Mr. Speaker, I want to begin my comments by noting that the motion by the hon. member urges the Government of Canada to accept the provincial governments' initial position in the social union framework negotiations and put forward no principles or objectives on behalf of all Canadians. This is wrong. With the greatest of respect, the hon. member should know that all the provincial and territorial governments recognize that this is a process of negotiation. They understand that there will be give and take between the two levels of government before we come to an agreement.
The hon. member seems to think of this in terms of who should give in to whom. That is the old way of looking at things. This is not the way we are proceeding today.
Our overall goal is to figure out how we can serve Canadians better by working together. This is after all what Canadians have asked us to do. I am surprised that the hon. member does not recognize this fact and conduct himself accordingly. Perhaps I should not be surprised.
The Government of Canada has tabled a position and we are respecting the protocol agreed to by all the governments involved in negotiating in public. However, the motion before us indicates that the hon. member does not wish to acknowledge that the Government of Canada has any interest in or responsibility for the social union.
Let me address this question of the social union and what it represents then.
First, what is Canada's social union? It is the means by which we as Canadians share our resources and help one another. It means collaboration and it means solidarity. This after all is the Canadian way. Newfoundlanders help Ontarians, Ontarians help Manitobans, Manitobans help Quebeckers, Quebeckers help British Columbians; making sure that we all have access to the basic social services we need when we need them, like education, old age pensions, social assistance and health care; making sure that we all help each other in times of crisis, like the floods in Manitoba and the Saguenay, and the ice storm in southern Ontario and Quebec.
First and foremost, the social union defines what it means to be a Canadian. It represents part of our values, our institutions and our symbols which define us as a people and unite us as a nation. It represents our values, values that include sharing and compassion, fairness, respect for the dignity of individuals, and a sense of collective as well as individual responsibility for our mutual well-being.
Our social union is the way in which we as Canadians pool our resources, act on our shared values and look out for one another. It distinguishes us from any other nation in the world. We are very proud of what this means for us as a country. It is why year after year Canada is judged by the United Nations as the best country in the world in which to live.
Because it transcends provincial and territorial boundaries, the strengthening of the social union is a fundamental responsibility of all governments, but of course it is of special concern to the Government of Canada. After all, this is the only government elected by all Canadians and therefore accountable to all Canadians.
How did we get to this social union? It was not by sheer luck or by happenstance. We built it together piece by piece. Provinces, working to meet the social needs of their residents and constituents, pioneered new programs. The Government of Canada encouraged other provinces to try similar programs and help make the benefits available to all Canadians.
That is how medicare started in Saskatchewan. Today it is how we are building the child tax benefit. Look at Quebec and its innovative family policies for example. Programs help people get back into the labour force. We have a lot to share and a lot to learn one from the other.
Building the social union then was not an easy process. There were challenges and disagreements along the way. But we have ended up with one of the world's best social security systems and that is partly due to the fact that there are differences of view between different levels of government. These differences have forced us to be more imaginative and to work harder to design better programs that suit everyone. In the end, working out our differences with respect and accommodation on both sides has made our social union stronger. This is true just as much today as it ever was.
Over more than half a century, our social union has evolved so that both orders of government now have a range of distinct responsibilities. In general, provincial governments are responsible for education and the delivery of health services and welfare. The Government of Canada's responsibilities include pensions, employment insurance, health protection, interprovincial mobility and the redistribution of wealth and resources across the country through equalization payments to provincial governments.
There are shared responsibilities as well. Both orders of government, for example, have a constitutional responsibility to promote equality of opportunity for all Canadians. Securing equality of opportunity is a responsibility that the Government of Canada takes very seriously. This is a value that is very dear to Canadians from all parts of the country.
One of the main instruments that can be used to promote equality of opportunity is federal spending power. Every major federation in the world provides for this kind of spending power for the federal government, but nowhere in the world is this power used more flexibly and with fewer conditions than in Canada; not in the United States, not in Switzerland, nowhere. This is a point that is always lost on the members from the other side of the House. They cannot contest it so they simply do not discuss it.
This is a good thing. No country as large and diversified as Canada could function as well as we do any other way. We must have strong provinces that can try out solutions that fit their own populations and cultures.
However, it is no secret that provincial governments have been demanding changes in the way that spending power is used. I remind the House that the Government of Canada has made changes. As a government we have been sensitive and responsive to the various demands of people throughout Canada, and rightfully so.
This government has committed itself not to create new cost sharing programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction without the consent of a majority of the provinces. This government has committed to compensate non-participating provinces provided they establish equivalent or comparable programs.
At the same time, we have to make sure we do not put too many constraints on the use of spending power. This would lead to paralysis. We would be unable to keep up with changing needs and with circumstances.
Premiere Romanow stated: “The federal spending power gives the federal government the opportunity to encourage all provinces to adopt ideas that have been broadly supported throughout the nation so that all citizens can benefit from equal access to new social programs”.
This supports the contention that the Government of Canada must preserve its capacity to use spending power to promote equality of opportunity for all Canadians. However, as we have just said, we are fully committed to using it in a way that respects the provincial governments' legitimate responsibilities in many areas of social policy.
In recent years we have made real progress working with provincial governments to design and deliver new social programs for Canadians. This work has been carried out in the spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. We have begun to implement the national child benefit which is providing more federal income support benefits to low income families with children. This enables provincial governments to invest in new programs and services for these families. Nutrition, child care and readiness to learn programs are but examples.
