Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this important issue, the federal equalization program.
With this bill, the government wants the current five year equalization plan, which is to expire on March 31, 2004, to be extended for a year at the most, but perhaps just a few months. This would give the provinces and the federal government time to agree on a new five year equalization plan.
I can understand that the government wants to gain some certainty with respect to the equalization payments for 2004, given the completely unpredictable political context, which has been sending this government in two directions ever since the member for LaSalle—Émard decided to pull the strings from behind the curtain, and the outgoing Prime Minister lost any credibility in terms of leading the government and effecting the necessary changes, very quickly, to the equalization plan for the next five years.
Before explaining what needs to be done for the next five years in the equalization program, and the major changes that need to be made—because for this program and this governmental approach, it would take major changes—allow me to explain, for the public's benefit, what equalization is.
It is very complex and involves formulas that contain more than 300 variables. There are 33 tax bases to be considered in each of the Canadian provinces and in Quebec. It is very complicated.
Nonetheless, the equalization principle is simple and has been enshrined in the Constitution. Very few government programs are to be found in the Constitution. Nonetheless, the Constitution Act, 1982, recognizes equalization.
Why? Because it is a principle whereby each province in Canada, from east to west, can provide services such as health and education that are of equal quality, but not similar; in other words, equal quality from one province to the next. This applies to health and education.
To accomplish this, they came up with this equalization payment program, which uses complicated calculations to determine the fiscal capacity of each province, that is its capacity to collect taxes of various types from its taxpayers. Based on this capacity to generate funds for the provincial coffers in order to fund services, certain provinces are evaluated as disadvantaged compared to others, as far as providing quality services is concerned. As a result, there is a risk that service quality will not be uniform from one province to another. Briefly put, the equalization payment program works in favour of those provinces that would otherwise be the most disadvantaged, in order to establish, if not equal service quality, at least similar standards.
Toward the end of my speech I will address the payments per province. Federal government payments to the provinces are made on a per capita basis.
In other words, entitlement to compensation or equalization payments is based on the province's population. As a result, when we look at the advantages one province can gain compared to another as far as equalization payments are concerned, the amount per person is what must be compared, and not the total amount.
I will get back to this point. I have heard reference all through the debate about the extraordinary benefits Quebec draws from the equalization system. You will be surprised because Quebec is, out of all the provinces that receives such payments, the one that gets the least per capita. Such is the spirit of the system.
Obviously, the size of our population gives us a higher payment, but what needs to be looked at is the compensation for fiscal shortfall per capita, not the overall amount.
This equalization program is reviewed every five years. The last renewal was in 1999. Shortly before 1999, the federal government and the provinces tried to come to an agreement on a new, less complex, more efficient and less unpredictable formula. They were unsuccessful at the time.
This means that in 1999, the equalization program we still operate under today and which will be in effect until March 31, 2004, was basically the same as it was in 1994. It is extremely difficult for one province after the other to come to an agreement with the federal government on new data and a new framework for equalization.
There are major flaws in the present system. These are the same flaws that existed ten years or so ago. Allow me to list them because that is what is on the table for the federal government and the provinces to discuss in preparing the fiscal equalization program for the next five years.
One of theses flaws concerns the equalization standard. Briefly put, there is need in this program to establish a standard on the basis of which the federal government can provide assistance to a province under the equalization system. To do so, the capacity of each province to collect taxes per capita in order to finance services has to be determined.
The fiscal capacity of the provinces is determined based on five provinces instead of all ten. These provinces are Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. An average capacity is calculated for each province. For those provinces that fall below the standard, equalization makes up the difference between their own fiscal capacity and the five province average.
Let me just give you one example. If the fiscal capacity per capita of Manitoba for 2001-02 was estimated at $4,834, this meant that each person in Manitoba was expected to pay $4,834 in taxes. But in the five standard provinces, the average fiscal capacity was $5,900.
In 2001-02, the shortfall for a province like Manitoba was approximately $1,000. This meant that Manitoba was not in a position to get the maximum tax contribution from its taxpayers to finance quality services comparable to those generally found in Canada. The fiscal capacity of each province is compared to the average for Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
The problem with using this benchmark that is calculated based on only five provinces is that the other five provinces and the territories are forgotten. Leaving out Alberta, for example, Canada's richest province, means that one ends up underestimating the standard, the average point at which intervention is required in some provinces to compensate for the incapacity to generate tax revenue, in order to provide comparable levels of public services.
If the standard were established on the basis of ten provinces, not five as is the case at present, we would be in a situation where the payments to reduce the gaps would be much higher. For example, if the average fiscal capacity of all ten provinces—that is, the capacity in each province to generate taxes, including income taxes, to finance their services—were considered, the average would have been $6,237. Some provinces would have found themselves with a fiscal undercapacity, that is the potential to seek more taxes up to $6,237. Interventions would fill in the per capita gap.
Let us take Quebec as an example. In 2000-01, it was calculated that each Quebecker could provide taxes and income taxes in the amount of $5,180 per person.
