Mr. Speaker, in May 1873 the government of Sir John A. Macdonald passed an act admitting Prince Edward Island to Confederation. A month later his cabinet approved an order in council which also promised the "efficient steam service for the conveyance of mails and passengers to be established and maintained thus placing the island in continuous communication with the intercolonial railway and the railway system of the Dominion".
The provision of that order in council has now become part of our present day Constitution. The promise has been kept for 121 years. Today it is the intention of both the federal government and that of Prince Edward Island to change the wording of the clause but not the promise itself, thus committing the federal government to a fixed link instead of a ferry service.
At the outset I want the House to note the intention of our forefathers. Their intent was obvious. They were clearly intending to obligate the federal government to keep the island in continuous communication with the mainland. The mode of transportation by ferry was also specified and the federal government wishes to confirm that same intention. However, today it wants to specify a different mode of transportation.
The Reform Party of Canada does not wish to argue that a bridge would not be beneficial to Prince Edward Island. Common assent to the plan has been given by provincial plebiscite and resolution.
The fixed link has weathered protests by environmentalists and engineers who argue that the bridge will be unhealthy or unsafe. It has endured bad press, public dispute and court challenges and now all that remains is to change this clause. No one argues that the bridge will mean more prosperity for the maritimes and increased economic development for Prince Edward Island in particular.
The principle of a bridge replacing a ferry is not the substance of our complaint today. The Reform Party wants nothing but increased prosperity for all of the maritime provinces. However, the federal cabinet should not pass an Order in Council today to change this clause. To alter it today requires an amendment to the Constitution, that document foundational to our nation, the instrument which defines our political system and, more specifically, defines the nature of the relationship between provinces and the federal government.
I address two different audiences today. To the audience in Prince Edward Island, I understand why it needs this bridge or why it wants it. It will be good for that province and I think there is widespread public support in Canada for the bridge.
To my second audience, the Government of Canada, what it is attempting to do in this House today is both incorrect and unwise. Allow me to explain what I mean.
The Government of Canada is proceeding under section 43 of the Canadian Constitution which reads:
An amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to any provision that applies to one or more, but not all, provinces-may be made by proclamation issued by the Governor General.
The government assumes that it can safely proceed under this section because it also assumes that this issue relates only to the federal government and two or three provinces. Is this really the case? Could it be true that the provision of a fixed link to Prince Edward Island involves all the provinces of Canada, not only the maritime provinces? I submit that although this amendment does not apply directly to every province of Canada, it affects every province in an important and substantive way and therefore the government could be acting improperly.
If changes are necessary at this time, it should proceed in a fairer and more conventional manner by way of section 38 of the Constitution, a section which at least attempts to involve the input of all Canadians.
How are other provinces involved? This venture is a shared cost venture and these costs are not shared between just one province and the federal government. The subsidy which now operates the ferries is taken from the federal government's general revenue. Who contributes to the federal treasury, all provinces or just a few? All provinces are involved today in subsidizing Prince Edward Island's ferries and we are happy to do so.
However, the estimated cost of the bridge, $850 million and climbing, will also be borne in some fashion by all members of the federation because the federal government will subsidize this bridge to the amount of $43 million per year for the next 35 years. This is not an insignificant sum. This kind of significant commitment requires the approval of all Canadians.
However, there is an additional problem. The government through a constitutional amendment will continue to commit itself not just to the fixed link but to the original intention of the clause written in 1873. That intent is to place the island in continuous communication with the mainland.
What if problems are to develop? What if the bridge suffers cost overruns of more than 10 per cent? Another member indicated that it may double. Other projects around the world such as the tunnel under the English Channel or the Hibernia oil project nearby have experienced vast cost overruns. We all know the appalling record of past federal governments in this regard. We will be committed to a bridge no matter what problems occur.
What if, God forbid, this bridge should collapse? The government will be constitutionally obligated to rebuild it. The question I am asking here is a serious one. By constitutional amendment all members of the federation will be committed to providing a fixed link with the mainland forever.
