Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this matter today.
It may be useful to remind those listening in that the suggestions we are making to the government in the debate on the budgetary estimates are the result of three things.
First, there is the terrorism crisis which has changed everything in our society. It has put into question numerous elements and has had considerable economic impact. The second element is the current lumber crisis. Finally, there is the economic slowdown which we anticipated.
The consequence of this situation is that after hesitating for weeks and after we repeatedly asked him to table a new budget, the Minister of Finance has finally decided to do so.
I believe it is important that the people understand clearly what is going on. During the first five months of fiscal year 2001-02, we accumulated a $11 billion surplus. This means that without an economic slowdown the surplus could have reached $25 or $30 billion for the year.
Unfortunately since the end of August and the beginning of September, and especially since the events of September 11, there has been a significant downturn.
If the Minister of Finance wants to determine how much room he will have to manoeuvre in his next budget, he should do it on the basis of the $11 billion already accumulated and on the basis of the forecasts he can make for the next seven months.
The Bloc Quebecois did a very conservative estimate which, even with a negative growth of 2%, puts the annual surplus at $13.6 billion.
The government can choose to spend the whole amount on the debt or it can decide to use a significant part of it for economic recovery, since we are going through a serious economic downturn.
The budget tabled this afternoon by the Quebec finance minister contains a very concrete measure. The minister will give $100 to some 2.5 million Quebecers in December so that these people can benefit from that money, spend it and stimulate the economy. I believe this is an interesting measure.
Since Quebec is forced to divide its budget efforts and its decisions between two levels of government, and it will remain so as long as we are part of the Canadian system, the Bloc Quebecois suggests that we invest $5 billion of the $13 billion surplus to bolster economic recovery.
We are talking about some $1.85 billion worth of support measures for small and medium sized businesses, low cost ad hoc temporary measures aimed at increasing investments and demand by giving businesses a boost.
There is, for example, the postponing of instalment payments by small and medium sized businesses. We could let them breathe a bit by exempting them from making these payments for a little while, to help them get through these difficult times. Travel agencies for example could benefit from this measure.
We could also give them an EI premium holiday for the months of November and December. This would help both employers and employees free money that could be used to buy products, thereby helping businesses.
This way about $1.8 billion would be put back into the economy: $750 million for workers and $1.50 million for businesses. For a start, these are interesting amounts to rebuild confidence and give businesses a kick start.
Another important point, of which I am particularly proud, is that we would spend $1.15 billion on improving EI conditions.
Employment insurance is there to provide an income to those who have lost their job so they have enough money to pay their family's daily expenses. The money also goes to manpower training.
Right now the federal government is sitting on a $250 million reserve it will not hand out to the provinces, which are in charge of manpower training programs. It is keeping it for itself.
Now that we have a major increase in unemployment, with people unexpectedly losing their jobs, this money should be made available to help them upgrade their skills. We should make sure those who bear the brunt of the lumber crisis, those in my own area for example, get EI benefits, by letting them qualify with a minimum number of hours and giving them additional benefit weeks.
The American president, Mr. Bush, who is not exactly considered a man from the left on planet Earth, has seen fit to add 13 benefit weeks to the American EI plan.
I do not mean to compare Canadian and American social programs but I want to emphasize that in the current context some people are taking action while we are still awaiting the reactions of others, like the finance minister.
He has been using the EI plan as a cash cow for years to pile up money and erase the deficit but he did it unfairly. He did it on the backs of those who earn less than $39,000. The next budget will be an opportunity to right this wrong.
For example, he should make sure that older workers who lose their jobs will be given a chance and will get some kind of interim income to have a decent living while they wait for their QPP or OAS benefits. Some people are no longer fit to get training for another job and are not able to get back on the labour market.
He should also make sure that low income workers will have their income raised from 55% to 60%.
The minister must also make sure that young workers can qualify without any discrimination. Even today, where I come from, a young worker must accumulate 910 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance whereas another worker needs only 420 hours. Do we know the consequence of such a rule? Our young people are leaving the region and we are losing our workforce. If we eliminated that discrimination, maybe we could keep our young workers. They are often the first ones to lose their jobs when there is a downturn like the present one. Nowadays the first ones out the door are young workers. The same is true for older workers who are really affected.
We should invest in this plan. Our recovery plan would require $1.15 billion in total.
My colleague, the industry critic, spoke very eloquently earlier about sectorspecific assistance, tourism, the airline industry and biotechnology.
The airline industry is a big part of tourism but tourism is also, in each of our regions, all those people, Americans and Europeans who did not come to Quebec or to Canada this fall because of all the insecurity. We therefore have to compensate those businesses which do not necessarily generate high profits. This industry needs assistance. There are things that can be done in this regard.
We have set aside one billion dollars for defence and security. We are well aware that we are indeed living in peculiar circumstances and that we have to face them. We have a contingency reserve of $600 million.
Our plan is therefore very realistic. We hope the Minister of Finance will carry it out. He can make adjustments as necessary. He can add other ideas from today's debate or other suggestions but the basic idea is that the federal government has the surpluses needed to boost the economy and that if it only collects money and pays down all of the debt it will not be assuming its responsibility in the months or even in the years to come.
Of course we have to keep on trying to lower the debt but we can do it while maintaining a balanced approach to revive the economy. This is what we expect.
Finally, I will focus on an aspect which seems very important to me. I am talking about the tax imbalance.
Today we may have the most flagrant example of that. The Quebec minister of finance is tabling a budget at this very moment. With the means at her disposal, she is trying to do her best to boost the economy. Meanwhile, the federal government has huge surpluses. Even under the current federal system in Canada, there needs to be a significant tax transfer so that provinces have the funds they need to fulfill their responsibilities.
We have known for a long time that the aging population, education needs and health needs in general are all areas that will become increasingly important. These are the responsibilities of the provinces. Unfortunately,the federal government has not given a large enough share of its tax revenues to the provinces to enable them to fulfill these responsibilities.
I think an effort should be made in that regard in the next budget. The Minister of Finance should say “Yes, we do have a responsibility toward the provinces. We have a tax system that allows us to collect more money than we need. We must give part of that money to the provinces so they can fulfill their responsibilities”.
The overall action plan that we have put forward contains constructive proposals that deserve to be considered by the Minister of Finance. We hope to see, in the budget he will be tabling in early December, most of the proposals that we have made, which are in the interest of Quebecers and Canadians.