Madam Speaker, Bill C-93 is an Act to implement the 1997 budget. I will describe its major elements.
Compared to the billions of dollars cut from social transfers and taken from the unemployment insurance fund, the meagre $50 million spent this year on the child benefit sounds like a drop in the bucket. This is the extent of the compassion felt by the Minister of Finance for the poor children of this country. We will not see the $600 million announced until 1998-99, while we now have 1.5 million children living in poverty in Canada.
The Minister of Finance could have taken advantage of the present favourable conditions to lower UI premium rates by three or four times as much in order to really create jobs while spending the billions of dollars in the UI fund to increase the protection lost in the wake of the employment insurance reform.
The Minister of Finance could also have taken advantage of those three and a half years in his portfolio to undertake a real reform of corporate and personal taxation, as the Bloc Québécois has been calling for since the beginning.
We know, for example, that he could have used up to $3 billion per year from corporate tax expenditures to support small and medium size business which create jobs, as we demonstrated last November.
The minister could have done all this and more while getting the deficit down to zero by the year 2000 thanks to the government's room to manoeuvre, the extent of which the finance minister is trying to hide from us.
This budget is hiding the true face of deficit reduction. On page 7 of the budget speech, the minister claims, and I quote:
-we will meet our objectives, as in the past, by focusing on getting spending right-not by raising taxes.
The truth is the minister has hardly done anything to better manage government finances. The brunt of his deficit reduction has been borne by the taxpayers, who, in the last four years, have had to put up with $2 billion in tax increases and $14 billion in cuts, over half of which were made to transfer payments to the provinces.
Departmental operating expenditures were reduced by only $3 billion or 8 per cent between 1993-94 and 1997-98, while transfers to the provinces were cut by 27 per cent during the same period.
To stimulate job creation, the minister is announcing a scant $25 million-or one dollar per Canadian-in new money, including $15 million for tourism and $10 million to connect the region to the Internet, compared to the billions he can play with. I would say the budget the minister brought down is anti-jobs.
As I said before, this budget is full of misinformation, especially when it comes to the finance minister's forecast of the amount of money at his disposal.
He is hiding something. The deficit cannot have dropped by a mere $2 billion between 1997 and 1998 when it fell by $9.6 billion between 1996 and 1997. The minister is hiding behind a margin which he narrows deliberately to justify his inaction and the absence of true job creation measures. Most of all, he is hiding the real anticipated deficit for 1998-99 in order to avoid taking a stand on an extremely important question before the next election, that is, what to do with the eventual surpluses.
We should have commended the minister for the $800 million spent on setting up the Canada Foundation for Innovation, but we suspected all along that there was something fishy. Not surprisingly, transfers to the provinces for 1997-98 will be $800 million lower than anticipated in the 1996 budget, mainly because the economic situation has improved.
Instead of giving the money to the provinces, the federal government is using it to create a foundation which duplicates and competes with measures already implemented by the provinces. Finally, there is not a single word about compensating Quebec for the harmonization of the GST in 1991, even though it would be appropriate given the $1 billion paid to the maritimes.
This is clearly a pre-election budget. The minister does not shy away from repeating, in the budget, all the good news already announced over the last few months, but he keeps silent on the $4 billion in cuts to take effect this year. In our opinion, the Minister of Finance is showing a total lack of respect for the voters by offering them "electoral goodies" when he just cut social programs in a very unreasonable way.
All the new initiatives of the federal government really infringe on the exclusive jurisdiction of Quebec, adding to duplication, overlap, inefficiencies and costs, naturally borne by all taxpayers. The game the government is playing is very simple: cut ruthlessly in social transfer payments and implement new initiatives, often partisan in nature, without any regard for the common good.
Having created new social programs, the federal government withdraws its financing unilaterally, but continues to insist on so-called national standards.
The Minister of Finance did not revise his deficit forecast for the next two years, he is keeping it at $17 billion for 1998 and $9 billion for 1999, although he was more than $5 billion under target for 1996-1997, that is $19 billion instead of the $24.3 billion forecast. Therefore, the minister is allowing himself considerable leeway and his measures for employment and the fight against poverty are ridiculous when you compare them to what could have been done while, at the same time, aiming for a zero deficit in year 2000.
The Bloc Quebecois believes that the Minister of Finance has $8 billion to work with this year, 1997-98. He is one year ahead of his deficit reduction schedule. He will probably reach the $9 billion mark next year, instead of $17 billion, hence the $8 billion I just mentioned.
The finance minister refuses to reveal exactly how much money he can play with, because he does not want to be pressured by the provinces and by public and labour associations that would ask him to refinance social transfers to the provinces, which have been greatly reduced, as we have seen.
Thus, from 1993-94 to 1997-98, the deficit has dropped from $42 billion to $17 billion, a $25 billion reduction. To achieve this, revenues were increased by $22 billion and spending was cut by $14 billion.
Consequently, over 52 per cent of the $14.2 billion reduction in program spending between 1994 and 1998 comes from reductions in transfers to other government levels, mainly the provinces.