If the bridge is rendered unusable for periods of time during the winter or encounters other major problems, the intent of the constitutional amendment will still stand. Continuous communication with the mainland will have to be maintained by the government. In other words, if the fixed link proves unworkable the government will still have to provide a ferry service.
Speaking outside of constitutional law, the government could not allow an entire province to be cut off from the mainland for very long. A ferry would have to be provided if the bridge proves to be unreliable. If it comes to a disagreement and finally to law, the people of Prince Edward Island could demand a ferry service through the courts if necessary.
The member for Lac-Saint-Jean noted the ambiguity between the French and English versions of this amendment earlier today when he mentioned that in one version it says they may and in the other it says they will. That is still unclear. It is a moot point. We will be obligated and in this case we will be obligated to this continuous communication.
In that case the cost of this constant communication with the mainland would effectively double. This is a much greater commitment than the government would now have us believe. This is a significant commitment that every province in Canada deserves to address through a resolution under the current constitutional arrangements by each legislature under the authority of section 38 of the Constitution.
Although it is clear to me that the government is acting incorrectly, perhaps unlawfully and certainly unwisely, I do not propose a legal remedy. Constitutional change should never be forced on the nation in the name of expediency. If the government insists on proceeding in this manner, there is a simple resolution which lies in the decision of the Federal Court of Canada given in March of last year. Madam Justice Reed there
indicated that a discontinuance of the ferry service must be sanctioned by a constitutional amendment. We agree to that. She gave the House of Commons no direction as to the wording of that amendment in the form of a resolution.
If the government must go ahead with this change, and I repeat many of us feel this is not the way to go about constitutional change, it should reword its resolution to reaffirm the constitutional intent to provide constant communication with the mainland but to despecify the mode of transportation required. To be very clear, the amendment would promise a continuous link with the mainland, period.
In this way the government would have a free hand to choose the least expensive transportation option in the future while still carrying through with its plans for a bridge today.
Here the Government of Canada would not be committing all provinces to provide a fixed link for all time and at any cost, and under no circumstances could Canada be legally obliged to provide a bridge and a ferry service at the same time.
Although this legal argument is significant, it does not form the basis of our objection to this resolution. Our objection springs from a root that goes far deeper than a simple legal technicality. The Constitution of Canada defines the relationship between provinces and the federal government. The amending formula is the way to redefine or to change these relationships. If we redefine these relationships we must be careful to do so in a way that shows consideration for all parties. We show consideration to all parties in order to preserve good will between them. Countries are not built on technicalities. They are built on relationships. Those relationships, especially in this period of Canada's history, must be preserved at all costs or the federation is lost.
The Reform Party of Canada envisions a better process for our nation, one that preserves national relationships and respects the wisdom of individual Canadians, one that provides popular ratification of constitutional change in a bottom-up process, not a top-down process like we are experiencing here again today, in which each concerned Canadian can participate in constitutional conventions and finally have their say through a referendum.
This government is proceeding today just as it might have 50 years ago when it would simply pass a resolution to ask Britain to change the BNA Act. This process is no longer acceptable to Canadians.
I think of the case of the Roman Empire. At the start of every major undertaking they would pray to the god Janus. Janus was a two faced god who looked into both the past and the future. They hoped to be guided by this god who would say: "These are the mistakes we made in the past and we will not repeat these as we try to guide our nation forward into the future".
That god passed into the history books along with the Roman Empire but we can learn from that concept. When it comes to constitutional change, if we ignore what we have gone through in the past few years as we plan for the future, we are making a serious mistake in the House of Commons.
The Canadian voter is no longer tolerant of politicians who fall victim to what we describe as Ottawa fever as soon as they are elected. This disease results, as we have talked about before, in selective hearing, poor memory and the inability to discern the common sense of average Canadians. Ottawa fever killed both a government and a national party just a few months ago. Has this government learned from the mistakes of the Conservatives?
I have a genuine fear that this House and this government are embarking on a legislative program, including these constitutional changes, that shows that they have the early symptoms of Ottawa fever.
