Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the people from the riding of Drummond for their confidence in me; I will try to discharge my mandate to the best of my knowledge and with total dedication.
What I heard last Tuesday in the Senate does not reflect in any way the strong program that Quebecers and Canadians had a right to expect to regain a feeling of hope and confidence in the future. That is why I want to convey to this House and to the government my concerns and those of my colleagues concerning the throne speech, and the health care system in particular.
Unfortunately, the meagre content of the throne speech in this respect creates more fears than hopes. Our fellow citizens are expecting solutions to the problems associated with our deteriorating health care system, such as bed closures, crowded emergency wards, higher drug prices, and so on. Let us take for example the acute crisis prevailing in Sainte-Croix Hospital of Drummondville in my riding. Inadequate funding and severe budget cutbacks have led to obsolete equipment, a lack of specialists, frequent service cuts, split shifts and patient transfers. All this makes life harder for staff and patients alike. What hope does the throne speech give us that these unacceptable situations will be resolved? Very little, I'm afraid, Mr. Speaker.
Let us talk about federal transfer payments and established programs financing. We must first recognize that the finance minister's commitment to improve equalization payments every five years is certainly reassuring for all provinces.
But we must not confuse equalization payments with transfer payments. In 1986, the previous government, criticized on many occasions by the current Prime Minister, started to reduce federal transfers for established programs financing. In 1987, the Tories announced that Canadian provinces and Quebec would receive $270 million less for health care and post-secondary education.
Worse still, they announced in February 1991 that per capita transfer payments for established programs financing would be frozen until 1994-95. All these measures were applied unilaterally, without the consent of Quebec and the other provinces, despite the formal agreement reached by the parties in 1977. So, between 1978 and 1993, the federal government's contribution
to health care and post-secondary education programs in Quebec fell from 47 to 34 per cent.
As we all know, whenever transfer payments are reduced, it is the poorest provinces that suffer the most. What we are talking about is fairness for the provinces and Quebec. A freeze in federal transfers for established program financing is in itself a serious threat to the principles set forth in the Canada Health Act.
Therefore the Official Opposition intends to promote a review of the transfer payment procedures, in a way that will respect the financial capacity of Quebec, the provinces and Canada.
We must also stress that as the federal government got out of funding this program, the provinces and Quebec faced increased costs for health care. This growth is due to several factors, like the aging population, the appearance of costly advanced medical technology and higher drug prices.
The taxpayers of Quebec and Canada entrust the federal government with large sums of money, part of which has always been intended for health care under the 1977 agreement. The problem is that for 10 years, the federal government has not given the portion due back to the provinces and Quebec and thus diverts funds meant for health care. Instead, what it transfers to Quebec and the provinces is its deficit, a consequence of the previous government's inability to control its spending. We are talking about a reduction of nearly a third in transfer payments here. This has had major consequences on the financial health of Quebec and the provinces. If the present Liberal government just froze transfer payments, it would mean a cut equal to the increase in the cost of living.
The federal government would be making the choices which Quebec and the provinces have to make more difficult as they try to cover their shortfall and reduce their tax burden. Since greater efficiency is unlikely in the short term, Quebec and the provinces would be faced with two equally unpleasant options: reducing the quantity or quality of services or going further into debt. In either case, we are not telling anyone anything new when we say that it is still the poorest people who will suffer the most.
Let me point out to this House that neither Quebec nor the provinces are asking for charity here. They are only demanding the money which is their due under an official agreement, remember.
Furthermore, we question the federal government's right and justification in requiring the provinces to maintain certain health insurance procedures, after the Conservative government in its nine years in power systematically went back on its financial commitments with respect to transfer payments.
As a result, the provinces and Quebec have been forced, in spite of themselves, to propose various so-called palliative measures in recent years, such as user fees, service charges, deductibles and so on. All these alternatives have one thing in common: they make health care and services less accessible.
The federal government must be sensitive and above all aware that by increasing the financial burden of Quebec and the provinces, a two-tier system will be created: on one hand, those who can afford access to health care and services, and on the other, those who for financial reasons will delay treatment or even do without necessary care.
We believe in the great principles of universality, comprehensiveness, accessibility, portability and public administration. What we oppose is that these great principles are seriously threatened in all provinces and Quebec by the federal government's very inability to meet its commitments.
As my hon. colleagues realize as well as I do, in Quebec like elsewhere, it is always the same people who have to foot the bill. In terms of transfer payments, the federal government takes money out of the pockets of the taxpayers and transfers it to the provincial government. Basically, the taxpayers' money is taking a round trip to Ottawa.
But this trip has a price. In Ottawa, the bureaucracy takes its cut. Consequently, some of the taxpayers' money does not come back. That part is kept here to satisfy the appetite of the federal administration.
Just last week, the Minister of Finance warned us not to expect any gifts when transfer payment agreements expiring next year are renegotiated.
