Mr. Speaker, contrary to my habit, I am not pleased to speak to this bill, since the government has acquired the unfortunate habit of "tossing"-I think this is the exact term-a bill of over 350 pages on the table about 16 hours before the debate in this House.
On an issue as important as this one, it was inappropriate for the government to table this document yesterday afternoon, as we were forced to work in the evening and all night to do our job as official opposition and find in what ways the government is misleading the people.
Although this is inappropriate, the government has acquired this habit in the last few weeks. I hope this is simply an administrative problem, which I seriously doubt, given the nature of the subject.
You know the GST is a sensitive issue. In the minds of Quebecers and Canadians, the GST is the current Liberal government's worst failure, in that it really betrayed its promise to abolish the GST.
I think this is a rather hypocritical way of ensuring that the debate is quick, succinct and also lends itself to quick analysis and implementation. This is not the way things work in a democracy. I thought that, in a democracy, the government ought to have the courage of its convictions, of the measures announced to the people and give the official opposition time to analyze, criticize and also propose ways to improve bills, because it is our role to make constructive recommendations. I see this is not the case and it is the first thing for which I blame the government.
Bill C-70 is aimed at harmonizing the GST with sales taxes in the three maritime provinces and at providing a federal tax exemption for books that are bought by literacy centres, schools, colleges and so on, without eliminating the GST on books bought by the general public.
This bill is the embodiment of untruthfulness, of the show the Liberals have been putting on for us since the last election. I remind you of the solemn promise the Liberals made with one hand on their heart while looking at the Canadian flag: "That damn GST, we will abolish it when we come to office".
Very interesting quotations were made by Liberals in the last three or four years, including the Deputy Prime Minister and member for Hamilton East who said on March 11, 1996:
"I have already said personally and very directly that if the GST is not abolished I will resign". She resigned, but only for a few weeks. She resigned, but for show, and this show cost Canadians more than half a million dollars for her re-election.
The Deputy Prime Minister had said she would resign if the GST was not abolished. Normally, people who have convictions and are loyal to their beliefs and to the public as well do not resign for show as the Deputy Prime Minister did. They resign and go home, because it looks like the public was deceived.
The Deputy Prime Minister was away for a few weeks and came back with a smile, saying: "The people of Canada have forgiven me; the people of Hamilton East have forgiven me". The Canadian electorate will not forgive the government for breaking such an important promise, one the Liberals used to score political points while in opposition, during the election campaign and, in a different way, with Bill C-70. It is not right to keep deliberately deceiving the public in that way.
I will refer our listeners and our constituents to an article published in Le Soleil on Wednesday, June 19. I would say this editorial by Gilbert Lavoie summarizes quite well what the Deputy Prime Minister has put us through by first resigning and then coming back for show.
Let me read you some excerpts from this excellent editorial written by Gilbert Lavoie. The original text has been slightly modified to avoid using the name of the Deputy Prime Minister. It says the following: "Her victory in the Hamilton East by-election on Monday did not prove a thing, except perhaps the cynicism and arrogance of a certain political class. She had promised to resign if the government did not abolish the GST as promised. She did resign, but only to get immediately re-elected in a by-election, standing for the same party, the same government, the same GST. The cost of this operation, amounting to $500,000, was borne by Canadian taxpayers". Half a million dollars so she could pretend to try to clear her name and that of her government.
I read on, because this is too interesting an editorial not to take full advantage of it: "In politics, anyone who resigns on a question of principle is expected to leave the party to go and sit as an independent member or to found a new party as Lucien Bouchard did. It is, however, difficult to understand how the Deputy Prime Minister, who explained when she resigned that she could no longer look voters in the eye, can now feel comfortable about resuming her functions within the Liberal government. During the by-election campaign, the member for Hamilton East explained her attitude as follows: `The GST ranks eighth among public concerns, far behind jobs and the preservation of social services. Its importance should therefore not-and I am still quoting the Deputy Prime Minister-be overestimated"'.
