Mr. Speaker, the Liberals are having fun and we are wondering why. They should be working at meeting the needs of the public instead of making jokes as they always, or almost always, do when we deliver speeches on the real issues.
We have before us Bill C-36 to implement certain provisions of the last budget tabled by the Minister of Finance. I am pleased to speak on these provisions and I would like, for openers, to define what we expect from this budget and which expectations have not been met through Bill C-36 before us, which implements certain provisions of the budget for 1998-99.
Just a few months ago and during the election campaign as well, we asked the Minister of Finance to pay special attention to actions that adversely affect the provinces. Since he tabled his first budget in 1994, the Minister of Finance has made cut after cut after cut in transfer payments for social assistance, postsecondary education and health.
He has cut back so dramatically that 52% of the success achieved in terms of balancing the budget and restoring health to the public finances has in fact been achieved through the sacrifices the provinces have had to make because of the drastic cuts made by the Minister of Finance. This means that 52% or most of the sacrifices were made by the provinces, which are really the ones who restored the public finances to health.
We therefore ask that the government take a very simple measure, which was proposed last year by Quebec Premier Bouchard and approved by all the premiers across Canada. The government was asked to use, over the next two fiscal years, that is to say 1998-99 and 1999-2000, 50% of the forecast surplus in tax points—the real surplus, not the one given in the Minister of Finance's budget, with its rounded down and close to falsified figures—to counteract the harm done to Quebec and to the rest of Canada, in the health sector for instance.
A transfer of just 50% of the surplus in tax points, in an area that would become wholly provincial in the coming years, would be sufficient to remedy the increasingly irremediable harm the Minister of Finance has done to health, social assistance and higher education.
The Minister of Finance refused to respond. He even refused to acknowledge that the provinces had inherited the entire responsibility for putting federal public finances in order.
During the election campaign, as well as in the months following it, we also called repeatedly upon the Minister of Finance to change the way he was handling employment insurance and the EI fund.
We proposed three changes which reflected a consensus not only among Quebeckers, but among all Canadians, about the program and the way the fund made up of employer and employee contributions was being managed. Let us not forget that the federal government has not put a red cent into the fund for years. The employers and employees are the ones who contribute year in and year out to the surpluses. Because of the high rates that have been set, they are contributing to the huge surpluses the fund has generated, to the tune of $6 billion yearly.
We therefore called for three things relating to the employment insurance fund. First, that the Minister of Finance stop using the surplus to put his financial books in order. The employment insurance fund is in place for two reasons: to support those who are without work, and to attempt to help them back into the work force.
Instead, the Minister of Finance has been shamelessly pocketing the surplus, and continues to do so. He has not met the expectations of the Bloc Quebecois. He is still pocketing this $6 billion annually in order to build up a spectacular surplus and make himself look good as Minister of Finance.
Second, we called for a substantial reduction in EI premiums in order to boost job creation. The surplus in the EI fund did not just miraculously fall down from heaven. If there are surpluses, it is as a result of the excessive contributions employers and employees have to make. This limits our job creation capacity. In Quebec, Ontario, the west, British Columbia and in the maritimes, employers and entrepreneurs are saying so, and even unions are saying so.
Not only has the Minister of Finance not reduced contribution rates substantially, as we asked, but he has kept them at an even higher rate. We talked about an overall drop in contribution rates of $3 billion, half of the surplus in the employment insurance fund. The Minister of Finance gave us a few tens of millions of dollars in reductions, which has no significant impact on job creation.
The third change we sought, which was not in the budget speech and is not in Bill C-36, is the creation of an independent fund with the employment insurance fund, independent of the government's general balance sheet, so that we may follow the progress of contributions, the size of the fund and the contributions made by employers and employees, and ensure that the fund is really managed appropriately for the labour market.
The auditor general has also asked for this and he has received no response from the Minister of Finance in the budget or in Bill C-36, which implements some of its provisions.
We called for a significant reduction in people's taxes. Some 52% of the results obtained in the effort to improve public funds are due to the provinces' efforts. Bernard Landry and Lucien Bouchard in Quebec did the work there, to the tune of 52%, and not the Minister of Finance.
