Mr. Speaker, I am going to speak to Bill C-36 with enthusiasm.
You will understand from the start that I oppose it and in particular the matter of the millennium scholarships. I will support the Reform amendment, which provides that the budget does not meet the usual public accounting criteria, as very clearly indicated on many occasions by the auditor general, Denis Desautels.
I was in fact very keen to speak to both the budget and Bill C-36, which serves to implement it. I will first describe the context of the employment insurance fund surplus. Then I will speak to the shameless waste—and I will say why—in the form of the millennium scholarship fund. Finally, I will ask that this money be returned to the provinces in education, to Quebec in particular, or to Quebec at least, if the other provinces are not interested.
The budget provides for a forecast employment insurance surplus of $6.7 billion. Already there is an accumulation of $15 billion, which means that the Minister of Finance could give a contribution holiday to all businesses and workers. We could pay all benefits under the law and there would still be an accumulated $3 billion by the time of the next budget.
In this context, the Minister of Finance is planning for an additional surplus of $6.7 billion. This is scandalous. Why? It is a scandal because workers pay the surpluses, especially those earning low or middle incomes, because if you earn over $39,000 you do not pay. You pay up to $39,000, and the surplus is not taxed.
It is essentially the SMBs that are affected, because the major companies pay salaries over $39,000 including overtime. Generally, the SMBs pay less than that, especially those hiring a lot, labour intensive businesses.
This is outrageous, because the workers and the businesses are the heart and soul of the economy. In a country with 1.4 million unemployed, we do not purposely try to make the economy unproductive. Some might say “Sure, but economic growth was almost 4%”. We have to be careful.
Even the documents from the Privy Council say that growth not accompanied by strong productivity will provide increased revenues to businesses and will result in a number of jobs being created, but it will not lead to an optimum increase in revenues and wealth. Increased productivity such as the one we have here in Canada, which is the lowest among the G-7 countries and OECD members, thus putting a burden on the economy.
The government is urging businesses to promote innovation by investing in research and development, and also in labour and management, but it leaves taxes and employment insurance contributions at their current level, which is not good for the economy. The government could say “Okay, we will at least improve the employment insurance program for unemployed workers, so that they will have more money to spend in the economy”. But it is not doing that.
As we all know, the minister announced that contributions would be reduced to $2.70. But we also know that, given the huge surplus already accumulated, the program could operate with contributions of just $2. Bloc Quebecois members have been saying for quite some time that the extra 70 cents could be split in two, with one half being used to reduce contributions, and the other half to improve the program. We could do this without any problems.
Again, it is outrageous to have an accumulated surplus in the employment insurance fund, and to also have an anticipated surplus of $6.7 billion. It is outrageous and it primarily hurts small and medium size businesses, but also all the businesses that will contribute $3.9 billion to that $6.7 billion this year, even though they should not have to do so.
In the 1994 budget documents, the Minister of Finance said “We will not increase contributions from $3.07 to $3.30, as the previous government had planned. This will result in the creation of 40,000 jobs in 1996”.
If the minister's reasoning was good in 1994, it is still good today. This means that by not reducing premiums by an amount greater than that of 1994, he is not creating over 40,000 jobs. And that is serious.
That is not all I will speak about, because time is flying, but that is the basic point. It makes no sense. The public has heard about it and people know that it makes no sense.
What is the government doing with the surplus it has thus managed to create? I could remind the House that another reason the government was able to generate this surplus was because there are ongoing, annual cuts in the Canada social transfer. Cash transfers stood at $19 billion, at which point the government told us: “We are going to be good. We are going to hold it at $12.5 billion”. The shortfall is the reason for the problems being experienced everywhere in emergency rooms, in health care, in education and in welfare.
In this context, pleased at having generated a surplus, what does the government do? Does it decide to take $2.5 billion and put it to use right away in the education, health and welfare sectors? No. It decides to hand it over to a foundation that is not accountable, the foundation that will work on the millennium scholarships.
I will say right away that, in addition to constituting interference in Quebec's traditional areas of jurisdiction—if the other provinces do not want to exercise their jurisdiction, that is their business, but we have always exercised it in Quebec—this foundation is utterly wasteful, and I am going to show why.
The federal government amended the Canada Student Loans and Scholarships Act. I sat on the committee that studied this bill. In this bill, it is the government that decides who, in each province, will decide which students are eligible and what criteria will be used. It is the government that decides which institutions are eligible and that negotiates with banks, caisses populaires, etc. for loans and scholarships.
