Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on the report of the Liberal majority on the Standing Committee on Finance, which was tabled last December and suggests certain approaches with respect to the next budget.
The Liberal majority's report is a blatant piece of propaganda. It could have been—and was, I believe—written by the office of the Minister of Finance, so completely is it at odds with the comments we heard from individuals and from business and anti-poverty organizations in our travels across Canada.
What is more, the report touts the marvellous achievements of the Liberal government. This is a change from the reports produced by the Standing Committee on Finance over the last five years. They were mildly propagandist but this one is nothing but.
The report glosses over the nasty tricks and lack of consensus on such issues as the millennium scholarships. Nor does it make any mention of the fact that Quebec's opposition to this new Liberal government policy, this new intrusion into the education sector, is unanimous.
The report also refers to issues that never came up during this consultation, such as the famous productivity covenant. I do not know where this came from. Again, the likeliest source is the office of the Minister of Finance, who has the chair of the Standing Committee on Finance to do his bidding. This is the first time the committee chair has been nothing more than a puppet controlled by the Minister of Finance.
I was also appalled at the arrogance of this report on such issues as employment insurance.
I will quote the report of the Liberal majority, at page 55. Members are aware of the many problems with employment insurance, the increasingly limited access to it and the fact that fewer than 40% of the people contributing to it can now draw benefits. These benefits have shrunk in the past two years, since the employment insurance reform.
So what do we find on page 55 of the Liberal majority report? This is what we find, and I quote “The committee thinks that the phenomenon is misunderstood. The unemployed receive nothing because the system was not designed for them”.
Never have I seen or read such arrogant remarks in a Liberal majority report. So, even though statistics come out every week telling us what a total fiasco the employment insurance plan is, how it does not serve the interests of the unemployed in Quebec and Canada, the Liberals say the Quebeckers and Canadians who appeared before the Standing Committee on Finance do not understand the plan when it is the plan that makes no sense at all.
Another arrogant remark in the Liberal majority's report is when they say that the Canadians consulted want the Minister of Finance to continue his very prudent management of public funds.
The comments gathered across Canada are not self evident. On the subject of prudence, they do ask the Minister of Finance to be prudent too, but next above all, what Canadians across the country asked the Minister of Finance to do was to stop making up all sorts of stories, to stop saying things that do not make sense.
For example, as regards the surpluses, the minister was told to stop viewing Quebeckers and Canadians as gullible and to stop being off the mark by close to 100% in his forecasts. This cannot go on.
During that consultation, Canadians and Quebeckers asked the Minister of Finance to show greater transparency and honesty. Such comments were made by organizations from various sectors across the country. Honesty yes, but also accuracy, which is the very foundation of democracy and the basis of effective processes, such as the prebudget consultation process.
If the prebudget consultation is conducted while relying on falsehoods and lies, how can we expect the citizens of this country to have a clear mind and to propose sensible ideas based on the real figures?
How can we be expected, as lawmakers, to have a solid and credible basis to urge the government to make decisions, if the Minister of Finance is always fibbing about the state of public finances? He stated recently that the surplus—based on his own document, that is the last budget—would be somewhere between zero and three billion dollars, when in fact it will be in excess of six billion dollars.
The content of the Liberal majority report confirmed that we were right, last year, to have decided to conduct our own prebudget consultation. During the months of August and September, the Bloc Quebecois—led by its leader, the hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie and myself as its finance critic—toured Quebec to hear the comments, ideas and suggestions of the people of Quebec regarding the content of the upcoming budget and the use that should be made of the huge surpluses collected by the Minister of Finance, primarily to score political points. We did our job.
What we heard is very different from what is found in the report of the Liberal majority. We look at the real issues. The people whom we consulted told us about the real issues. They said they had had enough of being told just any old thing by this government, of being told to continue to behave, to continue to make sacrifices, when the result of the sacrifices—far from seeing the benefits of these sacrifices, if we can believe the recent remarks by the Minister of Finance, they are not likely to see the benefits in the upcoming budget either—these people see the money saved on the backs of the most disadvantaged and the middle income earners reallocated to the most favoured classes. This is not normal.
Quebeckers and Canadians told us three things during these consultations. First, they said their first priority for federal transfers was to fund higher education, social assistance and most importantly health care.
