Mr. Speaker, it is with a sense of duty that I rise in this House today to speak to Bill C-71. I am not doing it with pleasure because the measures contained in the budget being implemented through this bill are not very positive, particularly for Quebec, but I feel it is my job and my duty, as parliamentarian, to express my views on this issue.
Not much has changed since the tabling of the budget in this House, since the budget debate in this House and since the beginning of the debate on the bill before us today. It makes us wonder if anyone in government is paying any attention to the views expressed here by parliamentarians from Canada and Quebec, which views reflect the concerns, fears and expectations of the people.
For example, on the night the budget was tabled, I brought together in my riding office a number of socio-economic stakeholders from my riding to hear their preliminary reactions. Then, not wanting to limit this exercise to preliminary reactions, I invited these people to share with me, in writing, their concerns, their expectations and what caught their attention in the federal budget.
I take this opportunity to thank the socio-economic stakeholders who went to the trouble of spending a few hours in my riding office to listen to the budget speech and share their views with me on the impact of the budget's content. I also wish to thank socio-economic stakeholders who later went to the trouble of sending us their comments and suggestions on the budget.
If I may, I would like to list the following people: representatives of the Voluntary Self-Help Centre of Saint-Amable; representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Varennes and of L'Envolée, the Voluntary Action Centre of Sainte-Julie, among others.
This being said, I would like to express some concerns I have been told of. After that, I will make my own personal comments, which are mostly based not only on my personal perception and my own analysis of the federal budget and on my political expertise, but also on the analysis done by my fellow citizens which have expressed their own views, namely through socioeconomic stakeholders who took part in the consultations in my riding.
We noted, among other things, the lack of measures and funds to support the community. We are well aware that the budget cuts made by the Liberal government since its election in 1993 have had a severe impact on provincial budgets, since there have been cuts to transfers for health, social programs and post-secondary education.
Consequently, provinces were also forced to make cuts. Finally, a part of the social mission of the Canadian state and the Quebec state has been passed on to community organizations in our respective communities, without giving them, as a counterpart, any financial or material or human resources that would have allowed them to cope with the increased workload governments forced on them because of federal cuts to provincial transfers.
Some concerns have also been expressed regarding the increase in the estimates for national defence. Some would argue that the living conditions of our military personnel made it necessary to index the estimates, to increase them substantially. It is amazing to see the government coming back after years of drastic cuts, particularly in the defence budget, and saying “our military personnel have atrocious living conditions and something has to be done to improve their standard of living”.
If the national defence budget had not been cut so drastically, perhaps the government would not have had to increase it again a few years later. There seems to be some inconsistency in what the government says.
I shall now make a few comments, if I may, on the measures announced in the budget for transfers to the provinces. As far as health care is concerned, I would like to read part of an article which speaks for itself. This article, written by Manon Cornellier, was published in Le Devoir Saturday, March 4, 1995. I quote:
“Ottawa is not planning on spreading the social program money based only on the demographic weight of each province” said Minister Marcel Massé during an interview. “It would be the worst possible situation for Quebec, so much so that it makes absolutely no sense to me that this could be the solution” said the minister.
There is also another interesting article that appeared as well on March 4, 1995, this time in La Presse. It was written by Philippe Dubuisson. I quote:
A new formula is supposed to be established for the distribution of federal funds between the provinces. The Minister of Finance, Jean Campeau, said the worst case scenario would be the distribution of social transfer payments on a per capita basis...But the federal minister, Marcel Massé, clearly indicated this formula would not be used, because it would penalize poorer provinces, to the benefit of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
In view of these very clear and precise assurances given by the minister, we would have believed the government would maintain this position and would not have changed the formula to calculate social transfers to the provinces.
And yet, without warning, the government decided, during the months following this fine statement from the minister, to change the formula in such a way as to adapt at least 50% of provincial transfers on a per capita basis, to calculate them according to population.
This new formula was to be established over a period of 5 years. Provincial governments, including of course Quebec, prepared their budgets according to these announcements and to this policy the federal government had put forward.
However, in the last budget, the Minister of Finance suddenly announced he was unilaterally changing the formula. The government has announced that, instead of 50%, all of the social transfers will now be granted on an equal per capita basis and that not only will the new formula be applied to 100% of the transfers, but the transition will be made over three years instead of five.
This is totally unacceptable to Quebec, especially since the provinces that stand to benefit from the federal government's generosity are the ones identified four years ago by the President of the Treasury Board as the ones that would benefit from this new formula, namely Ontario, Alberta and B.C.
