Mr. Speaker, on Thursday, February 4, 1999, nine provinces, two territories and the federal government signed an agreement on the social union, and all ten provinces and the two territories signed an agreement on health care.
At the time this announcement was made, some of the premiers apparently forgot what the Prime Minister of Canada said on referendum night, in November 1995. I would like to quote the Prime Minister, who said:
We have made to those Canadians who demonstrated their attachment to Quebec a commitment to change Canada. You called on Quebeckers not to let Canada down. You have been heard. Now I call on you not to let them down.
Once again, nine premiers have entered into an agreement with the federal government without Quebec's consent. This feels strangely familiar in Quebec.
After last Thursday's announcement, Friday's press conference by three ministers of this government, and a string of public statements over the weekend, the federal government is at it again today, telling us it knows what is good for us and we should do as it says.
Despite the fact that none of the political parties on the Quebec scene—the Parti Quebecois, the Quebec Liberal Party and Action démocratique—would have wanted to sign such an agreement, the federal government, in its great wisdom and superiority, tells us it understood what was best for us: a framework agreement.
This is the same government which has, in recent years, implemented a Plan B, made a reference to the Supreme Court, started such initiatives as the millennium scholarships, done a number on the provinces by cutting transfer payments for health care, and now it is touting itself as a great saviour.
What is there in this agreement? First of all, the great values and principles, with no reference whatsoever to the lead role played by the provinces in the health field. On the contrary, the door is being opened to the federal government's having a major planning role in social programs, health services and education.
Nowhere in the document, moreover, is there any firm financial commitment, even in the principles that relate to sectors so crucial to the future.
Third, this government, which had promised a commitment to a specific, unique status for Quebec, and so on and so forth, thumbed its nose at all that. Nowhere in the document, either, is there any recognition of Quebec's contribution to Canada as a society that is different, a people that is different. Now there is no longer any attempt at pretence. They do not even take the trouble to put this into the key principles behind this agreement.
The second element is mobility within Canada, a point that surely led to passionate discussions. In this regard, the government introduces the possibility of barriers to mobility where reasonable. We know full well, and we heard it in a speech earlier, that outside Quebec there has long been criticism of the fact that there is a difference between tuition fees charged students from outside Quebec and those charged Quebec students. What they never say, however, is that these students still pay less than they would in their own province. Will that be called into question by such an agreement. That remains to be seen, it will depend on the reasonableness test.
It is clear, however, and the minister knows it for a fact, that at the discussion table the matter was raised by many provinces. It was even raised, on a few occasions, by another of the opposition parties here in the House. This is one of the areas some provinces want to attack in connection with Quebec. I could provide examples of other areas, but there is not enough time this afternoon to do so.
The third point is accountability. I am extremely surprised to see in this agreement that they are trying to impose accountability criteria on the provinces. As if they were not already accountable.
I would point out that the provinces, and the case in point, Quebec, are democratic. Each year, before the budget, there is a practice, known as budget votes, involving a parliamentary commission, a debate in the National Assembly and a public presentation by the media and the opposition parties. Accountability criteria already exist and they apply to provincial governments, which are accountable to their electors.
The federal government now wants to get involved in that and give itself the job of evaluating provincial accountability. The provinces will therefore get a report card from the federal government with a thinly veiled threat that funding is tied to the achievement of cross Canada objectives, something no Government of Quebec has ever supported or ever will.
Fourth, to work in partnership with Canadians. In the real world one must also walk the talk. It was just a year ago that the government introduced the millennium scholarship initiative. The same government that promised to take a co-operative approach unilaterally established this program to subsidize or grant scholarships to students on merit and performance, arguing that it was fulfilling a priority in education at the expense of the provinces' own priorities. Would Quebec's priorities in this respect not been different?
Now there will be no choice; $80 million will be invested in this area every year and priorities will be set by the federal government, not by the Quebec government, the one responsible for managing the whole education system. It is one thing to make grand statements of principle, it is another to put them into practice.
Fifth, and this is the crux of the problem, federal spending power, this constitutional plague. Every attempt to negotiate and come to an agreement inevitably stumbled over the issue of limiting federal spending power. The minister claims this goes much further than what was called for in the Meech Lake accord. He has a very biased view of reality and I will refresh his memory on a few points.
He uses one point in the Meech Lake accord to say that, in the future, federal spending power will be restricted even further that was provided for in Meech, but he fails to mention—and I will remind him a thing or two about Meech—that there was nothing in the Meech Lake accord about the provincial responsibilities for mobility, accountability and transparency.
Granted, in Meech the opting out provisions only applied to cost-shared programs. Everyone agrees on that. However, no provision explicitly recognized a legitimate federal role in health, education and welfare.
There was no mention of the federal government's power to spend through direct transfers to persons, which is a key feature of this agreement. This meant that Quebec could always assert that it did not recognize this federal power.
Moreover, in the Meech Lake accord there was a safeguard clause, which basically stated that this provision did not extend the legislative authority of parliament or the provincial legislatures.
I might add also that Mr. Bourassa, then Premier of Quebec and not a sovereignist, specified that the new provision had been drafted to address the right to opt out without recognizing or defining the federal spending power. To make very certain—we can see that he was wary too—we insisted that an escape clause be added to the effect that the legislative powers of the federal parliament would not be increased”.
There are therefore several differences between this agreement and the Meech Lake agreement. There is also a new rule requiring the federal government to have the support of a majority of the provinces. The federal government will be able to go ahead with the support of six provinces. What does this actually mean? It means that the four maritime provinces, with two of the other smallest provinces, or 15% of the population, could impose Canada-wide standards on the social programs of Quebec, which represents 25% of the Canadian population.
There is something very wrong about this. Even advocates of the agreement admit that this is a major problem. This is a new low with respect to the criteria the federal government must meet in order to flex its spending power which, it should be said, it has extended unilaterally on more than one occasion, relying on the supreme court, the Criminal Code, national interest, and a series of supreme court rulings. Each time, they have encroached a little bit more.
Now, with this framework agreement, the provinces have cut them a little more slack.
There are two other points: a dispute settlement mechanism and a review of the agreement after three years. In light of all that, it is obvious that the Government of Quebec could not sign. I would like to read from an editorial that does not come from Quebec but rather from the National Post , which is hardly known for its sovereignist slant. Journalist Andrew Coyne wrote as follows:
“Let us consider what the federal government has gained and what it has given up. It has gained first and foremost provincial acknowledgement of the legitimacy of its own involvement in the social policy”.
He recognizes that there has been a very clear gain for the provinces in this agreement. My time is running out, so I will cut to the conclusion. Having analysed all the federal government gains, he says this:
“You would think the premiers would never sign such a document. But with at least two and probably four facing elections this year, the allure of more money for health care proves irresistible. Money can buy happiness but it seems it can buy provinces”.