Mr. Speaker, once again I rise to address Bill C-34. I am pleased to reiterate my support and that of the Bloc Quebecois for this bill, which the agricultural sector has been anxiously waiting. However, the official opposition's support should not be viewed by the government as an unconditional endorsement.
I want to make it clear: We support the principle of this bill, and most of its provisions, but we still have reservations about the budget allocation.
Therefore, I want to explain our reservations. The Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food spent a long time discussing the benefits, and particularly the gains that could be achieved by the agricultural industry, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.
The major irritant at the root of the Bloc Quebecois' opposition, or at least its reservations, had to do with the budget allocation. The development of the advanced payments program is a major aspect of Bill C-34.
Since I do not know, Mr. Speaker, whether you are aware of the situation in the agricultural sector, I will try to shed some light on the issue. Bill C-34 provides that $120 million will be allocated to the advance payments program, in equal parts, over the next three years.
Needless to say, these funds are absolutely necessary to ensure the survival, or at least the financial viability, of farm operations.
In many cases, the final payment for a given crop can take weeks or even months to get to farmers while payments for costs associated with operating the farm get to them in no time.
At this point, I would like to give you a specific example. Take maple syrup producers for instance. The sap runs for two, three or four weeks maximum. Of course, producers must invest large amounts of money before and during this short period. As we know, preparations often start right after New Year's day, and this involves tapping the trees and getting the tubing ready, along with all the other equipment that will be used in the sugar bush.
During these tree or four weeks of intense work, maple syrup producers must invest large amounts. A portion of the production will be sold at retail to people visiting the sugar bush. But for the most part the crop is sold wholesale, in barrels, and often maple syrup producers have to wait for months, if not years, to receive final payment.
With this advance payment scheme, producers will be receiving a reasonable payment on the fair value of the syrup. This also means that advance payments for crops provide balance in the financial management of farm operations. Need I point out also that, in many cases, this represents the operations' lifeline? It is the difference between an anxiety ridden operation and a prosperous one and the profitability of farms, which are the pride of rural areas.
You can see that a farmer has to be able to count on a higher authority to guarantee the investments required to run a farm.
From a strictly analytical and non-partisan point of view, the bill introduced by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is certainly very laudable and full of good will, but certain features of the bill leave me wondering about the minister's real intentions and motivations with respect to the main idea behind marketing these agricultural products.
As I pointed out in my speech last June 17, just before the House rose for the summer, there is a rather obvious inconsistency in the way the government markets these crops. Let me explain.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will use huge sums of money to facilitate the marketing of annual crops, but this money already comes from the income protection programs envelope. This is a rather huge inconsistency. In my humble opinion, the government is trying to hide the cuts it is forcing on a category of taxpayers, who are already in a precarious financial position.
This brings me to the agriculture department's unfair treatment of farmers, particularly dairy producers. I remind you that on August 1, 1995 we cut the price paid for a hectolitre of industrial milk by 81 cents. On August 1, 1996, the same thing: another 81 cents cut per hectolitre, with another 76 cents to come next August 1-in a few months-until it is all used up, or in other words until August 1, 2001, when there will be no milk subsidy left, when it was $5.43 per hectolitre to begin with.
I will give you the example of an average Quebec farm, since Quebec alone produces 47 per cent of industrial milk in Canada. An average farm, a family farming operation, producing 1,900 hectolitres of industrial milk yearly, will lose $1,500 a year, or over the five year period of regular cuts, an average of $7,500. That represents a drop in income of between 5 and 5.5 per cent.
Often, that 5 per cent in question is the only net income that is left in the dairy farmer's pocket at the end of the year, with which he can treat himself to a little outing, a little trip.
Unfortunately, the government across the way is taking care not to speak of this cut. For instance, between 1994 and 1995, when the subsidy was $5.43 a hectolitre-a hectolitre being 100 litres-that meant that the government was paying about 5.5 cents per litre in industrial milk subsidies. As of August 1, 2001, that figure will be down to zero.
Do you know what this means for the dairy producers of Quebec, the 26,000 dairy producers of Quebec? It means a cut of $108 million, for Quebec alone. For all of Canada, $228 million. Since Quebec produces 48 per cent, you will see that, first and foremost, it is the Quebec dairy farmers who are being penalized most heavily.
The Minister of Finance has made more cuts in the Department of Agriculture than in all of the other departments. Between the 1994-95 budget and next year's 1998 budget, cuts in agriculture will be 35.5 per cent, close to three eighths of the total cuts. In Bill C-34, the principle of interconnectedness is being used, linking what has been forecast as revenue and what will be given in anticipated payments, to what must be guaranteed as income if the crop should fail.
In other words, it is a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul. There is no fresh money, no new money. Together with the cuts in subsidies for producers of industrial milk, this will inevitably lead to a price increase for the processors.
I want dairy producers to listen carefully to these figures. According to a study, every time we increase the price of butter by 10 per cent, and butter costs more than $3 a pound today, the price goes up 30 cents. Will people eat more butter? No. It means a 7 per cent drop in sales.
