Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to speak to Bill C-10. We have been following it closely for some time in the riding of Saint-Jean.
We will be debating something very important here. Historically, the Queen did not have to pay taxes to her subjects. This is an old issue. The Anglo-Saxon people were great colonizers and their practice was, as soon as they conquered part of a continent or a country, to establish a rule that the Queen, who had conquered the land, did not pay taxes to her subjects. Quite the reverse, her subjects were to pay taxes to her, often excessively.
Today we are in a longstanding debate, which the government is trying to update, because it has been going on for some time. There have been changes over the years. In the early days of Confederation, the federal government, following in the tradition of its predecessors, did not want to pay taxes to the people and to municipalities. They did not want to make transfer payments. The idea was to collect money to enrich the central government.
Over the years, the government was obliged to assume certain responsibilities, because the people in the municipalities knew very well that they had to pay their municipal taxes to the municipality. Not only did they pay taxes to the federal government, but they had to pay them to the provincial government, and they paid property taxes to the municipalities.
It was rather difficult for a subject to pay taxes on the full assessed value of his residence and see that the Queen or the central government did not pay taxes on federal buildings in municipalities. Still the principle that the Queen does not have to pay taxes was maintained in part.
To avoid saying that these were taxes the federal government had to pay, they were called payments in lieu of taxes. This is the point at which the arbitrariness starts, because I pay taxes on the full assessed value of my residence, but things are not at all the same for the federal government, which never pays on the full assessed value of buildings and land it owns in municipalities.
Over the years, some municipalities have come to realize that the situation was not only arbitrary, but that it was also extremely difficult to budget year after year, because they find themselves at the mercy of the minister who can say “Listen, I sent you X number of dollars last year or two years ago. Now I am considering reducing that amount”.
I will give the figures for Saint-Jean. The city of Saint-Jean has a budget of $50 million, out of which $4.2 million come from a federal transfer in lieu of taxes. This is easy to understand. There are many federal properties in the riding of Saint-Jean, including the military base, Agriculture Canada's research centre and the old military college. Incidentally, I hope the government will announce in its February 28 budget that it will correct the current situation and reopen the military college. However, this issue was already a concern when that institution closed.
When the military college closed, the city of Saint-Jean was getting $900,000 in taxes from that institution. Members can see why the city is anxious to find out what will happen regarding these taxes.
That amount was maintained in the money given to the military college, with the result that, today, the city of Saint-Jean receives $4.2 million from the federal government, out of a budget of $50 million.
But when we found out that a consultation would take place and that it would be important for the federal government to determine certain conditions and provide certain specifications on how it was going to hand out that money from now on, I immediately warned not only the city of Saint-Jean, but the various municipalities in which there are federal properties. I did that because the examples from recent years clearly show that when the government wants to reform soomething, it is never because it wants to give back more to the public. It is always to give less.
There are many typical examples, including the Canada social transfer. At one time, before the Canada social transfer, the federal government was giving money to the provinces for social assistance, health and post-secondary education. What has the Liberal government done since 1994? It has put all this into a single program, a single item called the Canada social transfer. And the amounts transferred are no longer the same. The provincial government is currently experiencing a $1.7 billion shortfall. No wonder things are bad in emergency wards, not only in Quebec, but in the other provinces also.
Another example is unemployment insurance, now dubbed employment insurance, where, in the name of reform, the government has managed to arrange for individuals to receive less. Right now, the government is pocketing between $6 and $7 billion, having reduced eligibility for these programs and worked it so that now people pay premiums from the first hour of work.
A lot more goes into the government coffers than comes out, with the result that the government is getting richer.
We wanted to be sure that when the government said that it was going to consult, to set up a panel with the municipalities to discuss the issue, that these municipalities would not be left worse off. We know what happens when the municipalities have less. The federal government hangs on to the money and the provinces, municipalities and citizens are left to make up the difference.
The public is sick and tired of taxes and tell us so repeatedly. I hope that the government is now going to introduce parameters that are just and fair for municipalities.
In this connection, we have suggested a number of changes that I hope will be implemented. An advisory panel has already been set up, that will advise the minister when there is a dispute with the municipalities. While we are on the topic, one thing we would really like to see is a lot of surveyors because they have the necessary specialization and will probably establish as fairly as possible what the federal government owes the municipalities.
This will also end arbitrary actions for once and for all. The city of Saint-Jean will be able to annually budget an amount that it can be sure to have, instead of the minister getting up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and closing a federal institution in a municipality and he no longer paying the taxes since it has been closed or he wants to sell it to someone else. Until it is sold, the municipality is in limbo, sort of, deprived of revenue from the federal government.
I think that if we want the minister to have a good advisory panel, this must include surveyors, and in order to keep this from ending up, as usual with the Liberals, as another patronage plum, or nepotism, it is also important for these people to be appointed by a public competition.
So, generally speaking, we are fairly satisfied to put an end to the arbitrariness. With the new measures, we feel the municipalities are going to be in a far better position to prepare their budgets efficiently, and I also hope the government will not take seize the opportunity to say “Now we have new parameters, we will reduce our transfers a little”.
We will keep an eye out for this. It is very important for those of us in the City of Saint-Jean and in the surrounding municipalities to be able to plan budgets properly year after year. There are many federal buildings and we want to ensure that the revenue from them will at least be the equivalent of what we were receiving before.
We hope these new parameters will mean more municipal revenue instead. It is important for me to speak on this matter today because of the importance of federal government buildings to the municipalities in the riding of Saint-Jean.