We have signed agreements with provincial governments on labour market and employment programs. This has removed overlap and administrative duplication and has been successful in addressing a major irritant in federal-provincial relations.
What are the challenges facing our social union in the future and what should we be preparing for now is a very important question. What are the pressures we face down the road that a social union framework agreement would help us deal with?
We live in an increasingly interdependent world. Today's social and economic policies intersect like they never have before. Those who argue that we can have an economic union without a social union in this day and age are sadly mistaken. One only has to think about adapting to a knowledge based economy and ensuring that individuals, especially our young people, have the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow. This is a social and an economic issue.
There is globalization and the need to stay competitive in the international marketplace to secure our standard of living; an aging population and new demands on social programs associated with people living longer and healthier lives; innovation and new technologies, particularly in health care, which we want to ensure benefit all Canadians; the need to continue maintaining a balanced budget and reducing debt.
We must emphasize that we can modernize our social programs and services and create new social programs where required that will address these pressures.
It means governments working together to clear the way for more rapid progress, to modernize and strengthen medicare, working together to help us move forward more quickly with new and better programs for children and persons with disabilities, working together to do more to address youth unemployment and learning.
Despite the assertion implicit in the motion of the hon. member, provincial governments recognize the participation of the Government of Canada is required to sustain progressive social programs that will benefit all Canadians.
What is the Government of Canada looking for? Where are we in negotiations to develop a social union framework agreement?
The Government of Canada has three objectives. The first is to promote equality of opportunity for all Canadians wherever they live or move in Canada. The second is to ensure that governments are working collaboratively on the social union. The third is to make governments more accountable to Canadians for the results achieved.
There is no question that the social union framework agreement would help to strengthen our social programs and services if designed to meet those objectives. To ensure quality of opportunity for all Canadians through our social programs we must then reaffirm the principles that underpin our social security system.
We must agree on some fundamental principles that would guide us in strengthening social programs. These principles include access to comparable basic services. They include freedom of mobility so that Canadians can move within their country without fear of losing important social benefits. Finally, they include making sure Canadians are treated fairly by their governments.
There is the principle of flexibility. Our social union cannot mean uniformity. It cannot mean one size fits all or identical programs. It cannot mean one level of government dictating to another.
We must respect the principle of flexibility to ensure that social programs can be designed and delivered in ways that respect Canada's diversity. This includes the unique character of Quebec society arising notably from its French speaking majority, its culture and its tradition of civil law.
We believe that taken together, these principles will ensure Canadians have the best of both worlds, the flexibility of programs tailored to meet the needs at the community level with principles that ensure access and fairness for all Canadians wherever they live or move in Canada. In short, this is the genius of the Canadian federation.
Canada is the envy of the world. The federal government remains committed to act in the best interests of all Canadians.
Canadians are concerned about social issues. They are worried about the integrity of our health care system. They are worried about child poverty. They are worried about the employment prospects facing Canadian youth in an uncertain global economy. They are worried about the well-being of elderly Canadians.
The time has come to stop playing politics with these concerns. While there is a legitimate place for differences of view between the two levels of government, Canadians' tolerance for federal-provincial feuding has worn thin.
Confrontation only diverts attention from the issues that really matter and is an insult to the Canadians who are struggling to cope with change. It undermines the public's faith in the government's capacity to serve the public interest. Quite frankly, it must stop.
This is an important goal for the Government of Canada and the social union framework agreement. We must work out our legitimate differences in a manner that is constructive and non-confrontational. We must find ways to continue building our social safety net together, putting new programs in place to address changing needs in an amicable, dignified and respectful manner.
To do so obliges both levels of government to share more information, to provide advance notice of any new initiatives or planned changes to current programs and to consult and to plan together. It obliges governments to always put the interests of Canadians first.
Canadians want their governments to be more responsive and accountable. As citizens, clients and taxpayers, Canadians want more of a say in how programs are designed and run and they want to know more about results. Canadians want taxpayer dollars spent wisely and they are concerned about the health and well-being of their fellow citizens, particularly children.
Canadians want to know that what we are doing is working. They want hope. They want to see evidence that our social programs and services are making a difference. They want to be sure we are improving the health of Canadians, that fewer Canadian children are living in poverty, that our young people really do have the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow and that our elderly citizens are living out their lives in dignity.
This requires public reporting on outcomes. This way Canadians can decide for themselves whether their governments are living up to the commitments made.
These are just some of the benefits that we believe a social union framework agreement could lead to. But in these negotiations the Government of Canada has only one bottom line and that is what is good for Canadians and good for Canada. It does not have to be more complicated than that. The social union is not something we can cut up and divide. It is the very foundation of our society and we must build on it together.
I point out to the hon. member that his colleagues in Quebec are now full participants in the social union framework negotiation. The Government of Quebec recognizes that this is a process of give and take and that we are in fact making progress. As recently as last Friday the new Quebec minister for Canadian intergovernmental affairs said he is confident that the process is moving forward.
So what is the hon. member hoping to achieve by his motion? For the good of Quebeckers and all other Canadians I urge the hon. member to follow the lead of his colleagues and work for collaboration instead of confrontation. This is what Canadians everywhere, no matter where they live in this great country of ours, want and deserve.