Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this take note debate on the Coast Guard.
I will begin by saying that, in the traditional definition of the roles, responsibilities and mandate of the state, there is this obligation to ensure the construction and maintenance of the various lines of communication, so as to guarantee the free movement of goods, services and money. In the case of Canada, this is particularly true for seaways.
Of all the world's countries, Canada is the one with the longest shorelines to patrol. The various seaways of the country are truly impressive. We are talking about 243,792 kilometres of shoreline, or 25% of the world's total. This is not to mention the numerous rivers of this vast land.
Under the Liberals, the federal government seems to have found another definition for the word “communication”. For this government, “communication” has become synonymous with “propaganda”. The government has gone from being a provider of services to being a provider of sponsorships and contracts to its friends. But this has not diminished its appetite for tax levies, with the result that, in spite a world economic slowdown, this government has managed to accumulate a surplus of close to $10 billion.
And for good reason. As I said earlier, the government chose to reduce services and, in a number of cases, to increase revenues. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the government can accumulate significant surpluses. However, the situation of the provinces is just the opposite and this is what we mean by a fiscal imbalance. The provinces have much more important responsibilities than the federal government does, but their financial resources are much more limited.
The Coast Guard has also been affected by the approach of the Liberal government since it took office, and it has been the subject of cuts, while the government has also decided to make users pay.
We are talking about large sums of money. Earlier, the hon. member for Matapédia—Matane referred to the fact that the Coast Guard wanted to impose on all the ships sailing in eastern Canada a fee of $5,700 for each call at a port, up to a maximum of 12, for a maximum cost of $68,400 per ship. The fact is that 80% of the calls made by ships are at ports along the St. Lawrence River, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.
Most fortunately, after much negotiation and pressure from the Bloc Quebecois, an agreement was reached to charge the shipping industry fees amounting to 50% of what they were initially wanting to charge for the various Coast Guard services, particularly navigational aids, vessel traffic services and ice breaking.
The disadvantage of the fee structure is that, since 80% of ships' calls are along the St. Lawrence Seaway, Quebec is penalized in the end because the shipping industry in Quebec has had to bear 80% of costs, while only one third of services provided by the Coast Guard are provided on the St. Lawrence.
One might well wonder, then, why suddenly the government comes along this evening with a take note debate on the Coast Guard. Perhaps one of the answers to this is that the agreement with the shipping industry ends in December 2002 and obviously new negotiations will be necessary for a new agreement the government hopes will enable it to continue to collect certain fees from the shipping industry.
That said, it is important to take another look at the argument used by my colleague from Matapédia—Matane just now. He said that the result of these fees being charged on the St. Lawrence has been a considerable drop in ship traffic. This runs counter to what is going on in the rest of the world, in this era of globalization and increased world trade, characterized by increased river and ocean transportation. Yet, because of these fees, the traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway has decreased.
This is reason for concern and for suggesting that these fees not be renewed, as the ship industry has done, because we have seen what negative effects they have. Granted, the Coast Guard's funds are getting scarcer and scarcer, and are no longer sufficient to allow it to carry out its mandate properly.
I would like to continue on a subject that is of the utmost concern to me because it affects my riding directly—the riding of Verchères—Les-Patriotes—on top of the issues that I just raised, navigational aids, ice breaking, and shipping services, and that subject is shoreline erosion along the St. Lawrence. I would like to address this from two different angles that have to do with the Coast Guard. First, some years ago, the federal government established a shoreline protection program, which was run by the Canadian Coast Guard. I am going to approach the issue from this angle.
In the aftermath of the budget cuts that followed the Liberals' rise to power, a number of programs were cut, including this one. The end result is that all of the construction that had started along the St. Lawrence under this program was stopped. There was no periodical maintenance of this work, so the riverbank erosion problem continued for those who did not benefit from any federal government construction on their property. Every year, they lose several feet of property to erosion.
As for the people living along the shores who had their property protected by works of some kind, because of neglect, not only did these works no longer do what they had been built to do, but they had become dangerous over time. The problem these people are facing is that they do not know whether they are allowed to maintain something built by the federal government, because the issue of ownership remains unclear.
Theoretically, these works belong to the federal government, and the people living along the shores are wary of starting to repair these protection structures without first determining whether the government would ever consider suing them for altering its property. This raises a number of problems that will inevitably have to be addressed.
What members whose ridings are along the St. Lawrence River and I keep hearing from successive Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans is answers along the lines of “This is not the federal government's responsibility. We used to do it, but not anymore”. But it is not true that the responsibility does not rest with the federal government, even if only from the angle of the Coast Guard.
The paltry resources available to the Canadian Coast Guard have affected the efficiency and work of its members.
There are fewer and fewer vessel trips. As a result, the monitoring of ships on the St. Lawrence is declining, which makes it difficult to enforce speed limits on the river. In turn, this results in increased shoreline erosion.
All this to say that the federal government has a responsibility when it comes to shoreline erosion. This concerns the coast guard directly, and we expect that, in the next few months, the government will address this problem, finally take its responsibilities and provide assistance to the people living along the shores of the St. Lawrence River.