Mr. Speaker, I want to thank especially my Bloc Quebecois colleagues for their support. I am very pleased to rise today to speak to the December 2001 budget implementation bill.
The curious thing about an implementation bill is that it always contains measures we support. Often they are measures put forward by the Bloc Quebecois, in this case the provisions dealing with mechanics, which were championed by the member for Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île-d'Orléans. I believe he deserves our support.
At the same time, we find measures such as the air security charge. For that we have nobody to applaud on either side. Today, we even heard a Liberal member arguing very strongly in favour of amending this part of the bill. His argumentation was very convincing, since he talked a lot about small airports in the remote areas of his riding.
Unfortunately, I fail to understand the logic of his reasoning. He said during questions and comments that in the end he would still vote for the bill. This is the downside of his presentation.
I urge everybody to read what he said regarding the air security tax, which is going to be entirely paid for by travellers. This means for instance that in airports in Alma, Bagotville, Baie-Comeau, Chibougamau, Gaspe, the Magdalen Islands, Kuujjuaq, La Grande Rivière, la Grande-3, La Grande-4, Blanc-Sablon, Mont-Joli, Montreal, Quebec City, Roberval, Rouyn-Noranda, Sept-Îles et Val-d'Or, in every single one of these small or medium size airports, travellers will have to pay this surcharge, when we know full well that the whole issue of terrorism is going to require the implementation of new technologies, but mainly in major airports.
This morning, another member from the Canadian Alliance said that the Standing Committee on Transport had made a very constructive proposal. It suggested that half of the bill be paid by users and the other half by the government. This way, we would reduce the negative impact on the development of these regions.
For this reason alone, we have no choice but to vote against the bill, unless the government decides to withdraw this half-baked measure that has seemingly been hastily put together, a bit like the infrastructure foundation.
In the same bill, in the same December budget where they come up with this new air travel tax, they also invented a new method for dealing with infrastructure expenditures, via a foundation.
Everybody has spoken out against this and attacked it, because it makes no sense that we elected representatives should totally delegate this responsibility to people who have not been not elected, particularly since this government very much had control over the appointment of the foundation's members. As well, this delays investments.
Municipalities throughout Quebec and Canada have proposed projects to their governments. Some have been approved by the Government of Quebec, but cannot be accepted by Ottawa because no money is available for investment. One might therefore have expected this in the budget.
Today, in the implementing bill, there has been a backtrack on this, because the government has realized that the foundation was not workable, and did not meet governmental accountability requirements. I think what was done was appropriate, but now we have another obstacle. Looking at the bill, we see that the government wants to invest directly in the municipalities, without going through Quebec City.
During today's oral question period, I was thinking about this and said to myself “I hope it is not true that we are headed for another hassle like the one over the millennium scholarship foundation. We will end up being forced to spend months and years negotiating to find a way to get the money to the municipalities of Quebec, and of course it will all be blamed on the Government of Quebec, taking advantage of this, the last year of its mandate. A fine way to strangle a government”.
The federal government is allowing the money to go to the English speaking provinces because they are not going to make a problem about it going directly to the municipalities. That is their view of Canada. But in Quebec we want infrastructure expenditures to be co-ordinated, so it would not yet be possible.
We are going to fight in order to bring the federal government at last, after the foundation idea, which made no sense, followed by the fund idea, which would have the money going directly to the municipalities, back to its senses so that it will decide—and I think this could be done very readily—to enter into negotiations in order to have the Canada-Quebec infrastructure program apply to this $2 billion fund.
This way, it would only take one or two days' worth of meetings. There is a mechanism that already exists that could be used to meet infrastructure needs.
And there are considerable needs to be met. In my riding, there are projects to protect water quality. These are important projects. This is a priority for everyone. I think that this work needs to be done in the short term, in order to avoid finding ourselves in a situation where we cannot obtain satisfactory results.
What would happen if in one year or in a year and a half, suddenly, we had another Walkerton situation on our hands and some municipality experienced a terrible crisis like the one that happened in Ontario? If that were to happen, a number of people would say that if they could have spent the money this year, if they could have carried out the projects this year, the situation could have been avoided. When we look at it this way, I would describe the government's attitude as somewhat irresponsible.
They are attempting to save face after realizing that the foundation was not working. Now, why not allow for this money to be quickly injected into the system so that it can quickly be spent? For this, I think that there is still another step that this government has yet to take.