They discussed the Saskatoon agreement. Remember that the agreement signed by all the premiers in Saskatoon provided two things, essentially: that the federal government stop cutting some $6 billion year in and year out in transfers to the provinces, and Quebec in particular, for health care, post-secondary education and social assistance, as it had set out in its 1995 budget.
They also called for the right to opt out with full compensation in areas of provincial jurisdiction. They asked that, if the federal government wanted another initiative there, provinces wanting to withdraw from a federal program in a provincial jurisdiction be able to do so with full compensation.
I think it is in the public interest to know what the Minister of Finance decreed in his 1995 budget. He decreed it once, but nobody mentions it anymore and nobody will mention it until 2003. We are making a point of putting it back on the table.
In 1995, the Minister of Finance decided that announcements of cuts to social programs, health care and education year after year were really unpopular. So, he said, “I will do it once, and it will be valid until 2003”. That is the plan for systematic cuts the Minister of Finance, the pretender to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, set in motion in 1995.
Under that plan, every year, without any warning, provincial governments have to put up with an average shortfall of $6 billion in the areas of health, higher education and social assistance.
Based on the federal decision announced in the 1995 budget of the Minister of Finance, it was initially anticipated that, by the year 2003, federal transfers to the provinces for health, higher education and social assistance would be subject to cumulative cuts totalling $48 billion. During the 1997 election campaign, that position became so untenable—and the Bloc Quebecois contributed to this by constantly attacking the Liberal Party on this issue—that the Prime Minister of Canada announced with great fanfare that he would put back six billion dollars into social programs.
What he really meant was that, of the $48 billion that he had originally planned to cut between 1995 and 2003, $6 billion would not be cut. This meant that there would still be cuts totalling $42 billion, with annual cuts of $6 billion in transfers for health, for instance. These cuts have not been eliminated.
The premiers made it clear when they met in Saskatoon, that these are the cuts they want the federal government to eliminate. The government talks about giving back $6.3 billion to the provinces to finance their social and health programs, but what the provinces want is for the federal government to cancel the cuts mentioned in the 1995 budget until the year 2003. In their wisdom, the provinces told the federal government they were prepared to accept an arrangement, whereby the $6.3 billion they are requesting to offset the cuts in health, higher education and social assistance could be paid over two years.
The discussions were not about $1 billion but rather $6.3 billion. Since then, however, the federal government has gone to great lengths to allege that this $1 billion is a big deal, that it was the amount discussed in the negotiations, and that the government has a role to play in exclusive provincial jurisdictions like health. The Minister of Finance himself, in establishing the Canada health and social transfer, which combines all three federal transfers into one, stated its purpose was to give the provinces greater freedom to use their funds as they see fit.
The outcome of the negotiations concerning the social transfer and the provinces' demands on the basis of Saskatoon tell a completely different story. The federal government is intent on having a say in every decision on how funds are allocated, in spite of the fact that these funds belong to the provinces and that it could choose to give them back to the provinces for health, higher education and social assistance.
I think that, with respect to this budget, the Minister of Finance should immediately initiate a process leading to full compensation for all cuts made since 1995, thereby cancelling the cuts in health, higher education and social assistance.
People must understand that the problems currently experienced in emergency rooms must not be blamed on their provincial government, on the Quebec government, but on the federal government, which has left the provinces broke with funding cuts averaging $7.3 billion a year.
Nor are we interested in their bleating about the misfortune of the disadvantaged and the ill, as the Minister of Human Resources Development has done, when it is the Liberals that are behind the cuts and that will be maintaining them until 2003.
The people of Quebec told us about another priority they had, a real priority, as opposed to the crass propaganda in the Liberal majority's report.
When we consulted people throughout Quebec, which we did with the assistance of all Bloc Quebecois members, they told us that their other priority was a substantial cut in personal income taxes. Not in the taxes of the rich, of millionaires, or ministers, but of low-and middle-income taxpayers. These are the folks who helped put the fiscal house in order. These are the folks who, since 1995, have been footing the bill in one way or another, either through increased taxes—over the last four years they have been paying $20 billion more in taxes than they did in 1993—or through various cuts that affect them directly.
