Mr. Speaker, speaking as a woman who is aware of the problems of social development, I welcome this opportunity today to take part in this debate on
social programs. In the riding I have the honour to represent in this House, like all regions in Quebec and Canada, we see daily so many examples of social problems that are unacceptable in a society that ranks among the wealthiest in the world.
The lingering recession in Quebec and Canada has added to the ranks of the unemployed and welfare recipients whose numbers were already unacceptable, considering the standard of wealth in our communities. That the federal system has failed is reflected in Quebec's high unemployment rate, low job rate and unusually high percentage of Canada's poor. According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, nearly one-third or 31.82 per cent of low income families live in Quebec, although we represent only slightly more than 25 per cent of the population of Canada.
In the course of this debate, the Official Opposition intends to condemn any attempts to cut social programs targeted to the neediest in our society, while the government tolerates unfair taxation, the underground economy, costly and counterproductive government spending, and programs where taxpayers' money is being wasted, as a result of duplication by provincial and federal governments. The government is mistaken if it thinks it can deal with its financial crisis by drastically cutting social programs that are essential to maintaining a minimum of human dignity among the neediest in our society.
I would urge hon. members on both sides of this House to look at the many pockets of poverty that have emerged in their respective ridings during the latest recession, and realize that we must deal with the problem through effective programs instead of cutting into the basic essentials these people need. We believe that cutting social spending is the easy way out, to deal with budget problems caused by previous governments' failure to act. I would ask this government to use a little more imagination and provide some hope for the neediest in this country who are often the victims of government inefficiency.
What must be addressed are the real dangers that threaten the economies of Quebec and Canada and which, especially in the case of Quebec, are holding back economy recovery. We can point the finger at unemployment, the monetary policy, unfair taxation, duplication of services, which is not only costly but also inefficient, lack of expenditure control, and the unbearably high deficit the federal government unloads on Quebec and the provinces. Those are the many evils which put counterproductive pressures on social expenditures, and prove, beyond any doubt, the failure of the Canadian federalist system whose unchanging characteristic is that it cannot be renewed, in spite of the many attempts to do so.
Fifty years after the publication of the first report outlining the premises for our social policy, things have not changed that much. Due to poor management in the past few years, the state of our social security system is giving rise to a growing concern.
For social programs to be better integrated and more faithfully reflect national policy, we need uniform standards regarding efficiency, fairness, consistency and work incentives. These are the characteristics which should still be guiding us today. Unfortunately, such is not the case.
In the last few years, the federal government has in fact cut and altered social programs. Moreover, it has reduced transfer payments to the provinces and Quebec for their social programs. And, as I mentioned earlier in this House, neither Quebec nor the provinces are asking for charity in this respect. All they are doing is demanding what is owed them under a duly signed agreement, let us not forget that.
By raising the standards for unemployment insurance eligibility with Bill C-21, and later on, by imposing new conditions for entitlement with Bill C-113, the federal government gave notice that it had little respect for those who were the hardest hit by the recession.
While doing the less affluent such injustice, at the same time it made Quebec and the provinces bear a heavier portion of income security expenditures. In spite of further tax increases, the federal contribution to provincial governments for health care and social programs has drastically declined, shaking the very foundations of the system.
Between 1978 and 1993, the federal contribution for health care and post-secondary education dropped from 47 per cent to 34 per cent. This means that less money is channelled back to the provinces for established program financing. However, the standards that have to be met in the management of these programs are not being adjusted.
It is not surprising then to hear about user fees. By unloading its financial problems onto Quebec and the provinces, the federal government sees, as a result, the principles underlying the Canadian health policy being undermined.
Quebec and the provinces are faced with increased health care costs. This increase in due primarily to the following factors: the aging of the population, new medical technologies that are more costly and a significant increase in spending for pharmaceutical products.
Canadian and Quebec taxpayers give the federal government large amounts of money, some of which is earmarked for health care under the agreement of 1977. The problem is that, for the past 10 years, the federal government has not been giving back to Quebec and the provinces the portion that is rightfully theirs, thereby depriving them of the funds intended for health care. Instead, it transfers its deficit to Quebec and the provinces, all because of the inability of previous governments to control their spending. The federal government must be aware that, by increasing the tax burden for Quebec and the other provinces, it would create a two-tier health system, where the rich will be
able to afford health services while the underprivileged will tend to delay or forgo medical treatment.
We believe in the basic principles of universality, integrality, accessibility, transferability and public management of the health system. What we are criticizing is the fact that these basic principles are being threatened, in every province including Quebec, by the inability of the federal government to honour its commitments.