I mentioned earlier that an implementation bill contains both good and bad measures. There is one measure that it contains, regarding employment insurance and parental and maternity benefits in some cases, which we support. It will help people who were hindered by a system that was too rigid and that prevented them from taking full advantage of their maternity or parental benefits if they left the hospital after several weeks. This situation will be rectified. There will be more leeway. This is appropriate.
But between this small step and what could have been done had the government agreed to implement the parental leave plan proposed by the Quebec government, there is a long, long way to go. On the one hand, we have this small measure, which, thankfully, will correct a situation, but on the other hand, there was a parental leave option that would have allowed all self-employed workers to be eligible.
In the end, all workers could benefit from it, whereas the existing federal parental leave program is not flexible. It provides for one year of benefits at 55% of the person's salary. It is not possible, for example, to have 40 weeks at 75%. Low income families might prefer to have that.
For instance, 55% of a weekly salary of $300 is not much. If people could at least get 75% for a lower number of weeks, that would be a start. This is an option that could have been included, but that the existing federal program does not allow.
I am asking the government to continue to look at the issue, so that it can arrive at a solution and agree with Quebec to establish this parental leave program, which several provinces in Canada want, by the way.
When Mme Goupil, the Quebec minister responsible for this issue, proposed this measure to her counterparts from the other provinces, the reaction was very favourable. It is hoped that the system will be operational as soon as possible. Why not begin with Quebec, which has often taken the initiative on social issues and has served as an example for the other provinces, and sometimes for Canada as a whole?
This is like the $5 a day daycare program. It is in the same spirit. We have got a lot of praise for this initiative which, among other things, has resulted in a significant drop in the number of single mothers who rely on welfare. Thanks to this program, these women can now go to work and have access to quality daycare services, at a much lower cost.
In this way, we not only fulfill the need to generate wealth but, in some ways, we are doing our share in ensuring that this wealth is properly distributed and in allowing people to make a contribution by using their potential. These are very appropriate efforts.
We must also get to the bottom of things as regards the impact of another aspect of this bill. We must find out what will happen with the surpluses. Initially, it was said that the foundation would have a budget of $2 billion. That was conditional on the amount of the surpluses. The $500 million fund for Africa would also be set up under the same terms.
On the basis of today's figures and given the practice that we have been seeing for the last few years, the Minister of Finance always announces small surpluses so that, at the end of the year, he has huge amounts with which to pay down the debt. We are not against money being used to pay down the debt but, during a major economic downturn, we would have liked to see some balance and to know the exact figures so that there could be an informed debate. Once again this year, this is not the situation we are being presented with.
During Oral Question Period, I asked the Minister of Transport about highway 185, the segment of the Trans-Canada between Rivière-du-Loup and Edmunston. In this budget, I was not necessarily asking that this particular highway be mentioned, but I would have liked to see more than the $500 million currently earmarked for Canada's highway system. Five hundred million dollars over five years is $100 million a year, which means, for Quebec, $25 million a year, when highway 185 alone, the Trans-Canada between Rivière-du-Loup and Edmunston, will cost a total of $500 to $600 million.
This highway is a deathtrap; 30 people have lost their lives on it in the last three years. With the disappearance of the railway line, this highway has had to serve an entirely different set of needs. Today, there is the heavy vehicle traffic of the Trans-Canada travelling from the maritimes to central Canada, as well as heavy local and tourist traffic. It is almost the only highway in Quebec where, despite my experience as a driver, I personally do not feel safe because I never know what is going to happen next.
I would have liked to see additional money in the budget for this, so that highway 175 or other highways could be maintained. This was one of the promises made during the election campaign—which was one year ago, not ten—by the Prime Minister himself, who promised that large amounts of money would be earmarked for highway 185; still today, nothing has been confirmed. It is hard to imagine how the Minister of Transport will manage to meet the needs in this area when he was unable to get the Minister of Finance to include additional money in the budget for this.
I hope that the money set aside for infrastructure will find its way into this area of concern, but there are many other needs. It would have been helpful to have this information in the budget.
For some weeks now, since before Christmas in fact, the Minister of Transport has had on his desk memoranda from the Quebec Minister of Transport on highways 185 and 175, and other highways in Quebec, saying “We will finance the project on a 50-50 basis, or since highway 185 is the Trans-Canada Highway, we will finance it on a 20-80 basis”.