I will stop quoting the article for a moment to point out that the importance of the GST issue is due to the Liberals themselves, who overreacted at the time, under the Tory government. For a few weeks, they put up a bitter fight over the GST, tearing at their shirts, shouting themselves hoarse, and demanding the GST be scrapped, the hated GST as they then referred to it. You certainly remember that time, Mr. Speaker.
They are now saying that the importance of the GST must not be exaggerated, but they were elected partly under false pretences, saying they would abolish the GST. They are now telling us not to exaggerate the importance of the GST. This is incredible. No wonder politicians are at the very bottom of the credibility list. When people are deceived in this way by a certain cynical and arrogant political class, it is perfectly normal to find that class at the bottom of the list.
Let me quote Gilbert Lavoie's article again, as it is very interesting and informative: "But her fake resignation from government-from the Liberal Party-is nonetheless sad buffoonery from someone whose presence in politics has always been based on public morality. She has in turn contributed to Canadians' increasingly cynical view of their politicians".
As a Montrealer, Émile Boudreau summed it up very well in a letter to the editor of Le Devoir, which reflects public opinion: "You resign, you shed a tear before the cameras, and the very same day you run as a candidate and you are re-elected. You resurface clean, clean, clean. The Liberal Party goes up one notch in the public's opinion, and life could not better be".
Mr. Lavoie's article and Mr. Boudreau's letter reflect a profound public discontent toward politicians. They also reflect the reason politicians feel increasingly criticized by the public, and deservedly so.
When you see an attitude such as the one displayed regarding the GST issue, when you see the Deputy Prime Minister's attitude, when you see the secretary of state introduce a measure like this one as if it included incredible improvements, you realize why people are fed up and why my constituents in the riding of Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot are also fed up with the federal government and the "frame-up" that is really starting to get on their nerves.
The Deputy Prime Minister was not the only one, with her spectacular resignation, to reflect the whole GST issue. The current Prime Minister had also said, before, during and even after the election campaign, that the GST had to be abolished.
However, there is no mention of abolishing the GST in this bill. This measure is a result of a political agreement signed with three maritime provinces, an agreement which will cost Canadians $1 billion in political compensation, just to give the impression that the government has done something about the GST.
The Liberals did not promise, during the campaign, to sign an agreement with the maritime provinces and then waste $1 billion to buy the maritimes' approval regarding the GST. They promised to abolish the GST. The Prime Minister said it over and over again. During the 1993 election campaign, he said: "We will scrap the GST". To "scrap" means to tear up, to throw out, to get rid of the current GST system and to replace it.
On May 2, 1994, after his election, the Prime Minister said, and I quote: "We hate the GST and we will kill it". But the GST is still there. The only change is that the tax is included in the price. It is now a hidden tax. In the maritimes, people do not realize that the federal government is charging them a 15 per cent tax on goods and services.
I listened to the secretary of state who said the government had extensive consultations with tax experts and the public, in an attempt to justify the government's lack or action on the GST. The Liberals also consulted tax experts and other people before introducing their election platform and telling the public they would abolish the GST, either that or they were saying just about anything during the election campaign.
If they say just about anything during the campaign and could not care less about people, when the next election comes, the people of Quebec and Canada should remember that every time a member of the Liberal Party opens his or her mouth it is to say things that will not withstand close scrutiny, to make promises they will not keep and say any old thing to lie to people.
I think people are beginning to understand what is going on with this government and also that members of the Liberal Party: Liberal MPs and the Liberal candidates in the next election are people who show considerable cynicism and unequalled arrogance. When the next election comes, their cynicism and their arrogance will cost them dearly.
Talking about the government's arrogance, cynicism and total disregard for the public, we must remember there was also a time when the Liberals were the official opposition. There was a time when the Liberals were sitting on these benches. At that time, also, the Liberals were saying just about anything. They made promises they are not keeping today. I would like to recall what the Liberal majority wrote in the finance committee report in 1994: "It would just not be appropriate to hide the GST in the sales price". Yet, the agreement signed with the three maritime provinces includes a provision that will in fact hide the GST in the sales price.
