Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in this most important debate. First of all, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Jonquière.
After reading the report stemming from the prebudget hearings, which was tabled in the House, one can tell that a great deal of ambiguity remains concerning the direction the Minister of Finance intends to take with the budget to be tabled on or about February 22 or February 29, 2000.
Every year, the Bloc Quebecois brings out statistics to support its criticism of what I always refer to as cooking the books, something the Minister of Finance is indulging in with increasing frequency.
For several years now, the Bloc Quebecois has been calling for a number of things, and I think that the Bloc Quebecois is the party that best defends Quebec's interests. We have called for tax cuts, a return to a real EI system, and the return of social transfer payments to Quebec and the provinces; we have called for support for productive projects, moderate debt reduction, and significant efforts to combat poverty.
This is the gist of what the Bloc Quebecois puts forward annually at this time of the year, when the chair of the Standing Committee on Finance presents the committee's report.
In Lotbinière, as everywhere else, we took part in this democratic process, in order to find out what the people of Lotbinière wanted. Like all taxpayers in Quebec and in Canada, the people in my riding want lower taxes, but not along the lines the Minister of Finance is suggesting. We want tax cuts for those who contributed most to helping the federal government eliminate the deficit.
This means a tax cut targeted at the middle class. As for middle class, let me explain what I mean. Statistically, middle class in Canada means those earning between $30,000 and $70,000 a year.
In a riding like my own of Lotbinière, or like Jonquière or any others with the same characteristics, semi-urban, semi-rural, the middle class is not earning between $30,000 and $70,000 a year; often it is earning $15,000, $20,000 or $25,000.
These people often work 40 hours a week, at an hourly rate of $8, $9 or $10, and have a lot of trouble making ends meet. They are also greatly affected these days by the price of gasoline.
When travelling throughout Quebec, people probably notice that the price of gasoline is quite high in urban centres like Quebec City and Montreal. However, if they travel 100 or 150 kilometres to regions like Jonquière, Rimouski and Abitibi, they will see that the price of gasoline in these areas is very high. What does that mean?
Ever since inflation started to skyrocket in the mid-seventies, the price gasoline has had a major impact on the price of consumer products. When the price of gasoline goes up, the trucker who delivers the goods has to increase his rate. Once on the shelves, the goods have to be sold at a higher price, and the consumer who buys them also has to pay more for gasoline.
This is a real problem for the regions. In the budget being prepared for the year 2000, it is anticipated that the government will include no measure to help these people, even though we are now facing this indirect inflation created with the complicity of the oil companies.
I will come back to this issue, because in the year 2000, as the regional development critic for the Bloc Quebecois, along with my hon. colleagues, we will be taking major action, including in the energy sector, which will be discussed at some length.
We would not want to relive the situation we experienced in the mid-1970s when inflation soared. We know what it did to the economy of Quebec and Canada.
I would also like to talk about an issue near and dear to my heart which, once again, goes unmentioned the report tabled by the Standing Committee on Finance, namely employment insurance reform. Over the last few weeks, I have been leading an awareness campaign in the riding of Lotbinière, inviting people to sign a petition condemning this situation.
Right now, within the riding of Lotbinière, there are two different rates. The first one is 6.2%, which means that people have to work 660 hours to be eligible for benefits. At the other end of the riding, the rate is 11.2%. This means that people need only work 490 hours. In the same riding, there is a difference of 5%.
When people come to see us in our riding offices, it is difficult to explain to them the injustice that comes from the fact that the rate is based on the place of residence. This means that, if two persons work for the same company and that company closes down or experiences a slowdown, one person may be eligible for benefits and the other may be penalized.
With the same rates, with the same rights, because of the complexity of the map drawn by the Department of Human Resources Development, some people in my riding are severely penalized.
As recently as this week, someone who thought he would be eligible for benefits with his 635 hours learned that the rate had changed. It came down to 6.2%, and that person left with the sad news that he needed 660 hours to be eligible for benefits. So he did not have a choice, he had to turn to income security.
Sometimes the government is proud of the fact that the number of people receiving employment insurance benefits is going down. This is to be expected, because when unemployed workers no longer have access to employment insurance, that have to turn to income security. In the statistics, these people are no longer considered to be part of the labour force. They have been dropped from the statistics.
Statistics are to be used with caution. Yes, the economy is getting stronger. However, we must not forget the terrible consequences of the employment insurance program. A lot of people have to rely on income security now. It is a problem we have in the riding of Lotbinière and in most Quebec ridings.
I want to thank all those who helped me with this initiative in my riding, including the Caisses populaires that circulated the petition and the municipalities that sent resolutions supporting my initiative. Hundreds of people are still signing the petition condemning this social injustice.
During the holidays, we will take a break, but in the year 2000, we will be back at it and we intend to hand over to the Minister of Human Resources Development a comprehensive report to make her aware of the social injustice affecting the people of Lotbinière.
The regions are also faced with problems at the municipal level. When the new governor general delivered the throne speech, we all expected the federal government to announce immediate measures to help the municipalities. The President of the Treasury Board herself told us that they had a project in mind and she believed negotiations were under way.
Anyway, to sum it up, a project might be announced in November or December 2000. There is a desperate need for action now. This measure should already have been announced. Memorandums of understanding should already be under negotiation. Also, financial support for the municipalities should be included in the February 2000 budget.
We know that the municipalities have to upgrade their infrastructures and that we previously had three party agreements between Quebec, Ottawa and the municipalities that worked just fine. The federal government now has a surplus. I think it is important that the surplus go to areas where the people feel it is most needed: to help the unemployed, to support municipalities and to restore transfers for health care and education.
Our colleagues in the National Assembly, the health and social services minister, Mrs. Marois, and the education minister, François Legault, are having a lot of trouble running their departments because of all the cuts the federal government has made since 1993. Representatives of the federal government say that it has increased transfers. This is a joke, it is utter nonsense.
The government cut less than it was supposed to be. We know that this government is quite good at marketing. These people are trying to show us how good their government is.
I repeat that the government should reduce taxes to help the middle class, come back to a real employment insurance program, fully restore the social transfers to Quebec and the other provinces, support the positive projects of the municipalities and especially put significant effect into the fight against poverty.