Madam Speaker, the passing of Bill C-41, which seeks to modify the system for determining support payments is, in our view, another indication of this government's unwillingness to listen to the provinces, in this case Quebec. It is still the same old game of cat and mouse, as we see again with this bill on support payments.
The current government is once again imposing legislation that we think is flawed, and is rejecting out of hand amendments from any party other than its own. This is a sad state of affairs and I deplore it, particularly as the purpose of this bill is to improve the living conditions of children.
I know that the minister is just as anxious to attain this goal as I am. However, the route chosen does not seem to be the same as the one favoured by Quebec. When we compare the guidelines being proposed by Quebec and those being proposed by the federal government, it is clear that we are at cross purposes. I will come back to this a bit later.
Right now, I would like to remind the government that too often its words are unfortunately at odds with its actions. As always, the government claims to have fine principles. It proclaims its wish to work toward decentralization of power, but it does absolutely nothing concrete to move in this direction when the opportunity arises.
I think that this bill was a good opportunity for the government to show that it was open to including the small changes needed to recognize Quebec's distinct character. I will, if I may, repeat what the Prime Minister said less than a year ago, on November 29, 1995, during the debate on the much discussed distinct society motion. Members will recall, I hope, that it is this motion the Prime Minister is relying on today in his attempt to trick Quebecers into believing that he has kept his pre-referendum promises.
Back to what the Prime Minister said. He said, here in this House: "I made three commitments during the Quebec referendum campaign: first, to recognize that Quebec forms a distinct society within Canada; second, not to make any constitutional change that affects Quebec without Quebecers' consent; and third, to undertake changes to bring services and the decision making process closer to citizens". This is where I would question the minister. In this bill, I would like to see him respect the guidelines proposed by the government of Quebec.
Members on the government side will have noted, I hope, that Quebec forms a distinct society, or so their leader claims. They will also have noted that he spoke of bringing services and the decision making process closer to citizens.
Regarding the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, the Prime Minister said a bit later on: "Once it is passed, this resolution will have an impact on how legislation is passed in the House of Commons. I remind Canadians that the legislative branch will be bound by this resolution, as will the executive branch". "This is a real, dynamic recognition, recorded in the very heart of our country's government". That is what the Prime Minister said. I am not inventing anything, I have taken it word for word from what he said.
I will repeat it again, for I am a person who has doubts if somebody tells me one thing and does the opposite. "Once it is passed, this resolution will have an impact on how legislation is passed in the House of Commons. I remind Canadians that the legislative branch will be bound by this resolution, as will the executive branch. This is a real, dynamic recognition, recorded in the very heart of our country's government". When I say that the words spoken in this House by this government are not in keeping with its actions, this is the proof.
On Bill C-41, we had proposed modifications, amendments, and I would liked to have seen some of them passed. I could perhaps have thought there was come connection between these words and the actions being prepared. I have to say that this is lip service only.
The motion on the distinct society is supposed to have a real impact on the way the wording of bills is passed. What impact did this motion have on Bill C-41? Barely two days ago, the Bloc Quebecois presented motions to amend the bill, to improve it, to bring it more in line with the aspirations of Quebecers.
Two days ago, we proposed that a province's guidelines be automatically recognized if they met the standards set out in the bill, the criteria imposed by the federal government. It seems to me that this is not so difficult, when they claim to wish to recognize
different ways of doing things, and acknowledge in a bill that Quebec is a distinct society.
I will tell you why we think it is distinct. In my opinion, this position was perfectly reasonable and desirable. First, as I have said, we accepted, albeit a bit reluctantly, it is true, the federal jurisdiction over divorce. I say a bit reluctantly, because Quebec has long desired to regain jurisdiction over divorce. Why? Because this is one more aberration in the division of powers. We cannot, of course, rewrite history, but it is still a fact that Quebec has been extremely patient in constitutional matters.