When they were in opposition, the Liberals, in 1989, stated in the dissenting report they tabled that, if the GST were hidden in the sales price, it would make it that much easier for the government to raise it later on. They were condemning the fact that the government wanted to hide the goods and services tax in the sales price. Now, there is no problem. In 1989, they were adamantly against hiding the GST in the sales price, stating that it was a ploy used by the government to be able to raise the tax rate later on without the taxpayer noticing it. And, now, in Bill C-70, in the agreement between the federal government and the maritimes, they are saying there is no problem. It has been hidden in the price. The Liberals tore their hair out, played holier than thou for months and even
years under the Conservative government, but now there is no problem.
How can we trust this government? Every time eminent members of the government party rise in this House and say: "We are going to do this and that", how can we believe them, when they keep saying just about anything that comes to mind, as they have done with the GST, reneging on their promises and forgetting all about their commitments? The people have to realize that the government could not care less about them.
Let us talk about patronage. The agreement reached with the three maritime provinces is akin to patronage. Given the pressure exerted by Canadians, who wanted the government to keep its promise to get rid of the GST, the finance minister thought it would be better to do something, to pretend once again that he was solving the problem. And that is when he signed the deal with the three maritime provinces.
This agreement came with a price, a compensation of around $1 billion handed out to the three maritime provinces. The finance minister bought the three provinces with $1 billion in compensation. He told the maritimes: "I need you to grandstand, to act as if the Canadian government is doing something about the GST, is trying to harmonize it". First, the tax was supposed to be abolished, now it was going to be harmonized.
The maritimes replied: "Minister, if you want to, we will go along with you, but there will be a price to pay". And the finance minister, known for his generosity and his wise management of the public funds, agreed to put $1 billion on the table. Is it enough? This is $1 billion the finance minister took out of his pocket, meaning out of our pockets. This is the money that Revenue Canada takes out of taxpayers' pockets year after year.
Given his generosity and his tendency to waste our money, the finance minister has taken out $1 billion to give it to the maritime provinces. This is $1 billion that Quebecers and Canadians outside the maritime provinces will have to pay. They will have to pay for this generous gift by the finance minister.
The provinces and especially Quebec are angry about this, but not the three maritime provinces, which will receive $1 billion. No, those provinces are not upset. But, outside the maritime provinces, people are very angry, particularly in Quebec. Quebec will have to take $250 million out of its own pocket to pay the three maritime provinces, to pay for the finance minister's patronage.
Quebecers are even more upset, since Quebec has already harmonized its provincial sales tax with the GST. I have been saying and repeating it for a long time because, if there is an example of true harmonization as well as true harmony between the federal government and Quebec, it is the GST.
The Quebec government has acted in good faith. We harmonized the tax. We even agreed to administer it on behalf of the federal government. We are nice in Quebec, but we did not get one penny for all our efforts. The federal government did not compensate us despite giving $1 billion to the maritime provinces.
The Quebec government is entitled to some kind of compensation, since it has harmonized its tax. To give $1 billion to the maritime provinces is unfair to Quebec and to the other provinces, which could come on board with the HST but oppose any preferential treatment. If the maritime provinces get to keep the $1 billion, they want to be compensated as well.
On behalf of the Government of Quebec, the Deputy Premier and finance minister of Quebec, Bernard Landry, repeatedly asked the federal government and the federal finance minister to provide him with the formula used to work out this famous $1 billion compensation for the maritimes. We have asked for it day after day, we have asked the minister to make the formula used to come up with this $1 billion public.
By stubbornly refusing to reveal the formula, the government showed that this agreement was a political one, that the agreement providing for the payment of $1 billion to the maritimes was concluded for the sole purpose of buying the maritimes off. And we can assume that, in the discussions with the finance minister, the maritimes set a very high price for accepting the political "frame-up" that this minister offered them.