We know how the Quebec government's budget was directly affected by these transfer reductions. Between 1993-94 and 1998-99, the deficit will have fallen from $42 billion to $9 billion, a $33 billion reduction. In this case, to achieve this, revenues will be increased by $28 billion and spending reduced by $16.5 billion.
We may conclude that over 49 per cent of the $16.5 billion reduction in program spending between 1994 and 1999 comes from reductions in transfers to other government levels, mainly the provinces.
Since the Liberals came to office, personal income taxes have grown faster than the economy, than the GDP. This increase in the personal tax burden does not come from a review of the tax system, which the Bloc Quebecois had asked for in order to increase fairness. On the contrary, it comes especially from several subtle tax increases, such as the non-indexing of tax tables and credits.
The cuts announced in the 1994, 1995 and 1996 budgets will reduce the federal deficit by $4.6 billion this year. We may then talk about $4.6 billion in cuts and tax increases that were announced in the past, but that will come into effect this year. In 1998-99, the cuts announced in the past will reduce the deficit by $28.9 billion, that is $2.8 billion more than in 1997-98 and $7.4 billion more than in 1996-97.
The finance minister has gotten into the habit of putting off his bad news until later. But, in his 1997 budget, he bragged that he was announcing no new cuts or tax increases. Nevertheless, there
are $4.6 billion in cuts and tax increases being implemented this year, as announced in the three previous budgets.
An election year is no time for the Liberals to spend billions. By artificially increasing future deficits, the Minister of Finance has avoided setting off a debate on the use of possible future budgetary surpluses. Indeed, as long as people think we are still deeply in debt, the Liberals can go on saying that we must stay the course.
On the other hand, if a zero deficit had been announced for 1999, the next election campaign could have centred, for example, on the use of the surpluses created in the federal government's next budget, compelling the Liberals to commit themselves on this important issue.
These past few months, several economic forecasting firms commented on future deficits. Their estimates are quite different from what the Minister of Finance predicted in his last budget. The minister already had more than $1 billion in leeway this year, in 1997. Moreover, we are heading toward a $9 billion deficit in 1998, rather than $17 billion as claimed by the minister, which will give us the $8 billion surplus that I mentioned earlier. Finally, we will have a zero deficit in 1999, at least one year ahead of schedule, which will definitely allow a surplus that could even reach $9 billion.
There is nothing very original about the infrastructure program. The federal government is investing $425 million in a second phase of the Canada infrastructure works program. This amount is in addition to the $175 million remaining from the first phase, for a total of $600 million in 1997.
The budget provides that the funds allocated to the Canadian Tourism Commission will increase by $15 million a year over the next three years. This is very little, considering that the commission's partners from the private sector are already investing more than $65 million this year. An amount of $50 million will also be set aside for the Business Development Bank of Canada, so it can help finance tourist facilities in the private sector.
The budget also provides for a $7-million increase, in 1997-98, in the funds allocated to the National Literacy Secretariat. This is somewhat ridiculous, given the efforts required and already made by the provinces, which have jurisdiction over this area.
There is nothing original about the federal government's new job creation strategy. The government is dragging its feet and proposing an antiquated job creation strategy that lacks originality and dynamism. Here is a government which got elected under the slogan "Jobs, jobs, jobs", but which no longer has any idea on how to create employment.
There is nothing in the Liberals' election-minded budget for those Quebecers and Canadians who are looking for work. In terms of new money for active job creation measures, the government is only allocating $25 million for the coming year, that is $10 million for connecting the regions to the Internet and $15 million for tourism. This amounts to less than one dollar per Canadian and less than $20 per unemployed for this year.
Yet, as we showed earlier, the Minister of Finance has a financial margin of several billion dollars. For example, he could have undertaken a review of the corporate taxation system, free up $3 billion per year, and reinvest the money in the system, so as to concretely support job creation.
The budget announces a 10-cent reduction in employment insurance premiums, as of January 1, 1998. This will bring premium rates to $2.80 per $100 for employees, and to $3.92 for employers. Such an announcement is usually made in November. The finance minister will then have the opportunity to announce this good news twice. The 10-cent reduction is much less than what it could have been, in view of the annual surpluses accumulated in the UI fund.
The accumulated surplus is large enough to allow more flexibility in the insurance eligibility rules as well as a more substantial reduction in the level of contribution. You will agree that any additional yearly surplus is a hidden tax. The estimated cost of cutting 10 cents from the contribution rate in 1998 is $700 million. When this cost is compared to the annual surplus expected to reach about $5 billion in 1998 and to the accumulated surplus that should come to about $15 billion by the end of 1998, we see that the minister is not making much of an effort.
The yearly surplus in the UI account expected for the coming years will presumably come to between $5 billion and $6 billion, basically because of the new provisions that came into effect on January 1, 1997 and make it even harder to qualify for benefits in addition to decreasing benefit levels.