Divorce renders the end of a marriage official, as everyone knows. That is a self-evident truth. Since unions between individuals fall under civil law, and therefore under provincial jurisdiction, it became evident to Quebecers long ago that dissolution of marriage ought to also be a provincial jurisdiction. Such is not the case. however.
Despite this historical aberration and despite Quebec's desire to regulate this area, we acknowledge, still being part of the federal regime, that divorce does fall under federal jurisdiction.
Now we find the federal government wanting to modify the Divorce Act. Is this not a good opportunity to make some space for Quebec and the other provinces?
The government has made sure not to do so, and this is what we find regrettable. We propose to respect the standards imposed by the federal government, and that is acceptable, but what we are demanding is that, once this condition is met, they give way in favour of the provincial rules.
Why is it so important for Quebec and eventually for the other provinces? Because the Quebec government is closest to its citizens. As we said repeatedly only two days ago, this is the government that administers all aspects of life in our society. It is the government that is responsible for education, for providing assistance with housing, food, clothing, entertainment, health care, transportation, and so forth. In fact, the list is much longer.
The Quebec government and other provincial governments are there to redistribute wealth and ensure that citizens who are less well off or not as well equipped to make their way through life have the minimum they need.
The provincial government looks after family life, day care and the problems in this respect. So obviously, as we said before, it is in the best position to know how to organize a child support payment system in terms of the choices this society has made.
The Quebec government, as we all know, is about to adopt its own guidelines. We explained at length that before drafting a final policy, it considered all provincial transfer payments to its citizens. It had to bring this new legislation into line with all its existing and draft policies and also in terms of the government's review of its approach to family policy.
The Quebec government, for the benefit of Quebec society and especially that of its children, is preparing to adopt a policy on child support payments, a policy that will complement steps that have already been taken with respect to the collection of support payments and their tax treatment.
We are talking about a concrete aspect of the specific identity of Quebec society. That is why we asked the federal government for a commitment to recognize the guidelines established by a province for child support payments.
What did we get as an answer? A resounding no. We voted yesterday, and it was no all the time. All the amendments we proposed got no for an answer from all government members. I find that deplorable. And do not tell us they are sensitive to Quebec's demands. We have made those demands clear in this House ever since we were elected. Was an amendment ever really accepted? The list is very short, even in that case. And we deplore that.
The response we got smacked of the usual paternalism. We were told that the federal government alone, without any debate in the House, will decide if it feels like recognizing provincial regulations. Period.
The Liberals are now in power. What would happen if they lost the next election? No one knows. That is what we deplore. We would have liked this bill to be sent back to committee so we could talk about this. It is up to the people's elected representatives to discuss general policy matters. This should not be done in small, restricted committees.
This is rather inconsistent with the Prime Minister's comments, which, I think, is unfortunate. It is totally inconsistent with the fine promise to respect Quebec's distinct society. It is totally inconsistent with the promise to bring services and decisions closer to the people.
As far as I know, the provincial governments are closer to their people than the federal government. That is what I am told every day. When I tell the people in my riding that I come back every weekend, they feel-and it is true, given their interest in provincial legislation and in their government, not only in Quebec but in the other provinces as well-that their provincial government is closer to them.
I also deplore the federal government's spending powers that have grown over the years. That is why we have an enormous
deficit. There is overlap and duplication. Even our friends in power never had the nerve to pretend that the federal government was closer to its people than the provincial governments. It think it would have been too much, even for them.
This is the first proof that the Prime Minister's promises were not kept and that his government has no intention of keeping them. Allow me to be sceptical. Even in a neutral bill like this one, the Liberals found a way of sweeping Quebec's demands, however modest, under the carpet.
I will now move on to the second motion we proposed in order to improve Bill C-41. Its purpose is to limit the list of criteria listed in new clause 26.1.
The minister did not say anything about it earlier. That is another problem. As we know, this section lists subjects that federal or provincial authorities may legislate guidelines on. Basically, these are all the foreseeable issues that may arise in relation to child support. These are the criteria I referred to in the first part of my speech.