The people will also remember this waste of public funds. It is all very well for the finance minister to say to everyone that he is responsible for today's economic situation, but we know he only coasted along with the growth in the economy, he only took advantage of an overall economic climate that was favourable to him, and he only took advantage of extremely low interest rates.
Do you know why interest rates are extremely low? There are three main reasons. First, it is because of the state of the U.S. economy. Second, it is because of the domestic economic climate, that is the chronic lack of jobs for 800,000 Canadians. Eight hundred thousand unemployed means that there are also 800,000 fewer consumers. If there are fewer consumers, prices are lower, so inflation is less likely to increase. And when inflation is low, and even too low-that is close to 1 per cent as it is now-interest rates also go down.
The finance minister is only taking advantage of this situation. If he had been here in 1990 and 1984, the finance minister would have received quite a beating. I will remind you of certain facts that make you smile. You will remember that during those two periods it was not easy to be the Canadian Minister of Finance because
economic conditions were very unfavourable for a flamboyant character in that office.
But the present minister takes advantage of the situation. However, people will remember that he is wasting public funds. He has no right to waste $1 billion as he is doing right now on the GST to hide the inertia of his government and its inability to fulfil its promises.
One billion dollars will be paid out, and the Minister of Finance tells us that this is only the beginning. Quebecers and Canadians will have to pay this $1 billion in political compensation to the maritimes for many years to come. Do you know why? I will give you a technical but very short and, I hope, not too tedious explanation.
The finance minister offered to replace the provincial sales taxes in the maritimes and the GST with a single 15 per cent sales tax. In the maritime provinces, the total of both the PST and the GST averages 19 per cent. The finance minister said: "I will replace those taxes totalling 19 per cent with a unique 15 per cent sales tax". Therefore, the sales tax dropped by 4 per cent in the maritimes. But who is going to pay for that? Who will compensate for lost revenues in the maritime provinces? We, the people from the other provinces, will. And do you know why? Because of something called the equalization formula.
Few people, even on the government benches, understand this formula, but it can be understood if one takes the time to study it carefully. This formula is used when a province, for example one of Canada's poorest provinces, needs help because it is difficult for that province to collect enough taxes from its population to provide public services equivalent to what is provided elsewhere across Canada. That is where this formula comes in.
When a province's tax base-that is its ability to collect taxes-is reduced, the federal government uses the equalization formula to compensate.
In the case of the maritimes, once again, the finance minister, generous as he is with taxpayers' money, told the Atlantic provinces that he would reduce the general sales tax and that the federal government would compensate them for the missing 4 per cent, year after year, until the end of time.
The equalization formula is used automatically when the tax base is reduced. The Minister of Finance has reduced the tax base. Therefore, we, as Quebecers and Canadians, will always be paying for that. As a Quebecer, I am not so sure of that because, one day, we will get out of that system. However, starting next year, Quebecers and Canadians will be paying for the loss of revenues from provincial sales taxes in the maritimes.
So on top of the $1 billion that the finance minister is wasting shamelessly for purely political reasons, which is already too much, Quebecers and Canadians will have to pay hundreds of millions more each year to the maritime provinces to compensate for this political decision. This is getting to be very expensive for mere window dressing.
Half a million dollars for the Deputy Prime Minister's election, a billion in political compensation to the maritimes and now the equalization formula that will be there forever, or until the day the decision is made to do away with it within the federal system, or until the day, coming soon, when we decide to withdraw totally from this system, which has nothing going for it. So that is bill C-70, concerning the agreement with the maritimes.
There are two other points I would like to speak to, in order to clarify things for the public. The first concerns the famous national revenue commission. The Minister of Finance has presented us with this agreement with the maritime provinces as a model of harmonization, a blueprint for the rest of Canada.
First of all, if it is a model, it is a very poor one, a very costly one. Second, if it is an augur for the future in the rest of Canada, that is extremely worrisome. It is a deliberate attack on provincial autonomy in collecting taxes. The Minister of Finance has established a national revenue commission which will replace all of the government bodies in the maritime provinces which used to collect taxes on goods and services.
