Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to this important issue because of the profound effect that equalization problems are having on my constituents in Dartmouth.
Simply put, the current transfer formula does not treat my constituents in Nova Scotia and Dartmouth the same way that citizens in other provinces have been treated. I will spend a bit of time talking about that this afternoon.
Equal opportunities need to be given to Nova Scotians under our federal transfer regime. Sadly there are a number of barriers in our equalization formula which continue to work against poorer provinces such as Nova Scotia and which are causing real hardship to ordinary hard working persons in Dartmouth.
Simply put, Bill C-18 does not meet the real constitutional obligations of the government. I will state what they are because I am not sure we all know. Subsection 36(2) of our constitution states:
Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonable comparable levels of taxation.
If we look at health care standards and the lack of availability of pharmacare, per pupil funding levels for primary, secondary and post-secondary education, and services for those living in poverty, including the thousands with disabilities in my community in Nova Scotia, it is self-evident that the lofty ideals of the constitution are not being met. Canadians know, and study after study shows, that there are significant inequities in services and taxation levels across Canada.
I concede that some of the inequities are the result of decisions made by provincial governments. Many Conservative governments, rather than using budget surpluses to rebuild social programs, have brought in large scale tax cuts which benefit the wealthy. That is not the fault of equalization.
Some inequities stem from the ability of some provinces to generate revenue from resources. There is no doubt that Alberta has greatly benefited from the fact that it is situated on large lakes of underground oil and gas. It receives full royalty revenues from those resources. There is some accounting of this in the equalization formula. However another inequity is at play here.
That relates to the fact that offshore oil and gas revenues cannot be taxed by provinces in the same way that onshore oil and gas revenues are presently being taxed. Therefore we are leaving the have not provinces in Atlantic Canada without the same ability to provide programs as Alberta has.
While I know there are different jurisdictions for onshore and offshore resources, it is difficult to give the legal mumbo-jumbo explanation to the people of Nova Scotia. Nova Scotians have made their living off the ocean since the province was founded almost 400 years ago just as much as they have made their living off the land.
Alberta's tar sands are a provincial resource, and telling Nova Scotians that Sable Island gas is not part of their province simply does not wash. They do not see the legal argument. They see that they are once again being kept poor by unequal rules set by central and western Canada, and they have a point. The government is not treating them fairly and it obviously could if it wanted to.
For example, there was a temporary exemption of royalty revenue in the calculation of equalization payments which had been granted to Newfoundland and Labrador in the past. This temporary measure helped boost the economy of that province, and Nova Scotia deserves no less.
I call on the government to give Nova Scotia the same deal which was granted to Newfoundland and Labrador. As my leader and colleague from Halifax said eloquently in today's debate, Liberal cuts to the CHST, their elimination of the Canada assistance plan and their general approach to giving a higher priority to tax cuts rather than rebuilding our social programs have hit Atlantic Canada very hard.
These are policy barriers to governments in Atlantic Canada which the government should address, but it should also be fulfilling its constitutional role to create equity in services through the equalization formula.
Bill C-18 leaves barriers in place. The biggest barrier is the cap on equalization payments. It needs to be removed. I am not alone in this regard. As has been mentioned, the provincial ministers and the premiers have brought this matter to our attention. Bill C-18 has failed to remove the artificial cap on equalization payments to poorer provinces for this fiscal year. It means that Ontario and Alberta keep more and Atlantic Canada keeps less. How can the Liberals justify this? Do they know what it means to the people in Atlantic Canada?
What it means is that Dartmouth students suffer with less funding and there is increased labour strife as school boards try to squeeze concessions from already underpaid workers. It means that post-secondary students have the highest tuitions and the most ineffective student aid program in the country. It means that fewer sick people can afford the medications they are told by their doctors they need to stay alive. That is not fair and it is not equal. That does not meet the lofty goals set out in our constitution.
Specifically on post-secondary education, I repeat my request for the federal government to increase the support for legitimate post-secondary educational needs in Nova Scotia through a bilateral agreement that would recognize the significant price that Nova Scotians are paying to support a disproportionate number of out of province students.
I hope the government of Nova Scotia would then use the funds to reduce student tuition fees, currently the highest in Canada, and increase the inadequate student aid plan. Atlantic Canadians do not want handouts. They want fairness. Sadly our party believes that Bill C-18 would not deliver this to them.