The problem in Quebec is not that we have trouble supplying the processing plants, on the contrary. Every dairy producer would be delighted to keep an extra cow or two. Of course he would, but if we raise the price of industrial milk, instead of keeping an extra cow he will have to get rid of one, which means a difference of two cows. As you know, not the first cow in the herd but the last one makes money. The last cow is pure profit. Thanks to her, the farmer can buy a few extras, like other skilled workers in our country.
I have another example which concerns cheese. The same thing will happen if we increase the price of cheese by 10 per cent. I see the parliamentary secretary to the minister of agriculture who is being very attentive, and I suggest that he get in touch with me if he does not understand the figures and also that he listen carefully.
So in the case of cheese, if we increase the price by 10 per cent, there will be 4 per cent drop in sales. Here again, increasing the price will mean be a drop in sales. Mr. Speaker, you do not seem to care about the problems facing dairy producers, and I think that is very unfortunate, because these people do not work five but seven days a week.
The morning milking and evening milking and taking care of the livestock goes on week in, week out, even on Sundays, even New Year's Day, Christmas and Easter. Farmers cannot afford to lose, and we have no right to make them lose, 5.5 per cent of their income. We have no right unilaterally to cut subsidies that were introduced by the central government in the first place in the early 70s.
I think this is an important point, and if the parliamentary secretary does not agree, let him argue otherwise: on average, the overall budget of the Department of Agriculture invested only 9 per cent last year in Quebec. The current average would seem to be11 per cent. One year when the department was particularly generous farmers in Quebec, it invested up to 17 per cent in purchasing goods and services or setting up research stations, 5 or 6 of which were closed two years ago. That was the best it did.
However, Quebec's agricultural activity represents 17 per cent of total gross agricultural activity in this country. However, when processing plants-which is where value is added, that is the value added in the processing of cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream-are included, Quebec contributes 24 per cent to Canada's agricultural economy. Yet, only a meagre 9 per cent is invested in Quebec, while the average elsewhere is 11 per cent. It is shameful, a scandal.
When I meet the producers in my riding, I regularly explain the unfair treatment we have been getting, not just once in a while, but every decade. I would go so far to say that it dates back to the supposed union of Upper and Lower Canada, which took place in 1841 and predates Confederation in 1867; at that time, the debts of Upper and Lower Canada were combined. Upper Canada is Ontario today, Lower Canada is Quebec. The debts were combined, and everyone was made to pay.
Ontario, Upper Canada, had 12 times the debt of Quebec, and, obviously, its infrastructures, its port in Toronto, roads and railways were also 12 times more developed than in Quebec. The situation could be likened to that of a wolf whelping four cubs. As you already know, the first cub to suckle will be the strongest, the most vigilant and the most vigorous of the entire pack. By 1841, Ontario was already ahead and has retained the lead.
Another example of unfairness occurred two years ago when the government in Ottawa did away with the WGTA in the west. When the subsidy to industrial milk producers was cut here, it was cut, and of course no compensation was paid. However, when the WGTA, the Western Grain Transportation Act, was eliminated to permit savings of $860 million a year, the government invested $2.9 billion, not $2.9 million, in order to save $860 million.
This amount of $2.9 billion was divided in three. First, $1.6 billion was allocated to grain producers, based on the size of their farms, the number of bushels sold the previous year and so on, depending on the geographical location of the farm, if it were close to this or that. A cheque for $1.6 billion was issued but, listen to this, no TP4 or T4 was issued. This means it was tax free, clear, which is rather unusual. It takes some doing, does it not?
The federal government paid out substantial amounts without those at the receiving end having to include them in their income tax return. That is what I call money paid under the blanket.
In addition, $300 million in adaptation funds have been earmarked for upgrading roads and railways, silo construction, rentals and so on. A $1 billion loan guarantee has also been established to help certain foreign countries that may want to buy western grain but cannot afford to do so. This all adds up to $2.9 billion.
As you can see, once again, Agriculture Canada has created inequity between farm producers in the west and the east, not just in Quebec, but also in the maritimes and, of course, in Ontario.
In a sense, Bill C-34 will benefit those producers who have to do without an income for extended periods because the money comes in all at once, come harvest time. I gave the best possible example, the easiest one to understand, since we are now at the very end of the maple syrup season. A maple syrup producer can try to sell all the production at once, but maple products will be on the market throughout the year.
In conclusion, while this government may be trying to improve things, it has a weakness, and I will remind the public of that weakness in my speeches during the upcoming election campaign. That weakness is a lack of fairness. The government does not seem to know about fairness.
As André Pratte, from the daily La Presse , wrote so well in his book entitled Le syndrome de Pinocchio , Canadians politicians have unfortunately lost all credibility, because they have abused voters' confidence for too long.
A poll conducted a while ago by a specialized magazine showed that, out of some 30 professions in Canada, politicians came next to last at the bottom of the list, just before used car dealers. Doctors and police officers were at the top of the list. Lawyers, because their job is often rather difficult, came pretty close to politicians. Come to think of it, a number of members here are lawyers by training. So, politicians were very low on the list, just before used car dealers. Incidentally, new car dealers did relatively well.