Taxpayers' share in improving public funds in the past four years amounts to 37% of the total effort. In other words, since the Minister of Finance has been in his position, since he has become a part time shipowner—sometimes he is full time, it depends on the bills he introduces—Quebec and Canadian taxpayers have paid over $30 billion more in taxes than they should have, had the Minister of Finance indexed the tax tables and made a targeted reduction in individual and SMB taxes, as we asked him to do.
Instead, however, he preferred to keep taxes high. These levels, together with the lack of changes in tax rules, to indexing, for example, have resulted in taxpayers paying $30 billion more in taxes than they should have.
The Minister of Finance took $30 billion out of our pockets. This means that 32% of the budgetary effort is not the result of his own efforts, of his department's efforts, or of his innovative spirit—I would rather not talk about the minister's innovative spirit—but of the efforts made by the provinces and the taxpayers.
If the minister's estimates had been based on the proper data— and we will get back to this later on—if the minister had shown the true picture in terms of expenditures and revenues, in terms of the surpluses generated over the years, he could have made a substantial effort to reduce personal and even corporate taxes, but he did not, even though it would have been desirable.
The minister could have done even more to alleviate the burden of taxpayers and businesses if he had listened to us. For four years now, we have been telling him—with the figures to support our claim—that it is possible to reform Canada's individual and corporate tax system and to get rid of all the obsolete provisions that no longer meet the needs of our businesses—in the context of globalization and competitiveness—and of our families, given the current socioeconomic reality.
The first question we asked the Minister of Finance when we got here was when would a true tax reform take place to improve our system and increase our ability to reduce taxes and better manage revenues.
The minister made us wait. We waited for the first two years, since his inaction left us with no choice. But in the second year we told ourselves that if the Minister of Finance could not take his responsibilities, if he was not innovative enough to come up with a new way to collect taxes—that is to say a more efficient and beneficial way for society as a whole, and not just for the federal government—we would propose ways to do it.
We wrote over 300 pages of suggestions to reform personal and corporate taxes. When we tabled our document, the Minister of Finance said we had done a great job, a job that required incredible dedication. It is no laughing matter trying to clean up the Canadian taxation system, which has remained basically unchanged since the Carter Commission in the later 1960s. It is not easy to pick your way through it and identify those measures that still serve a purpose as opposed to those that no longer serve any purpose at all, but which are costing Revenue Canada a lot of money.
Taxpayers must not forget that every time some person or some business somewhere does not pay taxes or avoids paying part of the taxes they would normally have had to pay, had it not been for some outdated tax loophole, which does nothing for society or the economy, but which is there because it has been almost or completely forgotten, or because the Minister of Finance lacked the resolve to do anything about it, it is the average taxpayer who makes up for what the business or rich individual should have paid but did not because of this loophole. We have to remember that.
So, the Minister of Finance had four years to undertake a complete overhaul of the taxation system. He did nothing, and we see the results. Over the last four years, taxpayers have paid $30 billion more in taxes, and the much-heralded cuts over the next three years pale in comparison to what could have been achieved, and in comparison to what has disappeared from taxpayers' pockets through the inertia and ineptitude of the Minister of Finance.
We also asked the Minister of Finance something else—and he did not listen to us—and that was not to create new programs. He he turned a deaf ear and did as he pleased. He acted as though nobody existed but himself and created new programs with the assistance of his Prime Minister, who delights in leaving his symbolic mark on Canadian political history.
He went ahead and created a new program, one we detest, called the millennium scholarship fund.
This is a program we detest because it encroaches, and shamelessly to boot, into an area of jurisdiction which generations and generations of politicians, generations of premiers as well, starting back in the 1960s with Jean Lesage, have jealously guarded as exclusive to Quebec.
According to philosopher Jacques Danton, a people's first need, after bread, is education. Education is the backbone of the survival and progress of every nation. Education gives us everything we need to understand. It tells us where we come from, who we are, who we want to become. Education is the basis of any people's survival.
We understood this in Quebec years ago, and being federalist or sovereignist does not change it in the least. When it comes down to it, every Quebecker is a nationalist. When it comes down to it, every Quebecker wants his people to continue to survive, to progress, to expand as an international presence, to endure for as long as it is possible to imagine.
One of the cornerstones of our longevity as a people, one of the cornerstones of our strength as a people, our economic strength as well as our cultural strength, the strength to which we owe our existence, is education.