If the standard for all provinces were $6,237, we would have needed $1,100 in equalization payments per resident. But taking the average of five provinces that I mentioned earlier, this comes out to around $730 per capita.
This ten province standard is a much better reflection of reality than the five province standard. Each province should be included in the average and the amount needed should be calculated fairly. That would mean that the differences in wealth to finance reasonably comparable levels of public services between the provinces would be smaller than they are at present.
The five province average means that, despite the equalization payments received by Quebec—I was using it as an example, although I could have used other provinces, because many receive equalization—there is still a gap of 8% between the fiascal capacities of Ontario and Quebec, for example.
This means that the goal of reducing as far as possible, if not eliminating, differences in wealth and providing comparable levels of public services from province to province, is not achieved. Still, if we used the ten province average as the standard, we would have a gap much smaller than the 8% one we now see.
The second problem with the current equalization program—and we hope that, with regard to the new program, the federal government will be open to our comments—is that there is currently a ceiling on equalization payments. This ceiling was set arbitrarily, in 1999, at $10 billion indexed to inflation. However, when equalization payments exceed this amount, the federal government asks the provinces to repay that amount.
The problem concerns the repayment. There is a ceiling, which limits how far the gap between the provinces can be closed, which is the purpose of equalization. Furthermore, when repayment is requested, the amount is based on the proportion of equalization payments the province received several months earlier.
I want to use Quebec as an example. I mentioned earlier that payments are calculated on a per capita basis, but since Quebec has the second largest population in Canada, it receives 62% of all equalization payments.
When cuts are made, they are not done based on the amount per capita in excess of the ceiling, they are based on the proportion of equalization payments Quebec has received, which is 62%.
Since 1982, the ceiling has been exceeded five times. This cost the provinces $3 billion, although normally they should have received the full compensation amount.
The third problem is related to tax bases. To establish each province's capacity to impose taxes, a list of government sources of revenue is drawn up. This means municipal, provincial and any other government in the province.
However, the 33 sources of revenue are often poorly defined for each province. They are often approximate. An equalization payment is made one year, followed by numerous revisions that can be made within 30 monthsof the first equalization payment. As a result, there can be enormous variations.
The provinces are struggling to keep their heads above water because, often, they are asked to repay as much as $600 million to $800 million at one time, because their fiscal capacity was incorrectly estimated. Their fiscal capacity was underestimated. So they received a higher payment than they should have, and then the correction is made 30 months later. These corrections leave enormous holes in the revenues of the governments of Quebec and the provinces.
This needs to be corrected. The 33 types of taxes that are used for establishing the fiscal capacity of each province have to be reviewed. There has to be an end to the use of guesstimates, or approximations, simply because no one can be bothered to get the real figures.
Take property taxes for example. In calculating the equalization payment for each province, instead of finding out the real property taxes paid by taxpayers, the figure used is the average income per capita for each province. However, everyone knows that there is often a huge gap between the average income per capita and the property value of the homes which generate property tax.
Everyone knows that homes in Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal do not have the same value and do not generate the same property tax revenue for their market value or median value. That is why the property tax base is not used for each province; income is used instead.
I will give a simple example. Using the real property tax value for Quebec in 2000-01 would not have resulted in a 22% difference in what was assessed as the capacity to generate revenue from property tax compared to the standard in the five provinces. The difference would have been closer to 35%.
This means that Quebec's fiscal capacity was overestimated because income was used rather than the proper criterion: property value. Had property value been used instead, we would have received a higher amount per capita. As far as property taxes are concerned, they would have seen that there is a large gap between Quebec and the five province standard.
This is just one of the problems, There are 33 sources of taxation revenue included in the highly complex equalization formula, and the whole process needs to be reviewed. Proposals for this have been made by the Government of Quebec and the provinces of Canada. Their purpose is to simplify administration of this program, to make it more predictable, and also to make it clearer as far as the variables selected are concerned, namely the various kinds of tax revenues used in calculating entitlement to equalization payments.
This great variability can have a variety of effects, and I will give a few examples of these. We are told that the equalization payments fluctuate because a lot of revisions are carried out and the approximations of variables used are poorly defined. Let us look at just one example.
In 1997-98, equalization payments increased by 3.1%. One year later, in 1998-99, they increased by 27.3%. The following year, they decreased dramatically to 18.5% and, in 2000-01, rose again to nearly 30%. Such a program is unmanageable. The difference in wealth between the provinces cannot be this huge over a period of five years. That is impossible. It is due to the volatility of the data used.
As I said, this is reviewed every 30 months and, in each province, equalization estimates are reviewed eight times a year to update each source of tax revenue. It makes no sense to have a program like that. Besides, it is causing problems for the provinces.
We hope that, by March 31, 2004, we will have a new equalization program, these problems will have been resolved and the program scheduled to end at that time will not be extended for too long. In fact, I think I heard the parliamentary secretary mention something about retroactivity to March 31, 2004, if the new five year program were implemented a few months after that date.