I just want to point out that, under this new formula, the have provinces of Canada will get the following amounts in addition to the transfers they would have normally received. Ontario will get close to a $1 billion increase in transfers, B.C. almost $400 million, and Alberta some $300 million a year, while Quebec, the second most populated province of Canada, will get a mere $150 million increase in transfers.
This is totally unacceptable. We saw the consequences yesterday in the budget brought down by the Government of Ontario. It is obvious that all the benefits coming from the federal government allowed the Ontario government to further reduce its taxes, thereby widening the existing gap between the current taxation levels in Quebec and Ontario. In turn, this will accentuate the difference in the rate of economic development between the two provinces.
In the best of cases, we could have understood the decision to use the per capita formula for health and education. But how can one explain the use of the same formula for welfare?
It seems to me that the transfer levels for welfare should have been based on needs, not on the number of inhabitants in each province. The number of welfare recipients should have been taken into account in the calculation of the transfer payments. But even in this respect, the federal government chose to use the per capita formula, putting Quebec at a great disadvantage because, as we know, Quebec has a proportionately higher number of welfare recipients than Ontario.
They would have us believe that a transfer payment of $1.4 billion, which is supposed to compensate for the current shortfall due to the new calculation formula, is a good deal for Quebec.
The comparison is biased. They are comparing apples and oranges. First, richer provinces like Ontario, Alberta and BC, will receive these additional amounts every year, while the $1.4 billion will not be a recurring payment. It will be paid only once, this year.
Moreover, it should be pointed out that this $1.4 billion is not a gift. It is only an adjustment on amounts owed to Quebec in the last few years. These amounts were owed to the Government of Quebec anyway, but so far the government has not been able to rely on this money to fulfil its obligations.
A few years later, the federal government pays up and says “This is compensation for money given to the more affluent provinces”. It is not compensation, it is money owed by the federal government. This shows, beyond any comparison, that Quebec is maintained in a state of economic subordination within this federal system, where economic development programs are, of course, far more generous for provinces such as Ontario than they are for Quebec; the federal government is generous with Quebec only when it comes to social welfare.
Let us talk about the per capita question. If we were to apply the same logic to structuring programs, to wealth-creating programs, to economic development programs, to job-creating programs, we would have a completely different picture.
Quebec, with almost 25% of Canada's population, receives only 15% to 17% of federal government research and development spending, goods and services procurement, and capital assets.
Had Quebec received its fair share of productive spending, it would probably not be receiving equalization payments, but making them to the have-not provinces. Whence my earlier conclusion that Quebec is obviously being kept in a state of economic dependence within Canada.
I now wish to address the issue of health. Among the blatant illusions held out by the Minister of Finance's last budget, the one about health was certainly, to my way of thinking, the biggest and the most insidious.
In fact, the public is hard hit by the major cuts to the health care system resulting from the federal government's cuts to provincial transfer payments. By the way, 80% of the cuts made in Quebec's health care system by the Government of Quebec were a direct result of cuts in provincial transfer payments by the federal government.
The public is therefore only too delighted at the announcement, or the illusion being held out, that more money is going to be put into the health care system. And this is where the problem lies, because the budget in fact does not reinvest a cent in the health network. In fact, they announced, nobody dreamt it, an additional $11.5 billion in health transfers to the provinces over five years, including $2 billion in 1999-00 and $9 billion between now and 2004.
This increase in transfers the federal government is dangling before the provinces is nothing more than a reduction in the amount of the cuts planned. Instead of absorbing cuts of $42 billion between 1994 and 2003, the provinces will have only $33 billion drawn off. And they are expected to be grateful for that.
What is more, this announcement of $2 billion for all of Canada in 1999-00, is barely the amount Quebec alone is deprived of annually and barely a third of the $6.3 billion the provinces had sought annually from the federal government in order to nullify the effects of its cuts. However, the government remained deaf to these requests.
It has chosen to accumulate huge surpluses, which it hides in its budget activities, on the backs of the particularly disadvantaged, the sick, the unemployed, the workers and the provinces.
This is a lazy government that has made others carry its responsibilities. Barely 11% of federal cuts were made in its own operating programs and budgets. The rest were imposed on transfers to the provinces and on employment insurance.
This budget, which the bill before us is to implement, is discriminatory, unacceptable and unfair to the public, and we must oppose it vigorously.