Granted, a Ford salesman will extol the virtues of that make, at the expense of Chrysler and so on. But the bottom line is that politicians did very poorly. Unfortunately, I became one by accident, but I will do my best to avoid catching the Pinocchio syndrome. My children often tell me: "Daddy, someone else in the House of Commons has the same name as you". I tell them: "Listen, he is the king and his Deputy Prime Minister is the queen when it comes to that syndrome". We saw this with the GST, when they promised to scrap it. To us, scrapping something means throwing it out, destroying it, sending it to the scrap heap.
So, when the Prime Minister said he was going to scrap the GST, we understood that he was going to abolish it and perhaps find another clever way of coming up with the $19 billion that the GST brings into the federal coffers. Remember what he said he meant: "If you understood that I was going to scrap it, you misunderstood, and if you did not understand, you were not listening. And if you do not understand, you are idiots". This was the answer given by the Prime Minister over Christmas when questioned by several members of the public chosen at random from across Canada.
So, not surprisingly, politicians do not rate very high with the public, and yet an election campaign is going to be launched in a few days. There will be more and more of these distortions of the truth. The President of the Treasury Board, who visited Thetford Mines in my region on the eve of the 1995 referendum, said he was giving Quebec much more money than this province was paying. Year after year, we pay $30 billion in taxes of one sort or another to this institution called the federal government. And the President of the Treasury Board tried to make us believe he was giving us too much. If we are costing this government, this Treasury Board, this minister, too much, they should let us leave, for heaven's sake. I have never seen anyone so anxious to hang on to something that was costing him so much.
I am sure that, when you look at the figures for each department, Quebec is not receiving its fair share. I just gave the example of the Department of Agriculture, which is giving us 9 per cent compared to an 11 per cent average. Last year, Quebec received 9 per cent of the overall envelope of the Department of Agriculture, when it represents 24 or 25 per cent of the population, pays 24 per cent of taxes and generates 17 per cent of direct agricultural activity. When you include processing plants, it is easily 24 per cent. We could come up with more examples of such unfairness if we took the trouble to look for them.
When all is said and done, we are going to vote in favour of Bill C-34. We will support it, although it is not a perfect bill. I told you how they came up with $120 million by taking it from somewhere else. This is not new money. They take it out of another envelope, the one for farmers, and invest it to generate advance payments. However, as requested by many farmers and farmers associations which called my office to ask us to support Bill C-34, we will go along with the consensus that exists among farmers across Canada. Because after all, there are some good things in this bill.
The government could have ended up with a far better bill if it had bothered to accept the amendments proposed by the Bloc Quebecois. These were very sound amendments, as the parliamentary secretary may recall, we moved in the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food. However, if they do not initiate it, it is no good, and if they do, it is.
I remember this week that when we were discussing Bill C-72, we were talking about the majority of grain producers to be elected to the board of directors of the Canadian Wheat Board. A majority, that is what it said in the bill.
I said: "Listen, let us write down a number. Out of 15 members, they could elect nine. That is a majority, nine out of 15. Or we could put eight, which is still a majority. To avoid any misunderstanding, we will set a figure". I set the limit at 12. I presented an amendment to the amendment. The Reform Party agreed with the Bloc Quebecois; the Liberal Party, all eight members, including the parliamentary secretary, voted against it because it was not their idea. Thirty-six hours later, unanimous consent was requested to present an amendment that would set the majority at 10 out of 15, which is what it says now in Bill C-72: 10 out of 15 to be elected by the grain producers.
This is an improvement, but 36 hours earlier, it was the Bloc Quebecois that came up with this idea, and even my colleague from Malpeque voted against it, to the eternal shame of the farmers of Prince Edward Island. But 36 hours later, the Liberals came back, sweet as you please, and suggested 10. So 10 out of 15, 66 per cent. I said: "Let us see whether our colleagues opposite have any
guts. Sixty-six per cent, 12 out of 15, 75 per cent, let us split the difference, and I presented an amendment to the amendment: 11.
The Canadian Wheat Board, I should point out, was not established 60 years ago, during the Depression, for eastern farmers, to please the members of this House, for consumers or for tractor sellers-there were none then, or very few. The Canadian Wheat Board was established during a Depression in the 1930s, to support grain growers who were declaring bankruptcy one after another and to ensure their grain was properly marketed. It was for them. Since it was for them, they should have control. The government, however, sees it as an opportunity to make three or four political appointments.
I proposed 12. Thirty-six hours later they came back with 10. The next day, during deliberations I proposed 11. We looked each other squarely in the face, and my Liberal colleagues voted against it. My Reform Party colleagues joined with the Bloc, and agreed on 11. However, as the Liberals have total control, and committees often being nothing more than a charade, time wasted, it was a good thing in this case, because we at least made them aware with our arguments and ended up with 10 in the bill, which is none too many.
If the Liberal Party paid more attention to the official opposition, bills would often be more acceptable and would have a better impact on the farming community.