Mr. Speaker, I wish to say a few words in this debate before the House today as well.
I consider this one of the most fundamental parts of Canadian federalism. We have had fiscal federal-provincial programs going back to the forties and fifties. Back in the days of Pierre Trudeau, 1968-69, we had the department of regional economic expansion and equalization payments being expanded and made part of our law.
The big turning point came in 1981 with the patriation of the Canadian constitution. It was decided then to make equalization payments part of our constitutional make-up. I think that was extremely important because we recognized that in our unique federation, which is one of the most decentralized federations in the world, we needed some way of equalizing conditions between people in all parts of the country. We needed some way of equalizing the fiscal ability to have comparable services for health care, education and farm support programs from one province to the other.
We have great inequities between the provinces and the regions because of our constitution and because of our resources. We also have great disparities. We have three provinces, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, that have been better off historically than the other seven provinces which have historically drawn funds from equalization payments. Saskatchewan, my province, is one of those provinces that has usually drawn equalization payments but, from time to time, has had an economy where the growth rate was high enough that it did not receive those payments.
I think part of the Confederation bargain was to support a program like equalization. However, the government removed the cap on equalization, which was $10 billion for the year 1999-2000. In terms of payments, it went from $10 billion to almost $10.8 billion. That was done, coincidentally, before the last election campaign. What a coincidence. The Prime Minister made the announcement to take off the cap and then dropped the writ. He wanted to win more seats in Atlantic Canada, in Manitoba and in Saskatchewan. What did the government do next? It reinstated the cap. There was no election. The cap went back on again.
When the ministers of finance from Manitoba and the four Atlantic provinces were before committee they told us that they did not want the cap on, or, at the very least, that the base go from $10 billion to $10.8 billion.
It is interesting that the Prime Minister made a commitment to take the cap off. It is also interesting that all 10 provincial finance ministers said to take the cap off. With a surplus predicted to be around $15 billion to $17 billion for the fiscal year, we now have the fiscal flexibility. A minister's statement will be coming out in a couple of weeks. We will be able to handle greater equalization payments to equalize conditions across the country.
Despite all that evidence, when we moved amendments in the finance committee a couple of days ago the parliamentary secretary would not entertain any idea of amendments. Of course the committee itself cannot produce a ways and means motion to amend the act. However, the committee suggested that the minister bring an amendment before the House at report stage to raise the cap from $10 billion to $10.8 billion. Even that timid suggestion was turned down by the parliamentary secretary.
In an irony of ironies—and I think this was reported in some of the Atlantic papers—my friend from the Bloc Quebecois moved an amendment asking the minister to consider the possibility and the wisdom of perhaps some day considering raising the cap. However, even that was turned down by the parliamentary secretary as being too radical.
What we need is some serious parliamentary reform. The committees need to have more independence to suggest what is right for Canadian people. The committee I was talking about was told by all the ministers of finance from the Atlantic provinces and Manitoba that the cap should be gone or that it should at least be rebased at $10.8 billion instead of $10 billion per year.
If the committees are not given independence, we will have growing inequalities between the have and have not regions. We will have growing inequalities in terms of health care services, education and social services. We will have growing inequalities in terms of the taxation burden on Alberta and, for example, New Brunswick and many other provinces.
Because of the constitution, Alberta is very blessed and fortunate to have all kinds of oil and gas. In fact, this will be an interesting problem in terms of fiscal federalism in the future because Alberta, with the development of the tar sands, has more gas and oil than Saudi Arabia. It will be an interesting situation to deal with in the years ahead.
The Fathers of Confederation did not foresee this kind of wealth in gas, oil and many other resources. The rights to these resources have now been turned over to the provinces. I support the provinces' right to have jurisdiction over gas and oil but I also believe it is the fundamental right of the federal government to have an equalization program that redistributes wealth in order to have a greater equality of conditions.
Those are some of the problems we will be facing in the future. Alberta's tremendous oil wealth, which will be more than Saudi Arabia's oil wealth, will be a very difficult issue to deal with because it will create tremendous inequities between two or three of the Atlantic provinces and, indeed, much of the provinces of Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. One of the ways we could deal with it is through the constitutional idea back in 1981 which called for equalization payments to be enshrined in the constitution.
By implication, that would force the federal government to make generous enough payments, which would be in accordance with our fiscal capabilities, to ensure equality of condition for every Canadian. It would not matter whether one lived in Corner Brook, Newfoundland or Calgary, Alberta, everyone would have the same opportunity to send their kids to school, to get a decent education and to receive decent health care. That is the basic philosophy behind equalization.
I hear the Alliance Party people criticizing the government's involvement in all kinds of different programs and talking about massive cutbacks. The Alliance Party agenda calling for cutbacks and cutbacks, has had a great impact on the country and one that has spooked the Liberal Party. It has spooked the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister, and has made the parliamentary secretary pale with fear.
In 1995, in particular, there were massive cutbacks in government spending like we had never seen from a Conservative government any time in the history of this country, going back to R. B. Bennett in the 1930s. In fact, it makes my Conservative friends over here look like raving socialists in comparison to what we saw across the way.