The finance minister talks about filling the loopholes and broadening the tax base in the upcoming budget. He puts a pretty spin on an ugly subject by saying that Canadians want to increase equity in the tax system, which is just another way of saying that the government wants more out of the taxpayers. This is at a time when taxpayers are pleading with the government to stop gouging them and start listening about cutting some expenses.
On another issue, many voters, especially the voters of Markham-Whitchurch-Stouffville, are demanding the right to recall MPs but their appeals fall on deaf ears. We cannot see any movement on this right to recall. Why is that? Why is it that no one is listening to that?
Now we see this government promising also an ill-defined aboriginal self-government even after the Charlottetown accord was soundly rejected by Canadians. How is that possible?
This government is running far ahead of the voters. It may even be in a different running lane, I am not sure. The House needs to stop pushing only the government's agenda and start pushing ahead with the people's agenda.
Is it any wonder Canadians have a negative attitude toward governments in general? If the government will not listen to Canadians and cannot put its financial house in order, how will it possibly deal with wisdom regarding constitutional issues which form the foundation of that house?
The Constitution has been the focus of much needless hurt in our nation. It started with the patriation in 1981, a unilateral action which caused the rancorous constitutional conferences of the mid-eighties. These led to the political disasters of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord. Out of them emerged the
Bloc Quebecois and a full-blown separatist movement that threatens to split our nation in two.
Today, what do we find? Yet another amendment to the Constitution, virtually free of national debate, unfettered by consultation with anyone with Prince Edward Island, slipped under the noses of parliamentarians as if the last decade simply disappeared. It appears that the government has learned nothing from the mistakes of the past.
Not only that, but the government conveniently ignores the voices of millions of other Canadians who have said through their votes and through other mechanisms that they are demanding other changes to the Constitution, changes that they say are at least as important, possibly more important, than these.
We have long advocated changes like a reformed Senate, entrenched property rights over which there is already a lot of general national agreement, positive changes such as a constitutional ceiling on government spending, something that would ensure that undisciplined politicians could never again spend our children's inheritance.
Last year the ousted Conservative Party barged ahead with a constitutional change for New Brunswick, just after that very change was rejected as part of the Charlottetown accord. Reform voted against it. Now we see this government forcing us to accept changes on behalf of Prince Edward Island. Reform once again rejects the process that ignores the cries of millions of other Canadians. This process should be a source of shame to this government.
This small amendment is no small matter. It deals with an enormous principle. It brings back memories of how our Constitution has been mishandled over the past 15 years. The Reform Party of Canada opposes this amendment on three firm grounds. The first I went over at some length earlier in my presentation. It is simply unwise to glibly approve a permanent, unqualified commitment to the bridge.
The second ground is that of consultation. To satisfy voters and preserve the relationships of the federation, the government should proceed in a way which allows input from every province and, through a referendum, every citizen.
The third principle is that of common sense. It says: "First things first. We ought not approach the House lightly on such weighty subjects. There are other important constitutional issues that could be and should be dealt with at the same time".
To sum up, the Reform Party would be very pleased if one day at the end of a proper consultative process the House dealt with a balanced package of positive, popular constitutional amendments that included perhaps a re-worded amendment for the benefit of Prince Edward Island.
Today the Canadian people expect to participate in the most important decision that the House can make. It is foolhardy to push their patience once again regarding constitutional change.
I would therefore ask the Prime Minister to reconsider the process by which this decision has been brought to the House. I urge all members to carefully distinguish expedient choices from choices that are motivated by a concern for the future, a search for wisdom and a love for your country.
My concerns and the concerns of each of our constituencies deserve more of a hearing than a few short speeches given to a basically empty House.
This is not mere housekeeping legislation we are considering. Any changes we make now become a permanent part of our Constitution. The obligations we shoulder today will weigh on our grandchildren a century from now. Surely this law should not be sandwiched between bills on excise taxes and port operations. This process trivializes the Constitution of Canada, the foundation of our nation.