Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in the budget debate that is drawing to a close. We have to wonder about what we should have found in this budget and what was not there.
We have learned to expect some quite original, but not always positive, moves by the Minister of Finance to cut expenditures, reduce transfer payments to the provinces, use the UI fund surplus as public revenues to hide the deficit. This year, however, he could have come up with more original initiatives to deal with our number one problem, the employment situation.
The budget contains no original employment measure on jobs. In my speech, I will point out some initiatives that should have been brought forward, but that were not, which goes to show that the government does not really want to deal with the unemployment problem we are facing in Quebec and throughout Canada.
First, I would like to give you an example of how public expenditures could have been better controlled. It would have been interesting to cut the Senate's budget. All the Senate has done this last year is to reject the Pearson Airport bill.
Because this measure was rejected, the federal government had to go to court and will probably have to pay up to $600 million of taxpayers' money in compensation because of the Pearson airport mess. Perhaps the Senate deserves that we cut its expenses and that we look more closely at what it is doing with our money.
The main issue is that the government has not set an employment target. It has not established specific objectives, as it did for deficit reduction. It has not made a commitment to reduce unemployment by a certain percentage over the next year or over the next two years.
That is what the Quebec government has done. It said that it would meet its job creation target as soon as possible and eliminate the gap between Quebec and the average for Canada. The federal government has not made such a commitment. The Prime Minister is constantly telling us that we must create the proper conditions for job creation, which means keeping an eye on interest rates and other such things. That is good for a certain number of jobs. However, in today's society, I think there are two realities with regard to employment.
There are those people concerned with the new economy, those who just got out of university or college and for whom we must implement new technologies, open markets, increase exports, etc. It is true that we must act on that front, but there is also a segment
of the population that has been abandoned, that is not being taken care of in the present budget as I think it should have been.
There are the solutions I heard about in a workshop held during the Bloc Quebecois convention on the issue of employment. A number of solutions were suggested. One is to turn over management of the UI fund, now known as the EI fund, to those paying into it, that is employers, employees and the unemployed. Chambers of Commerce, the Bloc Quebecois and even the Conservative Party of Canada called very clearly for a significant reduction in UI premiums. This would free up money that could be put back into the economy, thus helping to create jobs.
The federal government made a very timid move in this direction, but without any real results. The 5 cent reduction decided on by the federal government will not have a real effect on employment. It could have been a much larger reduction, something like 40 cents for every $100 in earnings, so as to put a significant amount back into the economy and actually produce jobs.
The most productive money is not the money we invest in the system of government, in the bureaucracies. It would perhaps be more helpful in terms of job creation to invest money directly in the private sector, in the economy.
Another point is that this UI fund should be turned over to those who ultimately fund it. Until then, the emphasis could be on short-term projects. I know there is one in the Lower St. Lawrence to enable forestry workers to have more weeks of work from year to year and less need of employment insurance.
This project was put to the minister long ago. We are waiting to hear from him. Perhaps we will have good news soon. This claim has been pending a long time. It was supported by the Bloc Quebecois. It was regularly part of our arguments against employment insurance. The surplus must serve the community more. It must target a specific clientele, like seasonal workers, people who do not necessarily have specialized training, so as to ensure that they are properly trained to respond to market conditions.
This is another possible use that must be advocated, developed in a proactive approach. The surplus money must be used to provide in-house training and thus prevent people who lost their job from ending up on EI, and provide them instead with the opportunity to upgrade their skills while they are still employed, in order to fill the new positions created by the new economy.
There is a third solution I would have liked to see in the budget, namely stopping the cuts to transfer payments and, if possible, increasing them. The finance minister's documents brush a very revealing employment picture. They show that since 1976 employment has increased in the private sector, but decreased in the public sector. At the end of the day, people who lost their job in the public sector may not have found another job in the private sector, and they may not have found a job with the same conditions. This situation has created insecurity.
This year, if, instead of hiding the lower deficit from us, in order to be able to throw out some election goodies, the federal government had instead decided to inject the money back into transfer payments, the provinces would not be experiencing the difficulties they are at present with their health and education budgets, and would have been able to maintain employment on a more meaningful and more significant basis, while maintaining services at a still more worth while level.
These are, therefore, three approaches to the employment question that are not included in the budget. The reason they are not there is that the government has made no commitment to really tackle this problem of unemployment. This is rather strange since the government was elected on a platform promising "jobs, jobs, jobs". Yet, after three years, when the Liberal candidates face their constituents, they will be asked: "Yes, it is true, you fought the deficit, there were cuts in transfer payments, there were tremendous pressures on the unemployment insurance fund, but what did you do to provide us with jobs? Did you provide a climate favourable to job creation? Yes, interest rates are low, but that did not give me a job".
The lowering of interest rates is very often good for the introduction of new technologies, but if we do not want that the victim be the person who loses his or her job, we have to find ways to give that person another job, we have to be proactive. This is an element you will not find in the budget.
The workshop participants, Bloc members, people who take this issue at heart, who are aware of the what is really going on around them, also suggested to me other solutions that they thought should be in the budget to help the employment issue.
First, the dramatic reduction of paperwork required from small and medium size businesses. Today, a small business owner who is just starting or is already an owner must go through endless red tape when he wants to create an extra job. He must get employer's numbers, approach health and safety organizations, the human resources development department, as well as many other organizations. This has a demoralizing effect on the business owner, who will tend to ask his employees to work extra hours or try to find other similar solutions, but all this does not allow for a better sharing of jobs.
Therefore, paperwork reduction is a specific point that could have been put forward, but this budget does not consider this as crucial.
The establishment of a progressive retirement plan could have been another interesting point.