The Quebec government has already invested $225 million. Money was spent last year, and more will be provided this year. But if we had an extra amount from the federal government, we could speed up the work. Larger amounts would be put toward engineering and architectural studies, so that work can be properly planned. We are still awaiting the government's answer but none has been forthcoming. There is nothing in the December 2001 budget implementation bill to that effect.
The budget also includes Canada's $500 million Africa fund to help reduce poverty, develop primary education programs and promote sustainable development in Africa.
In this area, we realize that in spite of all the rhetoric on the need to increase international aid and write off the debt of the poorest countries in the world, the federal government has not really increased our contribution to international aid. Yet, it would probably be the best way to permanently resolve crises like the terrorist crisis that we are facing now.
I do not believe that the long term solution would be to equip our military as it has never been equipped before. This is not the solution. Terrorists will always find ways to bypass the systems in place.
We must ensure that there no longer is a breeding ground for terrorism, a totally unacceptable behaviour. There must be a better distribution of wealth. Summits like those that took place last week must work toward common goals. I am thinking here about the Pôrto Alegre summit and the New York economic summit, which was usually held in Davos, Switzerland. The Canadian government has a responsibility to do its share in terms of international aid.
I have worked with various players in this field. The government organized round tables. We realized that, as elected representatives, we had to raise awareness of this issue in our communities. When there is not enough money for our constituents, they do not always understand why we should be giving money to other countries.
If we want to smooth the rough edges of globalization, we must ensure that people living in developing countries have the means to progress and to enjoy the benefits of our society, instead of only having the disadvantages and the low paying jobs. People must have access to adequate training and be able to use their skills in their own community. There is a lot of work to be done in this area.
Finally, with this budget, we see many contradictions in the finance minister's statement. In a few weeks, or in two months maybe, the government will have the financial results for the year. Again there will be huge surpluses, including surpluses coming from the employment insurance fund. I will conclude my remarks on this note.
Last fall, I was expecting to receive the report from the chief actuary for the employment insurance fund, as I had in previous years. In January, I still had not received it. I wrote to the minister asking her to send it to us. Two days later, the answer was “There is no report”. Four days later, I was told “Sorry, we made a mistake the first time. There is a report, a copy of which you will find attached”.
And to top it all off, it is obvious that the report was not produced by the chief actuary. The federal government has now decided that the chief actuary at employment insurance will no longer produce an annual report. For the next two years, according to Bill C-2, the government will be the one to set the contribution rate. This is a cover-up operation. Bill C-2 makes it possible to disguise the fact that there is too much money in the EI account. Every year, some $6 billion is taken from it to be used for other government expenditures. They have decided to eliminate that possibility and the public will no longer be able to ask any questions.
The second phase of the cover-up is that the decision was made in the fall for the chief actuary not to report any longer, and all this is because of Bill C-2. The Minister of Human Resource Development remains the one responsible, however, and there are questions that need to be asked in order to ensure that the fund will really be used to enable EI to serve the purpose for which it was created.
We are faced with a situation where, once again, there will be a four, five or six billion dollar surplus, despite the economic downturn, despite the economic fallout of September 11 as well as of the entire softwood lumber crisis and other such things. The means have not been put into place to enable our local workers affected by this crisis to stand behind the position of Quebec and Canada on this. Today, I have listened to what the Minister for International Trade has had to say. As far as his contacts with the Americans are concerned, I can say that it is all right, but they have had to be monitored very closely.
As for the necessity of worker solidarity, the government has not done anything. Today people are going to exhaust their EI benefits and within weeks or months there is going to be a terrible furore. What people expected to find in this budget was some measures that would in whole or in part reflect the plan proposed by the Bloc Quebecois, a recovery plan that would have made it possible to cope with these negative situations. That is nowhere to be found in either the budget or the 2001 budget implementation act.
For all these reasons and despite the positive elements in this omnibus bill, the Bloc Quebecois has no choice but to vote against ,it unless the government finally amends it. We have already made some gains. The concept of a foundation has been dropped. If we keep repeating our arguments, we may score more points. In the meantime, if the government does not change its position, our constituents would not accept our supporting a bill that does not provide for an adequate distribution of wealth.
For all these reasons, I hope many parties and members on both sides of the House will do just like the Bloc Quebecois. I hope that the Liberal member who spoke out against the tax on air transportation will think it over and vote against the bill, as we will do, because it is the best option for the time being.