Madam Speaker, the debate that is going on today is important. It actually strikes at the very heart of what type of country we live in.
Many times we engage in debate that has a very narrow interest across the country. This one certainly has not. I have indicated at other times when I have spoken in the House, specifically in opposition, that we have grown differently. We are a different state than our neighbours to the south and we are a different state than our two founding nations, both Britain and France.
We have decided to do something a little different. We are unique. We have believed as a nation-it is a founding principle of our nation-that there is some sort of collective ownership of the resource that is Canada.
We have structured programs through successive governments and have said that we believe in this great nation, Canada, which maybe one day has a disparity in the east, in Quebec or the west, that somehow governments have a responsibility to commit themselves to free market enterprise but at the same point in time to ensure that there is a redistribution of wealth in this great country.
Indeed I can go back to the time of Confederation. Atlantic Canada at that point in time was a have region in this country. It was one of the wealthiest. Some would say that we have never looked up since we joined Confederation. Some others would say that perhaps in the short history of this country-we are not an old country-these cycles perhaps are very small.
During the course of our short history we have believed that central governments have a responsibility to redistribute wealth in this country. We believe fundamentally with regard to those who because of the exploitation of a natural resource or certain trading patterns or routes exhibit great growth and personal wealth, employment and tax revenue that somehow there is a responsibility of government to redistribute that wealth.
We have formalized that in our Constitution. We have federal legislation that is called equalization. The equalization payments are the most visible sign of that fundamental principle of sharing and collective ownership of resource in this country that the federal government does.
Under equalization, the federal government has transferred some of the taxes that it takes to the less fortunate provinces to try to ensure that those provinces have the resources necessary to offer programs that their citizens deserve, indeed demand, programs of national standards so that within this great country we do not have very different applications of our economies.
It has worked very well. Indeed I hear sometimes from the province of Quebec, from some of the members who are here from the Bloc, that Quebec has been shortchanged.
That is up to debate. Sometimes in Atlantic Canada we believe that we have been shortchanged and that it is not just simply a matter of always wanting equalization. Perhaps it is a matter of fundamental government policies that allows each region of this country to develop its resources and its labour market so that some day we can all be contributors to the national economy instead of takers from the equalization pot.
Sometimes we are fighting over scraps. I would much rather see policies enacted by provincial governments that allow for the freer movement of goods and services and people, that allows for various regions of this country to develop their economies so that the people can develop to the fullness of their potential. That day is not yet upon us. Equalization is indeed important. I remember just a few years ago in this place when the government of the day was different. It was the Conservative Party, which is now down to two members in this place. That government saw the the role of the federal government in redistributing wealth a little differently. Every penny it could save, every dollar of its own debt it could transfer to the provinces it saw as a victory. Then hopefully it could go the public and say: "Look how well the economy has been managed". Through the restraints it put on equalization, through its interpretation of some of the clauses we saw the numbers of dollars that the provinces expected to get from the federal government jump wildly.
I think it was three years ago that I rose in my place and questioned the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister because that small, beautiful province of Prince Edward Island, whose minister of finance was preparing a budget, was given information by the federal government of the day that it could expect so many dollars in equalization under the formula for the previous year. At the last moment, two days before he tabled his budget in the P.E.I. legislature, the federal finance officials called and said: "Sorry, we have reinterpreted some of the provisions and now you are going to get millions of dollars less in equalization".
What did that do to little Prince Edward Island? The treasurer was going to be reporting a surplus in his budget. Can you imagine a surplus in this day and age? That surplus was turned into a deficit.
In my province of Nova Scotia the minister of finance, a Tory at the time, and I guess they did not even talk among themselves because he was caught quite unaware, found out he was going to get $72 million less. The province had already spent the money. Therefore, there was a pressing need from the provincial finance ministers and treasuries to put some order into what they could reasonably expect to receive from the federal government.
This bill puts some order in it. It is a five year plan wherein we tell the provinces: "We cannot give you everything you might want, but we are going to give you some certainty. We will tell you what our plan is and we will guarantee that we will not deviate from that plan in a way that negatively impacts on your fiscal ability to conduct your affairs in your own province". That is a plus. I do not think there is a premier of any of the seven provinces that receive equalization who would not get up an applaud this very positive measure.
There is another area that the bill does not address but it is equally important, called the EPF, established programs financing. These are programs that the federal government gets into to again try to equalize opportunity around the country. These are programs that fund our health care system in Canada and fund post-secondary education.
I told one of my colleagues from the Reform Party who called me a socialist Liberal, the other day-I thank you for the compliment by the way-that if it was not for EPF to the provinces across Canada that as the son of a coal miner from Cape Breton who not through any fault of his own but because of the working conditions of the day saw more pay days than he saw pay cheques, I would not have been able to afford to go to university. In some of the poorest provinces if it was not for the established programs financing, the EPF, we would have different systems of health care right across this country.
Those Liberal policies of days gone by just like equalization were corrupted by the previous administration. The result was that provinces that had programs of national standard dictated primarily by the federal government, as in health care, found in every single year, in every federal Tory budget that came into this place that they could expect less and less.
In a place like Newfoundland if you receive $12 million less for post-secondary education where in the name of goodness are you going to pick that up on your limited tax base in that province? In a place like Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Quebec, when a federal government unilaterally cuts because it has mismanaged the economy like the Tories did and says that it is not going to be participating at the same level as it did last year, tell me where those provinces pick it up. They do not.