The problem with section 26.1 is that not only does it list requirements, but it leaves the list open. Why is this a problem? The problem arises from the fact that these requirements represent an absolute prerequisite to the recognition of provincial guidelines by the federal government, while the word "including" leaves the door open to a redefinition of these requirements. Additions could be made whenever someone feels like it without the hon. members having any say in the matter.
The bill explicitly provides that, before any province may implement its own guidelines in divorce cases, these guidelines must have been approved by the federal government. In order to be approved by the federal government, the guidelines must meet the requirements set out in section 26.1. But in section 26.1, the requirements are listed under the phrase "including".
This word is explicit. It means that what follows are examples, indicating that the list is not restrictive or exhaustive. So, should the government change tomorrow, they could take a look at the act and decide to apply it completely differently. How can a province make sure to meet the federal requirements when it knows only about part of them? How can a province make sure to meet the federal requirements if the federal government can change these requirements as it pleases?
Let us imagine for a moment that a similar procedure applied to tenders regularly issued by the government. There could be, for instance, an invitation to tender for the provision of building materials. The contract would state: "The tenderer shall provide the materials required to build a museum. He may also be required to provide materials to build another type of building".
The fact is no one in the business would venture to bid on something like that. We can easily understand why. How is the required materials cost supposed to be estimated without knowing how much will be needed?
Let me give you another example: the provision of services. No one would respond to an invitation to tender for janitorial building maintenance services stating that other work may be involved, but not specifying what. How are people supposed to know if they can meet the requirements for a given job when they do not know the specifics? While simplistic, these examples are good illustrations of the arbitrary nature of a clause that uses the term "including", particularly when it applies to a regulatory process, something about which I have doubts.
How could a province believe in an eventual recognition of its guidelines, if the criteria relating to this recognition can be changed at any time, at the federal government's discretion? How will a provincial government be able to set its work objectives if it does not know the expectations of the federal government, or if these expectations are likely to change? It is like playing cat and mouse. The federal government puts out a piece of cheese, watches the provinces run for it and then puts the piece out of reach. This is more or less what will happen with this bill.
Clarity must be the basic rule regarding legislation. The theme, the objectives and also the consequences for non-compliance must be clear. However, the proposed clause 26.1 is not clear, far from it.
In order to show its goodwill, the government must clearly set the rules. The word "including" should have disappeared from the final version of the bill, as was my wish and that of Bloc members and Quebecers. Once again, the Liberal team did not deem it appropriate to take into account its commitment to respect the jurisdiction of the provinces.
Far from facilitating the taking over of responsibilities by the provinces, the federal government passes legislation that could put off some provinces, including Quebec, and deter them from taking any initiative regarding the issue of child support. We do not want this to happen and nor does the minister, because, as you know, the objective is to improve the living conditions of children. We are all working toward this goal. However, Quebec wants a little more flexibility, and should have it. The government is working on guidelines which will not be based on the same criteria as those that will be proposed by Quebec.
However, I do not think Quebec will let the federal government put it on the sideline. The issue will turn into another battle. As we said, Quebec will proceed very soon. What will happen then? I do not know. The situation is quite simple: Quebec is once again in the great position of having to totally depend on the federal government's goodwill regarding whether or not these guidelines will apply in the case of a divorce. Is this the respect shown to Quebec society? Is this the respect shown by governments that are close to
their citizens? This government shows its respect by keeping things in a precarious position, and this is what we deplore. This is why we are fighting in this House; this is what we were elected for. This government shows its respect by keeping the provinces in the dark. Its rule is might is right. Some respect!
This kind of respect is also displayed by the Liberal government's attitude toward our request that the child's place of residence-and this is important-be the factor determining whether federal or provincial rules will apply when the parents do not live in the same province. There is disagreement on this issue. Quebec wants the place of residence to be that of the child, while the federal government says it should be the domicile of the parent paying support.
This may seem inconsequential to a member who does not really pay attention to this issue and who simply votes as instructed by his whip. However, this unjustified refusal by the Liberal team will have a negative impact on many children, and I will tell you why.