If you decrease or freeze the federal transfer payments, you jeopardize our health system, which is the one component of our social programs we most rely on. In Quebec, according to the established programs financing legislation, 45 per cent of health cost was to be picked by Ottawa. However, faced with the economic crisis of the early 1980s and the disastrous state of our public finances, the federal government decided to unilaterally opt out, so that by 1992-93 the federal transfer share of health expenditures had dropped by 33 per cent.
This opting out process, often described by the Quebec government as unacceptable, unfair and incoherent, was not followed by a reduction in terms of federal intervention, since Ottawa is maintaining national standards and undertaking parallel programs, hence causing overlap problems. The end results, as I said earlier, are steady pressure for users' fees or other forms of billing, the delisting of some services, a service tax on drugs, drastic cuts in hospital budgets and outrageous waiting lists in many specialties.
Thus, the very foundation of our health insurance plan, that is free, universal and accessible care, is in jeopardy. That brings me back to my starting point: it is always those most in need who are the worst affected.
How can anyone speak about social programs without crying out against a level of poverty so high that 4.2 million people live in poverty in Canada, with Quebec being the main victim? There are 1.2 million children living in poverty and that hard core poverty is the fate of a large majority of single mothers and women raising a family alone. Let us turn now from the current costs of that unusual situation to assess the real issues underlying that crisis and its long-term impact.
Beyond the figures and the statistics, there are real people out there who hurt, who are sick and who go hungry. Those people wish the government would act responsibly, quit squandering money and find lasting remedies. We readily admit that people in government need to travel, but how many families could we get out of the mess for good with what it costs for a single Challenger flight? Every little bit helps.
Many studies demonstrate a clear relation between poverty and bad health. According to a study by Health Quebec on the 25 most common health problems in Quebec, almost all of them were more acute among low income people than among wealthier people. Poor people consume more medicine than rich people and require more health care.
A report made public by Campaign 2000 revealed a 30 per cent increase in the number of children living in poverty in Canada. In addition to being a bigger drain on the health care budget because they get sick more often, these children suffer more often from learning problems and are more prone to becoming school dropouts, twice as often as the children of the wealthy. Finally and most regrettably, they are more likely to become dependent upon social assistance than to participate in development.
In order to better control the global state of health of the population in Quebec and in Canada, and hence to limit health care costs, we must first wage a merciless war against poverty. Therefore, those considerations have to be taken into account in the review of our social programs. Ignoring them would have the effect of worsening the spiraling deficit and the spiraling poverty. We have more than enough of one tragedy already.
The only effective remedy against poverty is the creation of long-term jobs for people who will have first enjoyed adequate benefits. In this context, the direct duplication of similar federal programs and provincial initiatives is an absolute waste of public money and is also, in most cases, counterproductive. Quebec wants an end to this mess in the manpower and job training sector which costs its taxpayers $250 million every year.
In this area, as in many others, the existing rivalry must be replaced by effectiveness and efficiency. Our debt as well as the chilling reality of the unemployment rate and the number of welfare recipients do not allow us to condone waste through sheer stubbornness. Administrative overlapping generates real costs, one of the most important of which is the inability to solve the problem of poverty, especially in Quebec.
Poverty, especially in the case of young people, leads directly to welfare, drug and alcohol consumption, sometimes jail, and even despair and suicide. The fact is that the drop-out rate in schools is alarming. In some districts of the island of Montreal, close to half of the students quit school without any diploma and, as we all know, dropping out of school leads directly to poverty, since the job market massively rejects people without diplomas. According to Statistics Canada, 65 per cent of the new jobs between 1990 and 1993 were filled by university graduates. No speech made by governments on employment makes any sense if it is not supported by an energetic program to change
the objectives and the education system itself. Young Quebecers and Canadians must have access to a very high quality education to be able to take advantage of the need for a highly-skilled manpower.
The federal and provincial governments cannot afford to waste time and energy in futile bickering over who has jurisdiction, at the expense of a coherent and structured financing for post-secondary education.
We believe it is more urgent than ever that a House committee look into government spending in order to eliminate waste and duplication, and to reduce operating expenditures. This would enable us to allocate the budgets necessary to maintain social programs.
We also believe it would be more appropriate to cut military spending rather than reduce the budget for health care. We also propose a courageous tax reform to eliminate tax evasion, unfairness, as well as tax shelters such as family trusts, which only benefit the wealthy. This type of reform, and not a charge led against the poor through cuts to social programs, would get our support.
Those are useful solutions to help solve the budget crisis which we are concerned about. However, we will strongly oppose any violation of the commitment made by this government during the election campaign not to dismantle social and health programs.
In conclusion, there is no doubt whatsoever that the health of Quebecers and Canadians is closely related to poverty.
This House and the government have the moral obligation to put in place the necessary mechanisms to provide for the urgent needs of more than four million people, mostly women and children, for whom poverty has replaced hope.