It is crucial to follow up on small and medium size businesses during the first three years, the critical years for them. They are now offered interesting start-up programs, but they often have a high rate of failure because there is no adequate follow-up. Is there anything specific to help these businesses? I have not seen anything about that in the budget and I find this deplorable. This would be important, because it is small and medium size businesses that create more than 80 per cent of new jobs in Canada.
Another thing would be to see how we could make retirement plans and mutual funds beneficial to those who invest in Quebec or Canadian businesses. In this regard, as in others, the budget lacks initiative and innovation.
The government could also have found ways to make overtime less appealing for employers and workers, so as to lead them to provide work for more people. A fundamental change is taking place in our society in this area.
There are also other avenues to explore concerning employment that were left out of the budget. We need a well focused strategy for people who do not necessarily have very extensive training, such as literacy programs. Incidentally, this is literacy week. Our society would greatly benefit from investing in that sector, and ensuring that people with reading disabilities have access to all the tools they need to learn and to overcome their difficulties. Thus, they would increase their chances of finding a new job.
Today, most jobs require better reading and mental skills. We must allow those who did not get the chance to develop these skills to do so. A lot of money could have been invested in literacy, but the budget makes no provision in this regard.
The budget also seeks to stabilize the monetary policy. More could have been done in this area. The government realized that it contributed to the recession by being too restrictive in the past. There should be an inflation target range. There must also be some security inthis regard. We do not find these conditions in this budget, and I deplore it.
The minister lacked originality, and therefore the budget is not very interesting. It is rather dull. One of the financial experts invited to comment on the budget before a chamber of commerce said: "I must tell you that I had prepared myself to give you a lot of information, but this is a non-budget". Aside from a few crumbs, there are not really any interesting new items in this budget.
There is a matter that is particularly close to my heart. More specifically, it is the issue of rural development. Why do we not find in this budget measures to help build senior citizens residences in small municipalities? Our rural communities are in dire need of that. The population of rural communities is aging. There is a need for 10 to 15 room residences. Seniors could stay in the community where they have lived all their life. It would be easier for their children to visit. The regional economy would get a boost while seniors would have a better quality of life. But there is nothing in the budget about that.
People at CMHC do what they can, but their mandate is to ensure viability in strictly economical terms. The government should have undertaken to build senior citizens homes in towns and villages and contribute that way to keep these communities vibrant. But it shirked these responsibilities. This kind of development would have been quite interesting.
American pensions is another humanitarian issue I have been talking about quite often, and I am disappointed the government did not suggest any solution to that. For more that a year now, the minister has known that the new fiscal convention between Canada and the United States would penalize low income earners. For example, a person who gets an $8,000 pension from the United States had to declare half of this anount in his income thax return at the end of the year. That person only had to declare $4,000 and could get back a portion of the tax he paid because his income was so low. The tax refund gave him a break.
The new fiscal convention signed by the government-and the fincnace minister has already admitted it is unfair-will result in that tax being deducted at source. So the person who gets $8,000 from the American government will now see his cheque reduced by 25 per cent at source. There is no way he can get this money back. Therefore, instead of receiving $8,000, this person only gets $6,000, $2,000 being paid directly to the American Treasury. There is no way for the person to recover that money.
We are not talking here about high income people. In my own riding, some people between 55 and 60 have these pension benefits as their only income. That is all they have to pay their rent and their food. They have been reduced to utter poverty.
The finance minister has acknowledged that problem months ago. I know Canada and the U.S. have a tax convention, and it is very hard to change that. It can take months or years, but, in the meantime, we could have come up with temporary solutions.
When calculating the income supplement, for example, we could allow such a pensioner to report only the real amount he or she is getting from the U.S. But no, the government refused to be flexible, refused to change the legislation in the budget so that only
the net amount would be considered. So, we still have to use the gross amount.
This is sheer nonsense. In theory, an individual who receives $8,000 in revenue from the Americans must report $8,000 as revenue for the calculation of his supplement, even if he is only getting $6,000. This is unacceptable, especially since, to correct this injustice, we only needed a small change, not a major one, for which the government would have got the consent of the opposition, but it was not meant to be.
Other alternatives could have been considered to ensure that the people who receive a small pension are not penalized. Why could we not find a way to reimburse them until the tax treaty with the United States can be amended? Maybe that is why people are more frustrated with the current situation. The government is not acting fast enough to remedy human tragedies like these.
There always has to be political pressure or media coverage, when logic alone should be enough to bring the government to act. But it did not in this case. I think the government should have acted faster and worked harder to remedy the situation.
Thus, this budget does not aim at reducing unemployment. It does not have a clear and definite goal. Neither the finance minister nor the Prime Minister stood to say: "From now on, our main target will be the unemployment. From now on, we will have targeted strategies to be able to solve our problems. In our capacity as an employer, we, the federal government will introduce measures that will lead to a reduction in overtime and an increase in time sharing. For private employers, not only will we create favourable conditions such as lower interest rates, but we will also introduce measures that will help our young people find a job and build a career. We will also see to it that businesses that have been in existence for a year or two can get adequate management advice to help them through this critical phase".
We do not find any of these things in the budget, and I think the Liberal government will be judged on the way it has not fulfilled its main mandate. There are still 1.5 million unemployed in Canada. The Liberals condemned this situation in 1993 but nothing has changed.
Is it that the people opposite are not doing their job effectively? I do not think so. I think there is a problem with the system as well, because it is highly complex: there are two labour codes and there are two governments involved in various matters to do with employment. It is very complex. I think all these should be returned to a single level of government to permit effective action.
In the meantime, the federal government has skirted the objective that Quebecers and Canadians wanted it to target: to reduce unemployment. There is no such objective, and for all these reasons, I think we will have to vote against the budget to make
sure people understand clearly who decided what and how the federal government failed to meet its responsibilities in the matter of unemployment.