I will repeat the explanation given by my colleagues and myself barely two days ago. Perhaps certain members across the way did not hear, or perhaps they were absent. I will repeat it. The bill states that, when parents do not reside in the same province, the federal guidelines will apply. We in the Bloc Quebecois say that the guidelines of the province in which the child lives should apply.
I will attempt to explain why. Setting aside the fact that the federal grid does not, in our opinion, take into account all pertinent information and is therefore flawed, and setting aside the fact that, as I explained earlier, the provinces are in the best position to develop their own grid, this rule will skew the support payments regime and will create unfairness within a province, because children in the same province will not all be entitled to the same treatment for the sole reason that their non-custodial parent lives in another province.
Furthermore, as I mentioned two days ago, since the stability of the custodial parent is usually greater than that of the parent paying support, it follows that the economic stability of the child demands that his place of residence be the criterion used, to prevent grid shopping by the parent paying support.
It is difficult to justify this government's rejection of our proposal, all the more so in light of the Prime Minister's fine words, his fine promises to respect Quebec society and to respect the provinces. They were empty words, and nothing more.
When we know that families come under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces, and rightly so, we are entitled to wonder why the Minister of Justice is unwilling to budge, unless what he has in mind is the provinces leaving it to the federal government to resolve all support payment cases, regardless of their legal foundation. Unless that is what the minister wants.
Someone across the way should have reminded the justice minister that he must keep his word and respect the spirit of his bill. If it had truly been his intention, as he says, to recognize grids adopted by the provinces at some future date, he should have recognized that the principle of uniformity applies first of all within the provinces. He ought to have given up on imposing his grid for paying parents living in a different province than the child. He has not done so. Like his Liberal colleagues, the minister has perpetuated the closed-minded attitude Quebecers are so accustomed to.
One other proposal by the Bloc Quebecois was cavalierly rejected yesterday. It was intended to protect the provinces. The purpose of the proposal was to confer a grandfather clause on provinces which had already adopted their own guidelines, and which had succeeded in having them recognized by the federal government. Why such a clause?
First of all, my fellow citizens will have understood that there is not exactly an atmosphere of total confidence reigning at present. When, as it has clearly done in its bill, the government keeps all of the doors wide open, when it does not yield even one inch of a virtually absolute discretionary power, there are grounds for wondering where it is headed, and how it plans to exercise its powers. If the past is any indication of the future, Quebecers will have to brace themselves for more federal government imperialism, especially from the present government.
What is more, even in a context that is relatively more harmonious, in most areas the parties often deem it more prudent to have a "grandfather clause" in order to ensure stability, whether for a business contract, a collective agreement, or an agreement between governments.
Considering the huge efforts invested by a government in drafting and passing total legislation on support payments, it can be readily concluded that there are grounds for preserving acquired rights for some time to come. That is what the official opposition tried to do on Monday. That is what the government refused to do on Monday, on purely partisan grounds, if I dare say so.
If we look at this rebuff in the context of the fine promises of November 29, 1995, it is patently obvious that the Liberal government has no intention of modifying one iota of the legislative process in recognition of the distinct society and to show respect for the governments closest to the people.
The members of the Bloc Quebecois did not need this further evidence of the hollow statements and promises made by the Prime Minister and his team. However, Quebecers have now seen once again that they have nothing more to expect from the federal government.
In concluding, I would like to point out that the official opposition will vote for this bill only because members of the Bloc Quebecois believe in the value and importance of guidelines for child support payments.
We will vote for this bill because we support the principle, because we believe that guidelines will improve the quality of life of women and children, of Quebecers and Canadians. We will vote for this bill because we believe in a more just society, a society where poverty will no longer be the fate of a large part of the population.
We will vote for this bill because we set a priority on principle and the well being of our fellow citizens. Certainly not because we believe the bill is adequate in its final form. That is what I wanted to say this afternoon. Certainly not because we appreciate the overly paternalistic attitude of the present government. That is what I wanted to deplore this afternoon.