Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate this morning on Bill C-54, the issue of equalization.
The bill would extend the equalization program for one year until March 31, 2005. I will begin by giving some background information to our viewing audience.
The equalization program helps provincial governments offer comparable levels of service at comparable levels of taxation, that is in theory. Payments are guaranteed under the Constitution Act of 1982.
Parliament and the Government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonable and comparable levels of public service at reasonable and comparable levels of taxation, that is in theory.
What we have today are eight provinces receiving approximately $10.5 billion per year. The payments are unconditional. The money may be spent according to provincial priorities.
Payments are based on a comprehensive formula that measures the ability of each province to raise revenue against the per capita average of five provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The formula includes revenues from several sources, including resource taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes, fuel taxes, property taxes, user fees and gaming revenues. Changes to the formula would be made through regulations. The program will expire on March 31, 2004, unless Parliament renews the date.
The government does not expect to be in a position to present a package of detailed changes until the federal-provincial finance ministers meeting in January. This should leave enough time for the necessary legislation to be in place by the start of the 2004-05 fiscal year. However the government did not want to take any chances in light of the uncertain political climate and decided to ensure that payments would be made next year. The government says that the legislation to enact a new equalization program will be retroactive to April 1, 2004.
The major concerns that we have heard this morning about the equalization program include a loss of benefits when provinces develop new resource revenues. That is justifiable, especially when people want their own province to be more self-sufficient, as we have seen in the maritime provinces with the new discoveries of both minerals and gas and oil.
The measures of fiscal capacity and the clawback of benefits previously paid would be determined when the revised data becomes available. If we really examine this whole clawback business, it really does not make any sense. There should be a provision or a transitional formula in there to assist provinces to be self-sufficient.
The provinces are seeking changes that would add $3 billion to the annual costs of the equalization program. The provinces recently learned that as a result of revised economic and population data, close to $1 billion will be clawed back from their equalization plans. That is a lot of money. It is like having a second gun control program.
At the same time, the federal government has indicated that a special one time payment of $2 billion for health care promised last winter may not be made because of the deteriorating federal surplus. If the government makes promises, then it should carry them out. Besides, it was the government's efforts that gutted health care in the first place.
The Progressive Conservative Party supports the bill because eight provinces depend on the federal government for equalization payments which are used to provide programs and services to their residents. Any interruption in these cashflows would imperil provincial obligations. In other words, if bills need to be paid they need to be paid with cash.
I wish the government would take that same attitude toward farmers who need cash, certainly with what was experienced this past summer with BSE on the prairies and across the country, as well as how it impacted on the province of Quebec and the maritimes.
The recipient provinces rely upon the timely arrival of equalization funds for planning their own budgetary process and meeting their bottom line.
This bill is up for debate on short notice, as we know today, and I would like to ask, why all of a sudden are we doing this? As the member from the Bloc indicated, we are supposedly going to rise next week for one reason or another. We are not sure, but we hear rumours in this place. Why all of a sudden are we rushing to put this through?
It certainly shows how important equalization is to the government. It is hard to believe that the government knew that the year was coming up and it waited until the bitter end of Parliament before it brought the bill back to the House to extend the dates.
One must question the timing of this bill, given the internal Liberal leadership politics and an impending election call in early 2004.
We have not gotten to that stage yet because Bill C-49 has not made it to the Senate, and that must take place to change the magic date of August 25, 2004, to April 1, 2004. This extension could be motivated by a desire to free the leader-in-waiting of the Liberal government and the Liberal Party from having to deal with this contentious issue during an election campaign.
Let me take some time and talk about federal-provincial relationships. Let me begin by applauding the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, for his vision of creating this new council of Confederation. It is long overdue. As members know, federal and provincial counterparts have been at odds for too long.
Let us examine our history and go back to pre-Confederation. Lower Canada, Upper Canada and the Maritimes were all separate units. They all got together because they wanted to cooperate. They wanted to work together in the best interests of what was half of Canada back in those days and of the people they represented. That is why the history of this country is about cooperative federalism. It is long overdue.
When we look at the record of the Liberals over the last 10 years since they have been in power, there has been little cooperative federalism. It has basically been a dictatorship from Ottawa to the rest of the country.
The attitude of the government has always been that if we do not like it, that is it, take it or leave it. It does not work because we are a country of different provinces and regions. We all have different needs.
That is the reason why equalization started, so that we would all be treated equally in this country. That is a principle of Canadian democracy: equality of citizens. That is why we follow-through with equality of governments, provinces and territories.