It is low and middle income taxpayers who are responsible for the improved public finances. They are the ones who should be reaping the benefits of the lowered deficit. They should be the first to enjoy tax breaks and relief in general.
They should be the first because middle-income taxpayers—who are defined as those earning between $45,000 and $70,000—face the highest taxes of all Canadians. They are the ones facing one of the highest tax rates compared with American taxpayers. If there is going to be tax relief, it should not be for millionaires or friends of the Minister of Finance. Nor should it take the form of a tax reform that would benefit international shipping companies such as Canada Steamship Lines, which is owned by the Minister of Finance. Nor will the taxpayer be helped by giving preferential treatment to the very rich, for example by allowing them to transfer millions, if not billions, all over the world in the form of family trusts.
This will be done by enacting a general lightening of the tax burden on two groups, the low and middle income groups. This can be done by fully indexing the tax tables. It can also be done by raising the minimum threshold, or in other words allowing people to earn more before they have to start paying income tax. This would help those with low and middle incomes.
In this consultation, we were clearly given a third priority—I am talking here of the true consultation, not the one that led to a Liberal majority propaganda report, but the consultations carried out throughout Quebec by the Bloc Quebecois—and that priority was improved employment insurance.
There was unanimity on this in Quebec. If I recall, during the prebudget consultations across Canada, people were also saying “It no longer makes any sense at all to have reformed the unemployment insurance program, changing its name to employment insurance, and to have severely cut back on benefits, so much so that fewer than 40% of people paying into the fund—everyone pays now—can draw employment insurance benefits”.
There are three ways of ending up with stupendous surpluses in the employment insurance fund, as we have seen over the past three years. The first is by maintaining employers' and employees' contributions to the fund at an artificially high level. The second is to successfully reduce access to the program. The third is to reduce benefits.
These are the three objectives of the employment insurance reform, which it achieves so successfully that every year we end up with a $6 billion surplus. These surpluses are generated off the backs of the contributors, that is, employers and employees, and the unemployed.
In recent weeks, they have gone so far as to exert pressure. This has happened in a number of regions in Quebec. I have seen it in Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot as well. The officials at the employment centres are putting pressure on the unemployed, on those appealing decisions on overpayments. Pressure is put on them to subtly take away their right to appeal. This action is deliberate. The unemployed are being called and told not to appeal, there is no point. There is a limit to the harassment of these people.
Do you know why they are being harassed? Because the more they harass them, the bigger the surplus there will be to swell the popularity of the future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Minister of Finance. That is awful. My colleagues and I discussed this at the latest caucus meeting. We are going to wage all-out war against these claims by a little mafia gang trying to intimidate the unemployed and take away their right to be treated fairly.
While things go awry with the employment insurance system, as things are a total fiasco, while everybody is criticizing the Minister of Human Resources Development, this gentleman is writing a book on his deep thoughts.
In response to our questions in the House, he answered all sorts of things making it clear to us that he was not on top of his responsibilities and that he did not know what was going on, but we did not know why. We thought it was a matter of intelligence. But now we know that he was writing his book, dashing off his deep thoughts.
He even had the nerve to talk about the disadvantaged in his book, when he actually had a hand in creating this situation where the unemployed, who no longer qualify for employment insurance thanks to him, find themselves marginalized. Do you know who this minister reminds me of? He reminds me of Lucius Domitius Tiberius Claudius Nero, commonly known as Emperor Nero. Nero set Rome ablaze and declaimed his sorrow as the city burned. I find it despicable.
What the unemployed see is a human resources development minister, who is supposed to be taking care of business and fixing a system that does not make sense anymore, out promoting the sale of his book and using his own intellectual resources, and probably departmental resources as well, to boost his popularity.
Under other circumstances, had he not had other responsibilities, one might have said he was provoking thought, but for a minister who has been doing a poor job since taking over his department, has been sharply criticized and is putting everyone in the street, to put his deep thoughts in a book as he did, is an absolute disgrace.
To conclude, we hope that Minister of Finance will show common sense in his budget and put any surplus to use in the interest of the public at large and not a select few.
We hope he will show respect for the unemployed and those who pay into the EI fund and show more respect than his Prime Minister did for the provinces that have had it with all this being done on their backs and having various conditions imposed on them as well.