This commission was announced in the government's throne speech, and the government is holding stubbornly on to it. Its intent, using the GST and the maritimes as an example, is to have the federal government one day become the only body within the Canadian federation to collect income tax, and other taxes, from Quebecers and Canadians. Quite a neat trick, especially where Quebec is concerned.
I am very familiar with Quebec taxation history, even what went on in meetings in the time of Messrs. Pearson and Lesage. They started off discussing the exchange of tax points at a time when the idea was to restore the provinces' taxation autonomy, of which they had been deprived during the first world war. Income tax, and other things, were borrowed.
Given this background, the numerous constitutional conferences, the meetings of finance ministers over thirty or so years, I am convinced that, if this is what the federal government has in mind, it will run into a brick wall in Quebec, where they are fed up with the federal government's designs on its taxation autonomy.
Quebecers wanted to have their own taxation system and autonomous institutions in areas like education and others. They would see it as an attack on their own history and their identity if the federal government considered the possibility of introducing a bill allowing a Canada revenue commission to replace Revenu Québec.
I cannot understand the political logic behind such a measure, unless the federal government is looking for a fight with Quebec. I believe this is what we are heading for. Let us harmonize, no problem. Quebec will receive no compensation while the maritime provinces received a billion dollars. And now this government wants to create a Canada revenue commission. What is it looking for? Sometimes I have a feeling that the federal government is looking for trouble.
Once it has created problems, it pulls out and puts the blame on the separatists of Quebec, on sovereignists who are allegedly against any agreement with the federal government. This is, to a certain extent, the game the Liberals have been playing since they came to power three years ago.
Quebec has some news for the Liberal government if it thinks it will be able to create a national revenue commission and sideline Quebec. We will be ready for them and we will have the official opposition on our side.
I wish to end on a more positive note about the bill. We always keep dessert for the end. There is one small positive aspect to Bill C-70 which is due to the official opposition and it has to do with the partial removal of the tax on books.
In the bill, the government suggests that books purchased by literacy and educational organizations not be taxed. Not just in the maritimes, but throughout Canada. This is good news, but it is not enough.
Most of the books bought in Quebec and in Canada are not bought by educational and literacy organizations. If the government wanted to do something, it should remove the tax on all books sold, because it is just taxing ignorance. We have all heard the slogans about GST on books chanted by those concerned with literacy and the transmission of culture.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out two things. The first is that there is no provincial sales tax on books in Quebec. Zero PST. Culture is important.
The second thing is that, even before the Bloc Quebecois became an official party, back when there were only seven members, with Lucien Bouchard as their leader, those seven members took every opportunity that came their way to rise in their places and criticize GST on books.
They fought against it outside the House too, because back then their time in the House was limited. Those whose decision it was to limit the time available to the Bloc Quebecois must be regretting it bitterly today. They must remember it. We certainly do.
The seven Bloc Quebecois members, including the eminent members for Rosemont and Richelieu whom I can see today, worked very hard to keep the GST off books. When I see a timid little measure, which is a step in the right direction, but not big enough, I cannot help but praise the seven founding members of the Bloc Quebecois for their determined efforts.
Politics is a drawn out process sometimes, but eventually one gets results. And in this case, the result is a watered down one, but it is still a result. I would now like to urge the government, and I think I speak for all my colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois, to remove the tax on all books sold in Quebec and in Canada.
The two founding nations have a duty to promote cultural awareness. They have a duty to see that people read Quebec and Canadian authors. The government has a duty to make sure that our authors can sell their works at competitive prices. The Minister of Finance says public finances are quite healthy, so perhaps he should do something to help culture, to ensure its survival.
That concludes my remarks on Bill C-70. I would like to table an amendment. I move, seconded by my colleague, the member for Trois-Rivières:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word "That" and substituting the following:
"Bill C-70, An Act to amend the Excise Tax Act, the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act, the Income Tax Act, the Debt Servicing and Reduction Account Act and related Acts, be not now read a second time but that it be read a second time this day six months hence."