This past decade has been full of conflict started by the Liberal government. Let us look at health care. The government created the problem we have today. In 1994 it slashed $24 billion. From 1994 to the present, the Liberal government has not even replaced that $24 billion it took away. Meanwhile, the demands of provincial governments, the health care system, and Canadians have elevated to the point of no return.
What do provinces do when they cannot pay the bills? It not only increased demands on the patient side but also for equipment. It is an impossibility.
We all know that when medicare started we had 50¢ on the dollar. The federal government funded 50% of the program. Today, we are down to 15¢ on the dollar, yet at the same time the federal government wants to dictate how health care should take place in this country. It is paying 15¢ on the dollar and it wants to dictate. It is just unreasonable. If it were paying 50¢ on the dollar, it would sound more reasonable that it should have a 50% share in the decision making, but the government is paying 15¢ on the dollar and it wants to make all the decisions. Basically, it is top down.
In fact, this affects my own riding as I am sure it affects the ridings of most members in this House. In my own particular riding, the provincial government shut down six emergency services from six different hospitals this summer. My riding is over 200 miles long and about 100 miles wide. There is a lot of geography. We do not drive 5 or 10 minutes to a hospital, but hours, literally. People spend hours getting to a hospital and hours waiting for emergency services. This puts people's live at risk.
I know that my constituents are so stressed out because they do not know what to do about it. The problem has been downloaded from the feds to the province and the province seems to be downloading it to the municipalities.
We talk about waste of money. It is pretty realistic to say that Canadians are taxed to death. The provinces fight about how much equalization they should get. But, generally speaking, I do not think we would find too many Canadians who pay taxes who would disagree that they are taxed to death. On the other hand, Canadians do not mind being taxed on the condition that their tax dollars are used wisely on things like health care and creating jobs.
Unemployment is a sore point. There is a surplus of over $40 billion in the EI fund. Canadians cannot understand it and neither can I. It is highway robbery. The government has both hands in the pockets of Canadians.
As members know, a people on employment insurance get back I think 55% of the wage they earned. Perhaps we should raise it to 75%. But to literally steal an extra $40 billion from hardworking Canadians over the last 10 years is not acceptable. We talk about fair play. This is the black hole; this is where all tax dollars come.
There is the $1 billion gun registry. As I said in the justice committee last week, it has gone beyond the argument about registration of long guns. It is about the spending of people's taxes. It is so unfortunate that we collect so much in taxes here and waste so much money. Meanwhile, the services that are demanded by Canadians from coast to coast to coast are neglected.
I would like to comment on highways. Many of us have served in municipal politics. We know how difficult it is to get money from the provincial and federal government for infrastructure development, especially today.
We are concerned about the health of people and clean water. Sewage plants in rural Canada are 50 to 60 years old. They are all breaking down. Small communities need $3 billion or $4 billion to clean up the sludge accumulated over the last 50 years.
Where do people who live in small communities across this country get the money from? All their money is being sent to Ottawa. They do not have the tax base to raise $2 billion or $3 billion to clean out the sludge in their sewage systems or to build $7 million to $10 million or $20 million clean water plants. It is nice to say that Canadians need clean and safe water. But who will pay the bill? That is a frustration Canadians are experiencing across this country.
The roads and bridges are basic infrastructures that have been out there for probably 60 years and they are getting very little dollars, even though the greatest amount of dollars collected come to this place.
Today, on average, we collect $8 billion to $10 billion in gasoline tax. I used to sit on the transport committee when I first came here in 1997. Even the provincial ministers sat down and agreed to what was necessary. I read the report. It was great and reasonable. Basically, it became a dust collector. So, what is the point? There is no point talking because it is beyond talking. It is about helping people.
One of the principle values of the Liberal Party is helping people. I do not think the Liberal Party is helping anybody by the way it operates in this country. The oldest trick in the book is divide and conquer. The Liberals, I would say, wrote the red book on that one because they are skilled experts when it comes to dividing people and conquering them, whether it is at the municipal, provincial or federal levels.
We have gone beyond that. When we talk about equalization, it is time that we get back to basics and talk about how this country came into being. Why were we a Confederation at our birth? The people prior to Confederation lived in Lower and Upper Canada. In effect, they operated as nations of their own at that time.
We need to review and not forget the lessons of why we are what we are. We need to look at basic things like taxation and its purpose. It is not about giving money to one's friends and helping ourselves. It is about helping people.