Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise this afternoon to speak on Bill C-93, the Budget Implementation Act, 1997, at third reading.
You will probably recall how proud the Minister of Finance was when he tabled his fourth budget, boasting about the fact that the deficit, which was $42 billion when the Prime Minister entrusted him with this portfolio, should have shrunk to a mere $17 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.
There is a difference between the current Liberal government, and the previous Conservative government. While the Conservative Party underestimated its deficits, the Liberal Party tends to overestimate its deficits, which means that, by March 30 next year, the deficit may actually be closer to $12 billion.
The minister is fiddling around with the numbers and using the communicating vessels principle, in other words interest rates, to his advantage. In Canada as in every other industrialized country in the world, interest rates are relatively low right now. On the more than $615 billion in cumulatve deficits or debt, one can understand that the Minister of Finance is saving a bundle each month by paying less interest than he would have to if we had interest rates of 8 per cent or 9 per cent.
However, and there is the rub, he is dipping deep into the employment insurance fund. This year, the EI fund will be generating a $5.6 billion surplus. Where does the money that generates this surplus in the EI fund come from? From the $2.95 premium paid by workers on every $100 of insurable earnings and $3.20 premium paid by employers, these premiums amounting to a payroll tax on employment.
By charging way too much, they get a surplus at the expense of workers. Indeed, this same government has decided to shorten the benefit period while at the same time increasing the number of hours-they count hours now-required to qualify for employment insurance benefits. Naturally, the benefit rate will be reduced by 1 per cent for every 20 weeks of benefits collected. After a few years, a worker who has collected employment insurance benefits for more than 20 weeks will see his benefits reduced by 1 per cent increments down to 50 per cent of his insurable earnings.
So, on the one hand, the Minister of Finance is keeping the employees' and employers' contributions to the employment insurance fund way too high while, on the other hand, he is making it extremely difficult for potential recipients to qualify for benefits. At this rate, within a few years, the fund will be overflowing.
However, this is another way this government can shift its deficit onto the provinces. The unemployment rate tends to go down because people are no longer on the list of those actively looking for work; however, meanwhile, the number of welfare recipients has been on the rise for some years in all of the provinces.
This is the case in Quebec, where the unemployment rate has gone down, while the number of welfare recipients has gone up because, in many cases, people are no longer eligible for employment insurance benefits and are still without a job. The result is that these people end up on the welfare rolls.
The Minister of Finance also reduced transfers to the provinces, including social transfers for post-secondary education and health. This triggered a chain reaction whereby all the provinces had to make other taxpayers, particularly municipalities, school boards and hospitals, shoulder part of the burden dumped on them by the finance minister.
What is really serious is the inequity of the minister's approach to balancing his budget within three years. The most blatant examples are undoubtedly the abolition of the Western Grain Transportation Act, in the prairies, and the harmonization of the infamous GST, which the Prime Minister himself promised to abolish, to scrap, as he said so eloquently. To scrap means to tear up, to throw in the garbage.
The Prime Minister often said: "I will scrap the GST". Four years later, what has been the cost of scrapping the GST? It cost at least a byelection in Hamilton East, since the Deputy Prime Minister had pledged to resign in the first 12 months of a Liberal government if the GST was not abolished.
It took a lot longer than 12 months for her to resign her seat in the House of Commons, and the official opposition had to remind her for several weeks of the promise she had made, with the help of the media, which ran almost daily clips of her saying: "I promise to resign if we have not abolished the GST in the first 12 months".
Obviously, it took several weeks, several months, and in June of last year she handed in her resignation, because a promise had not been kept, a promise that can of course be found in the red book, which I note by the way has become as rare on Parliament Hill as Chairman Mao's little red book has in China; people made a point of learning Mao's book by heart. My colleagues in the Liberal Party also made a point of memorizing their little red book. What I would like is for my Liberal friends opposite to give me a few copies. I will need them for my next election campaign, and nobody wants to give me a copy.
I throw out an appeal to everyone, as they do on the quiz show Tous pour un : if you have half a dozen red books, I need them in the riding of Frontenac-Mégantic to give to my Liberal opponent, Manon Lecours, to read over again before she rushes headlong into the next election campaign that will be announced next Sunday.
I am certain that nobody will provide me with these books because they are so ashamed of them. I urge Liberal candidates in the next election not to lapse into the Pinocchio syndrome described in the book of the same name written by my friend, André Pratte, a reporter with La Presse . You must have read it, Mr. Speaker. He mentioned a number of famous comments made by our friends across the way. He gave examples of frequently lengthening noses on the faces of some of you, my Liberal friends, as the result of past untruths.
To get back to Bill C-93, I should point out that the Minister of Finance applies cuts sometimes unevenly, sometimes unfairly. I was talking about the GST, the harmonization with the three maritime provinces, three small Canadian provinces. To help them swallow the pill, he gave them $960 million. The GST has lost its name. Now it is the HST, the harmonized sales tax. The people in the maritimes will forget the GST in a few months or years. They will be calling it the HST.
In Quebec, the late Robert Bourassa, a federalist premier, with his good friend the former Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, another federalist, agreed to harmonize the GST and the Quebec sales tax. I recall very clearly, when I was a farmer, having to complete two forms for the GST and the QST.
In 1991, I was very proud, I even telephoned my MNA to congratulate him on harmonizing with the federal government, since we would be completing only one form. Quebec collects the GST for the federal government, and, at the end of the month, makes a cheque out to the Minister of Finance of Canada.
The only advantage the Government of Quebec receives is a split of the costs involved in collecting, whereas the maritime provinces get $960 for this same harmonization. Worse yet, the provinces do not do the collecting, the federal government does. It looks after the forms and the investigations and charges the provinces nothing for doing so. A double standard.
The Quebec department of finance fairly calculated the cost of having the same privileges in Quebec. The Minister of Finance's government would have to pay $2 billion if it were going to treat everyone fairly.
We in the Bloc Quebecois will pester all Liberal candidates in Quebec to be fair and to make commitments to the voters. As I said, it was utterly unfair of this government to use the WGTA to reduce its deficit. The Western Grain Transportation Act will save the Canadian treasury $560 million per year.
To sugarcoat it for western grain producers, the same finance minister paid $2.9 billion in compensation, including $1 billion paid directly to the producers, under the table. He sent them a cheque and told them: "You are not required to claim this amount on your next income tax return, and no TP4 or T4 will be issued to include with your return".
It is the same thing with bribes: one is not required to tell the tax man about them. The government paid producers under the table to sugarcoat a bitter tasting pill. It is appalling.