shortcomings aside, no province, especially not Quebec, should have to pay a penalty. The fear in Quebec at present is that Quebeckers would have to foot the bill after any confrontation between Quebec and the federal government.
I think that the minister, the Prime Minister and the government, and hopefully the Premier of Quebec, can give us the assurance that there will be no such penalty. The people of Quebec and Canada should not be penalized because it was not their fault if a few people became stubborn at the last minute. I trust there will be far clearer commitments and that they will quit telling Quebec that it has to fall into step, and that, if it will not accept the carrot, then it will get the stick instead. That is not the right attitude.
This agreement can be readily summarized. We all know what an excellent writer the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs is, but this document could be put in just a few lines. There is an awful lot of stuff in here. There was much talk of mechanisms for settling disputes between the federal and provincial governments. It is high time we had a mechanism for settling such disputes, as they just keep on coming.
Point six refers to dispute avoidance and resolution. I am ready to bet anything, Mr. Speaker, that you cannot tell me what is going to bind the provincial and federal levels together in a solid, efficient, effective and credible process for resolving disputes.
It is said that this must be simple and timely. The government is left with maximum flexibility. The sectors must design processes appropriate to their needs, and provide for appropriate use of third parties. This could perhaps be used as a guideline. There is no dispute resolution mechanism. That is all we will have for the next three years. There will be talk, but no mechanisms.
In our 1997 electoral platform, we very humbly suggested a far firmer mechanism on which all provinces and the federal government agreed.
I suppose this was written because they had to have a document. They wanted more than just two sheets of paper. They said “Social union is something important. There must be a bit of meat to it”. But when one turns the pages, it does not amount to much.
I understand the hair on the necks of our Bloc colleagues rising at the suggestion of accountability, but what does it mean? Not much. What is there in the departments' reports that cannot be found there. Perhaps they are referring to certain national standards, because there will have to be a comparison among provinces. That is not all right. When things go well in Quebec, a comparison is often made with Ontario. They say, “We are better than Ontario this month in job creation”. But, when Ontario is better the following month, then it is different. It is the fault of the federal government.
Perhaps there is a fear of saying certain things, but we must keep Canadians informed and be transparent.
They mention a better partnership for Canadians. They talk about federal spending. The government will not let go its direct spending power. It does not even want jurisdictional problems. It wants nothing to do with the matter. It wants to keep it all for itself. What we are saying is that this could increase the fear some provinces or all the provinces feel in connection with federal spending power, the direct spending power.
What is new in the agreement, is that now, for new programs, there is a new rule based on a majority of provinces. There will be jointly funded and managed programs. But who will pay what? No one is saying the federal government will pay 50% or 30%. No one is saying the provinces will pay 30% or 50% or 75%. Agreement will be reached at the request of six provinces.
I return to the remark by the party that will be doing group therapy in two weeks, to the effect that it is not true the little provinces are telling the big ones what to do. To the people of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, I say, the Reform Party is not for you. The same applies to Alberta. British Columbia is smaller than Ontario, and it will not tell Ontario what to do. That is a lot of hot air.
In conclusion, there is nothing much in that document. However, there is one element that I do want to point out, namely providing a framework for cost-shared programs. We will certainly support the federal government in that regard.
Anybody who looks at our party's 1997 platform will see that this is what we want. Providing a framework does not mean to restrict or to smother, but rather to put in place mechanisms for joint management, joint decision-making and, of course, joint financing. If a minor problem occurs, there should be a dispute settlement mechanism.
We are not afraid to do it with the United States and with the World Trade Organization, so why not do it among ourselves. We must have an efficient and credible dispute settlement mechanism that respects every government's jurisdictions. At some point, we may have one or two decision levels, which will allow the provinces and the federal government to act accordingly.
On this subject, we applaud the initiative taken by the federal government to consult with the provinces. It is a good thing. We are also pleased with the fact that the provinces will be able to discuss new cost-shared programs with the federal government so an agreement can be reached.
There is still much to be done, but it may be a baby step in the right direction. We agree on that point, but for the rest, it was worth a photo op with all the first ministers in their dark suits except one, the premier of Quebec. Again, Quebec shows its distinct character. I hope that the next photo op will be for something positive rather than negative.