Here are some figures which illustrate how little effort has gone into reducing the level of UI contributions. Each percentage point change in unemployment rates could affect the cost of the program by some $1.2 billion a year. Likewise, each-10 cent change in employee contribution rates, such as a decrease from $2.95 to $2.85 per $100 of insurable earnings, means about $700 million in contribution revenues for the government.
The last recession has engulfed about $20 billion in UI costs. However, the chief actuary, Mr. Bédard, told the Financial Post on October 1, 1996, that because of the government's permanent cuts to program spending, the next recession would not be as costly. The current and projected surpluses in the UI account are outrageous. In fact, it is thanks to workers and employers that the finance minister is able to artificially reduce his deficit. The UI contribution rates are a hidden job tax. The surplus should go into a distinct account so that it cannot be used to artificially reduce the deficit. We agree
that there should be an accumulated surplus in the unemployment insurance fund, but it should not be excessive. Relatively stable contributions are needed if we are to avoid raising contribution levels during economic downturns. Unemployment insurance contributions are by far the most important of payroll taxes.
If unemployment insurance rules in 1996 had been similar to those in 1989, only $3 billion more would have been available for the unemployed in Canada. Eligibility requirements are increasingly restrictive for maternity leaves also.
While the Government of Canada, out of compassion, is about to spend a few hundred million dollars on poor children, it is taking billions out of their parents' pockets. In 1996 alone, UI benefits were cut by $3 billion, while the Canada social transfer for health, education and welfare, the cost of which the federal government is deftly unloading onto the provinces, fell by $4.5 billion over two years.
The government has undertaken to improve the child tax benefit by injecting $600 million in new money and reallocating $250 million already announced in the 1996 budget.
This will be a two-step process. First step: in 1997, the government will increase the working income supplement, which will now be calculated per child rather than per family. The maximum annual level of the working income supplement, now set at $500 per family, will climb to $605 for the first child, $405 for the second child and $330 for the following children. This will cost $195 million in 1997-98, $125 million of which has already been included in the 1996 budget.
Second step: more concrete measures are to follow discussions with the provinces. The current proposal is to merge the tax benefit and the working income supplement into a single benefit. The increase will be higher for low income families with many children.
The interim measure and the measures to be taken in 1998 do not affect families with an income over $25,921. Also, the bill does not provide for cost-of-living adjustments.
So, from all of this, we can conclude that, after making the parents poorer by cutting the social transfer and UI benefits and failing to create jobs, the Liberal government suddenly cares about the children and has cynically decided, five years later, to recycle the money promised in 1993 for child care.
Family policy and the fight against poverty are provincial areas of jurisdiction. Continuing interference by the Canadian government in these provincial areas of jurisdiction is unacceptable to us and is hampering the implementation of a truly consistent policy by the provinces.
Thus, after ripping their shirts on the non-indexation of benefits by the Conservative government, the Liberals have yet to remedy the situation.
The Caledon Institute and anti-poverty organizations estimate that an additional $2 billion a year is a minimum needed to start fighting poverty whereas the government will spend only $850 million starting in July 1998. Thus, this measure is quite unsatisfactory.
The Liberal government is using the fight against poverty as an excuse to slash social programs like unemployment insurance and social assistance.
The Liberal government broke its promise to create new child care spaces and the money that was supposed to be spent in that regard, that is, $720 million, vanished into thin air. Will the same happen to the amounts set aside for fighting child poverty?
Lastly, the Quebec government considers this new benefit to be another interference in Quebec jurisdictions. However, Quebec can hardly reject out of hand the federal proposal to inject additional funds into programs for children, since those funds can be reallocated by the Quebec government to other programs for children.
In short, the Bloc Quebecois has already expressed its opposition to the following aspects: federal meddling in an exclusively provincial jurisdiction; the non-indexation of benefits, which hurts families with children; and replacing a sound family policy with the fight against poverty.
In pretending to follow the recommendations of the National Forum on Health, the federal government has announced additional funds of $300 million for health care, including $150 million over three years supposedly to help the provinces launch pilot projects to provide home care or drugs; $50 million over three years to put in place a national information system on health; $100 million over three years to improve existing programs, namely the Community Action Program for Children and the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program.
It is difficult to imagine, at first glance, how the program will work. Will the health minister have a veto over how the funds will be allocated? Will there be new national standards? We can be sure of one thing: health being a provincial jurisdiction, the new funds announced amount to further federal interference in a provincial area of jurisdiction.
The government ignored an important recommendation made by the National Forum on Health that cash transfers for health and social services be set at a minimum $12.5 billion, the amount
forecast for 1997-98, instead of reduced to $11 billion, as anticipated.
The new funds concern activities which are a direct provincial responsibility. It will be tempting for the federal government to implement all these policies and continue to meddle in provincial areas of jurisdiction.
In conclusion, all these examples show without a shadow of a doubt that the finance minister is not making any serious effort to help the most disadvantaged in our society, to help small businesses to grow, which would help create jobs and ensure the financial independence of families and individuals. This is exactly the opposite of what the government has done in the budget tabled by the finance minister in February.