Each time the federal government has lifted a finger to interfere in education, or a federal political party or its leader has talked of education, of Canada-wide standards, of making our children take tests, we in Quebec have risen up in opposition. Even some federalists have joined forces with the sovereignists to point out how deeply rooted our belief in education as our prerogative is rooted, so deeply rooted in our convictions that we rise up in aggressive opposition as soon as actions are taken, or words spoken, that point to the possibility of federal intrusion into education in Quebec.
The millennium fund, the millennium scholarships, which are without a doubt the Prime Minister's idea of the way he can leave his mark on the verge of the 21st century, are totally unacceptable to us. This is something we will fight against until our last breath. It raises a hue and cry in Quebec and will continue to do so in the coming months and years. We will never agree to their investing in this field. We will not let them put their foot in the door in order to gain more entry and to take the education sector away from the exclusive jurisdiction of Quebec and make it either shared or the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.
We will never let anyone tell us Quebeckers, francophones most of us, what our children will have to learn in school or what they will be tested on in exams at the end of the year. No one but ourselves will test their skills.
We will use every means we have to block the implementation of the millennium scholarship fund and to ensure that what the Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard, and minister of education Pauline Marois have called for comes to pass. They are calling for the withdrawal of the millennium scholarships, with full compensation for Quebec, given Quebec's exclusive jurisdiction over education.
We will repeat this demand ad nauseam. We will also denounce ad nauseam in this House and elsewhere the claims of the federal government.
This matter really energizes my colleagues in the Bloc and myself, because it symbolizes perfectly what we have always opposed in the federal government and what the Prime Minister has always presented as the centralizing claim of the federal government. We will put all our energy into it and get into the thick of it to make sure that this so thoroughly detested program never makes it to Quebec.
It is not just the way this intrusion into Quebec's exclusive jurisdiction was forced on us, but also the way it was presented, that obliges us to reject it.
I am referring to the Minister of Finance's accounting practices. For four years now—members can check Hansard —there were always questions about the Minister of Finance's dubious public accounting practices. I am not alone, nor is my party, in having raised this problem of borderline accounting practices. Two or three times, to my knowledge, the auditor general singled out the Minister of Finance because of his less than orthodox approach to accounting.
I mention the example of the millennium fund because it comes up in Bill C-36 before us this morning. In the case of the millennium fund, from which initial grants to so-called deserving students will not be made until the year 2000, the full amount of $2.5 billion has been posted to this fiscal year, that is, 1998-99, when—and I would like to repeat this—the first millennium scholarships will not be handed out until the year 2000. Immediately this year, they slap down the cost of a program that will not be implemented until the year 2000. This makes no sense.
There is no accounting rule by which one may honestly attribute to the current budget expenditures that will be made only in two years' time. Once again, the auditor general criticized the finance minister's approach. On leaving the House and reading the budget, we also criticized his way of doing things. This is not the first time, and we will return to this a little later on.
This method of accounting produces the following sort of nonsense. On page 12 of the 1998 budget plan “Building Canada for the 21st Century”, incomplete data are used to show that the government's budgetary balance, in other words the deficit or surplus, will be 0.0 in 1997-98, 0.0 in 1998-99 and 0.0 in 1999-2000. This is partly due to the fact that the $2.5 billion of the millennium fund has been posted under this fiscal year, when payments will not actually be made until the year 2000. An actual surplus of $2.5 billion that could have been generated this year has already been removed.
It is not for reasons of prevention that this amount has been set aside, because it will be spent in any event on items other than the millennium fund. What it boils down to is that the Minister of Finance has gotten us used to his fiddling with the numbers. He is literally cooking the books, and we are not the only ones to say so.
The day after the budget was tabled, all serious financial analysts—whether they are federalists or sovereignists—said it did not make any sense. There is a budget plan, but we do not really know where we stand, because of things like the $2.5 billion for the millennium scholarship foundation which the government has already posted to this fiscal year. It is becoming impossible to make proper estimates. We can no longer say whether the expenditures and revenues indicated are appropriate, because the figures were fixed. The government made sure that, for every year, its expenditures would be more or less equal to its revenues, so as to arrive at a balanced budget. It is a shame to present things in this fashion.