Would it not make more economic sense and make the taxpayers feel safer if they were to pay directly to their provincial government the money they owe for health care, thereby eliminating the federal intermediary, the additional costs and, more importantly, the risk that the federal government will grab this money to reduce its deficit?
In view of the fact that the federal government did not manage to make good its promises in the past, we are convinced that the people of Canada would be better served in terms of health care if each of the provinces and Quebec took things in hand and looked after implementing the Canada Health Act themselves.
This way, the bureaucratic load would be significantly reduced and management would be exercised much closer to home and be much easier to adapt to the specific requirements of the situation, as it would be more responsive and effective in the short term. It would also take away the sword that hangs over the heads of Quebec and the other provinces with every new federal budget!
Health also calls for prevention. As we all know, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, however good the care system is. This is to say that in terms of prevention, any budget cut that is not immediately compensated by an equivalent increase in the efficiency of the programs affected would translate into a cost increase higher than the expected savings.
The best prevention with regard to health is to enhance the socio-economic condition of the people of Quebec and Canada. A large segment of the population could be negatively affected by the precarious state of the economy in Quebec and everywhere in Canada.
From Saint John's to Victoria, women and men, young and old, live in socio-economic conditions that do not allow them to develop their full potential. We all have in our ridings families living under the poverty line and barely surviving.
Pregnant women are not eating appropriately, preventing the foetus from developing normally. Several newborns are underweight and require prolonged hospital care. Others are born with diseases due to deficiencies in their mothers' diet and require treatment during several years. The prenatal nutrition programs announced in the throne speech will have to provide a real solution to this important problem.
School children are even reported to be starving because the fridge is almost empty at the end of the month. These children often do badly in school and drop out before getting a diploma. We must do something for these children.
People who cannot find decent housing are even worse off. As it was pointed out in the health and welfare policy issued in 1992 by the Quebec government, living in a run-down apartment with poor heat and poor ventilation is particularly harmful to the health of young children and seniors.
Therefore, the social housing problem is extremely serious in every province, including Quebec. This situation cannot go on forever.
One of the best ways to reduce health costs is to enable everybody to live in adequate and decent conditions. And it is by providing decent jobs that we will be able to improve the situation.
Also, even though we agree with the efforts of the Department of Health to reduce tobacco consumption, we deeply regret the program implemented by the previous government to increase taxes on tobacco. This program, which is a disaster, has generated four major adverse effects.
First, the creation of a contraband network and a black market which have generated uncontrollable and unnecessary illegal and criminal activities. Second, tobacco sales have dropped everywhere, resulting in a sharp drop in profits for businesses. Consequently, tax revenues have also been reduced drastically. Finally, and this is both unfortunate and ironic, the emergence of this black market has not only prevented the expected reduction in tobacco consumption, but has in fact provoked an increase in consumption among young people, if only because of the appeal of cigarettes as a contraband product.
It is a real shame that this House is responsible for having provoked such a serious and unnecessary crisis when there are so many real problems to tackle. Therefore, we ask the new government to reduce drastically taxes on tobacco products.
The throne speech states in less than two lines that a Centre for Excellence for women's health will be established to ensure that women's health issues will receive the attention they deserve. This project is certainly commendable, but will it be a true program for support, research and action for women's health or will it be merely a documentation centre as the Liberal government program seemed to suggest?
What funds will be targeted to research on women's health? There are deficiencies in the research on breast cancer, gynaecology and obstetrics, chronic and degenerative diseases, mental health, violence and occupational illnesses. If it is the socio-economic situation of women which determines their health needs, what concrete measures are needed to eliminate these unfortunate conditions? It is urgent to act and to go to the roots of the problem. Women are poor and that is the reason for a lot of their health problems.
Everybody has a brother, a sister, or a friend struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction. We urge the government to give special support to organizations which work for the detoxication and rehabilitation of those who are affected by such problems.
The throne speech mentions a national forum on health to foster a dialogue on the renewal of Canada's health system. We can only praise the government for this initiative but, at the same time, we are concerned that this type of exercise might take too long to get under way, might cost too much and might end with a report which will be shelved. The Bloc Quebecois will strongly criticize any attitude which would lead such an initiative to flop.
The Bloc will also ensure that the government does not use this forum to justify unilateral changes in transfer payments which would be to the detriment of Quebec's and the other provinces' interests. Indeed, the Bloc Quebecois' mandate is to
ensure that the poor will not have to suffer from changes made for fiscal consolidation purposes.
This is why, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, we are adamant that the government must set up a House committee whose mandate will be to review each budget item in order to eliminate unnecessary and frivolous expenses.
In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, in order to protect the health of Quebecers and Canadians, the government must guarantee to all the provinces that they will get their fair share of the money paid by taxpayers to this end, as well as the all services which Quebecers and Canadians desperately need.
The Official Opposition intends to intervene in a useful way and, if necessary, as energetically as required, to ensure that each citizen of Quebec and Canada has access to the health care and services which they need.