The federal government itself controls its Student Loans and Scholarships Act. Each province already has people familiar with the relative calibre of each institution, who know the requirements, who are able to judge and provide assistance. One does not just throw together a foundation to hand out 100,000 scholarships a year overnight, particularly as the wording of the bill is very disturbing.
Clause 5 of the bill reads as follows:
- (1) The objects and purposes of the Foundation are to grant scholarships to students who are in financial need and who demonstrate merit, in order to improve access to post-secondary education so that Canadians can acquire the knowledge and skills needed—
And here there is a big mistake in the French version.
—to participate in a changing economy and society.
Out of the blue, a foundation will set the terms for assessing applications received from students across Canada and decide, on the basis of merit and need, who should be granted a $3,000 scholarship. How much will it cost to determine which student will receive a $3,000 scholarship? Unless no assessment is conducted, in which case this will be a patronage haven.
What questions will the House be allowed to ask on this? Which politicians will be allowed to ask questions on this issue? And that is not all. The bill states that the foundation shall grand scholarships in a fair and equitable manner across Canada. It states further that the directors, who all have the power to hire, make expenditures, rent premises and what not, are drawn from the various regions of Canada, not the provinces. Quebec is part of the eastern region.
They are appointed to ensure that the board is knowledgeable about—listen to this—post-secondary education and learning in Canada and the needs of the Canadian economy. Do not come and tell me that this is not an intrusion in provincial jurisdictions. It means that, not satisfied with creating duplication by not making use of the existing structure to distribute the scholarships, the government has decided that these scholarships should be distributed based on the needs of the economy. While reference is made to a changing society in the objects and purposes of the foundation, the directors are expected to be knowledgeable about the needs of the economy.
We have heard a great deal of hogwash about the next millennium, the year 2000. Much has been said about the need for vision, but what do we end up with? There are quite a few problems in Quebec and Canada besides the Quebec-Canada problem. For our post-secondary systems to be of the required level, they must not be exclusively focused on the economy.
This means that the millennium scholarships are scholarships geared toward the economy. But what about culture and social studies? Granting council and humanities council representatives told the industry committee how essential research and studies in humanities were in this society of ours.
According to a Privy Council document entitled “Human Development Expansion and Social Cohesion”, one of the major challenges facing Canada between now and the year 2005 is social cohesion and human development. With the millennium scholarships we hear so much about, as if they were the key to the future, care is taken to select directors who are knowledgeable about the needs of the economy.
If the federal government is concerned about the quality of education, it should not have cut social transfer as it did. Instead, it should have put money into education as soon as it became possible to do so, giving it directly to the provinces.
That would keep costs from rising so quickly. It is not often that the Gazette and I agree, but one of its editorialists said “For heaven's sake. The government has to give the money back, otherwise students will have bursaries, but there will be no institutions worthy of the name university”.
Ask any rector—the president of the University of Toronto, the president of McGill, the president of the University of Vancouver. They are all concerned about the quality of education. They are concerned, and, as we know, the situation is different in the United States. We know that more money is being provided for research. Graphs are easy to do. In Canada, we are going one way, in the United States, they are going in the opposite direction. What we have done in Canada with research is to bring some of it back. It is still very little.
The situation is serious. When we congratulate ourselves because in 2000 we will start giving $3,000 on a merit basis to needy students across Canada through a foundation and solve all the problems, we are just fooling ourselves and that is dangerous.
Universities are not built in a year. They are a bit like the country's demography. The fact that we have reached a decision does not mean it will have an effect the following year. At least 25 years are necessary. Maybe it is not 25 years for the universities, but to ensure strong universities it takes teams with support, that succeed one another, and that are in contact with other universities in Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Yes indeed, students need hope, but the possibility of a $3,000 bursary, if you live in the country or anywhere, is not the solution. In Quebec, the likelihood is greater because the system of loans and grants is more generous than elsewhere in Canada and the costs of education are half as high, which is the very reason we say we are prepared to negotiate with students from other provinces, but we want to keep education costs low.
In these circumstances, this system of millennium scholarships preventing Quebec from opting out to make the most effective use of its bursaries, is most unacceptable. I repeat for those unmoved by these arguments, take a good look at the waste. It is waste, because there already exists a structure under federal control to provide bursaries. There is no point creating another structure from scratch, without the House having any control over it, in order to meet the visibility and honourable retirement needs of a Prime Minister, whoever he may be.