One thing we said during our campaign and the Prime Minister has also said we will work on is once again to put some certainty into the levels of EPF, establish programs financing. We cannot give them everything. We have a huge deficit and a huge debt but we will put some certainty so that ministers of health and ministers responsible for post-secondary education in each of our provinces will be able to sit down and with some
certainty know that they are not going to get the royal shaft in the next federal budget that comes down from the federal government. That is exactly what we need.
I want to give some statistics. I am not going to criticize members of the Bloc Quebecois for their political beliefs. That is what freedom of expression is all about in the democratic process. We will have great and hopefully historic debates in this place about the issues they wish to put forward. However the reality is that many of the fractures we currently see in our country are recent ones. They can be traced back to a sense of not being listened to, a sense of betrayal by many regions of the country in their dealings with the federal government.
The province I come from does not want handouts. I would desperately love to stand in this House some day and complain that we are getting too much money and that it should go somewhere else.
My role as a member of Parliament is not just to represent and try to build a strong Nova Scotia. It is to try to better Canada. It is to try to ensure that we pass policies and programs which allow each and every one of our citizens, no matter who they are, no matter what their language, no matter where they come from, whether they are native born or immigrant, to participate to the fullness of their potential in this great country. That is what we are all here for.
Over the last number of years we have seen the erosion of the regime where we did transfer and did believe in collective ownership of the resources and riches of Canada. I want to give some sense as to why we are seeing fractures in the east and maybe in Quebec, but certainly in the west. They say that federal governments have not listened to them.
The federal Conservative government, in a number of successive budgets, possibly three or four, changed the established programs financing formula which is another form of equalization. It said it would participate on increases using the consumer price index, CPI minus one, CPI minus two, CPI minus three. What did that mean?
To a province like Nova Scotia it meant that if health care costs went up by 5 per cent the federal government no longer was giving out 50 cents on the dollar on that increase. The benchmark if it was the previous year was 50:50, but any increase over that would only be cost shared on a formula that said cost is consumer price index minus 3 per cent.
If the consumer price index was 5 per cent and the health care costs went up by 5 per cent there was not full sharing on that 5 per cent. Full sharing was received on 2 per cent which meant that the poorest provinces had to find within their limited tax bases a way to fully recover the 3 per cent increase. It was 100 per cent on those dollars, no 50-cent dollars.
What has it meant? It means under the old formula the province of Quebec will be the first province to no longer see a transfer in cash for hospital expenditures. It will be the first. It means that over the course of its 10-year program in health care alone the federal government had withdrawn on full funding 50:50, to the tune of $29.998 billion. In 1989-90 as a result of the government's formula where it rejigged what participation meant, it meant that the health care system in the provinces lost $1.107 billion.
What does one do in British Columbia? It is hard enough to deal with that if it is a so-called have province such as Ontario, which is not really a have any more because of the New Democratic government and its policies. But Alberta and British Columbia are finding it tough enough. What about the economies where there is deep recession and even depression?
What about education? As a result of this rejigging of EPF, this fundamental tenet of Canadian federal-provincial relations, in post-secondary education, during a 10-year period the Conservative policies will have cost $12.109 billion out of federal government participation on post-secondary education.
What does that mean? It means in the poorest provinces, the smallest provinces we have already started to create a society where it does matter where one lives and it does matter what one's tax base is, because the province of Nova Scotia has now seen transferred over nine years of Tory government a huge amount of the federal mismanaged debt. It is down sitting on its desk now. The same can be said for Newfoundland, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. That is what it has done. Therefore the pressures on us now have been caused by intentional fiscal policies.
I do not think we can right all the wrongs of the past and I am not suggesting for one second that we could. I wish we could, but I do not think we can. What we can do is work with the provinces. We can tell them we are not going to give them the shaft every time they turn around at budget time. We are prepared to sit down and work with them. We understand that a dollar saved at the federal level by reducing transfers for these necessary programs is not really a dollar saved when looking at the impact on these smaller provinces.
I do not know what the Minister of Finance will come down with but I know our government will uphold the commitment it made to Canadians and to the premiers during the election campaign. We will not do what the previous government did and come in and lay waste to the equalization programs and established programs financing.
I do not think there is an issue that grips Canadians more today than whether or not our health care system can survive. There is a funding crisis and a utilization crisis in our health care system. Surely the way we deal with that is not to continue with the policies of the past government. We must deal with it co-operatively and recognize that the federal government got us into these programs and the federal government cannot be allowed to abandon them.
We also believe in fiscal responsibility. We have to look at the finances of Canada not just at the finances of the federal government. The finances of our provinces, the territories and our municipalities all impact on whether or not we are able to grow and prosper or whether or not we will be weighed down by debt. Our federal government has indicated it is prepared to deal with that.
In every one of the economic policies we pursue as a government, no matter how scary the deficit might be, no matter how many special interest groups may scream, whine and threaten, we will always, always, always make those economic decisions based on the impact on every average Canadian. That is different. That should give some hope to the unemployed. It should give some hope to the people in the poorest regions. It should give hope to some of the have not people in the have provinces who need training, who need to be put back to work, who want to be taxpayers instead of tax takers.
We may debate whether or not it is enough, but this is an initiative that stops the slide of federal dollars into the provinces. This initiative sends out a signal and a sign to the provinces that there is a new gang in town. This is a new Parliament. We are prepared to work with each and every one of the provinces to ensure that the priorities of Canadians are expressed and fulfilled not just by the federal government but by our provincial legislatures as well.
I applaud the government but I also let it know there are some on this side of the House, now that we are government, who still believe we have a fundamental responsibility to stand and speak for the people who elected us. To date the ministers seem to have listened. I know the Prime Minister has.
I know that many on this side of the House and on the other side as well will be vigilant in ensuring the government fulfils the commitments we have all collectively made to our constituents.