Mr. Speaker, there has been so much criticism of the budget since it was read last week that I will rise today to add my voice to the voices of other Quebeckers who have found nothing in it to help them.
The Minister of Finance's budget was a spectacular non-event. The former finance minister took pleasure in underestimating revenues and overestimating expenditures. He took pleasure in finding pretexts to conceal billions of dollars in surplus funds. This was how he kept those billions from being debated in the House in connection with the priorities for improving taxpayers' quality of life.
The minister who replaced him is not doing much better. Journalists and analysts everywhere in the country have not had much good to say about the budget plan. Government MPs are often quick to say, “We all know the opposition is opposed to everything”, but this time I think all of the political analysts are unanimous in the verdict that all this is nothing but a big showy fireworks display, made up of thousands of little squibs exploding in every direction.
It has even been described as a Liberal symphony in the key of S major, S for spending that is. There is nothing surprising about that, considering the orchestra leader's propensity for waving his baton indiscriminately over every section of the orchestra, every possible and imaginable social program.
The Minister of Finance's behaviour is proof that this government had no priorities, but rather a single-minded ongoing objective to increase its visibility, even if this means callously ignoring the provinces and continuing to interfere in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Under this Liberal government, Canada continues to be built without consideration for the provinces. This is known as wall to wall “nation building”.
Furthermore, that is what we will remember as the undying legacy of this Prime Minister, who is on his way out and who, for over a decade, has accumulated staggering surpluses at the taxpayers' expense. We must also point out that, under the Liberals, fighting between Ottawa and the provinces has increased.
The Prime Minister has never hesitated to interfere in provincial jurisdiction, creating perpetual trouble for provincial governments. This budget, the first for the current Minister of Finance, stays the course and continues to perpetuate the Liberals' bad habits.
I will give a few examples of encroachment on provincial jurisdiction. First, the government created the Canadian Coordinating Office for Health Technology Assessment, which provides for an integrated Canadian strategy on new technologies. On numerous occasions, we have pointed out that health care and education are provincial responsibilities.
The allocation of additional funding to the Canada Student Loan Program is another example. Once again, education is a provincial responsibility. The Canadian Learning Institute was created. What is the federal government doing sticking its nose in learning?
These examples prove that this government has continued with its centralizing, pan-Canadian vision.
Last week, the government began a vast seduction campaign. The amounts involved are huge and so is the number of initiatives affected. This government and its members are focusing on the big bucks they have announced in this budget. Of course, it amounts to billions of dollars, but when it becomes $3 billion over 10 years divided by 10 provinces and 3 territories, that amount is substantially less at year-end, about $300 million or less for the provinces and territories.
The amounts are huge but divided over several years. Who can say whether the next Prime Minister and the next Minister of Finance will keep the promises contained in this budget?
The government—and even the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs—has already denounced the fact that the Conference Board, which reviewed the fiscal imbalance between the provinces, projected some figures over a ten-year period. The ministers and government members laughed at this so-called hypothesis.
Now we are led to believe that there is $3 billion available over the next ten years. Talk about speaking from both sides of your mouth.
The investment announced for infrastructure speaks volumes. I will give the example again: $3 billion over ten years, or $300 million a year; $300 million for the ten provinces and three territories is very little.
I would like to quote one of my constituents, the president of the Union des municipalités du Québec and Mayor of Drummondville, Francine Ruest-Jutras who said,
The budget plans for $3 billion over ten years to improve existing infrastructure, of which only $1 billion is earmarked for municipal infrastructure—
I should point out that $1 billion is paid directly to the municipalities, yet as we see it, municipalities are provincial entities. The federal, central government has no authority to pay the municipalities directly. It has to go through the provinces.
Ms. Ruest-Jutras continues:
—$1 billion is earmarked for municipal infrastructure in the entire country. By the time this is divvied up there is only $25 million a year left over to upgrade the water supply, sewers and highways in Quebec. This clearly is not enough given that Quebec's needs add up to more than $1 billion a year for 15 years.
The cost for upgrading the water supply, sewers and highways in Quebec has been estimated at $1 billion a year for 15 years and we are told we will be given an extra $25 million.
The statements made by Ms. Ruest-Jutras, the Mayor of Drummondville, who is known for her enthusiasm for economic development, proves that this government does not listen to the needs of the public.
The $2 billion that will be made available for strategic infrastructure will again be divided among the ten provinces and the three territories; that does not leave much for Quebec either. Note that only one kilometre of highway costs $1 million. This will not go very far.
When he rises in the House, the Minister of Finance keeps saying that his government has reduced taxes by billions of dollars over the past few years. The minister is neglecting to say that if direct taxes have been cut, indirect taxes are taking up the slack.
Think of the current cost of heating oil and gasoline. These are indirect taxes. If there is one such tax that I want to mention, it is the gasoline tax. The government gets 1.5¢ per litre to pay down the deficit, when there has not been a deficit for four years now. Where is this money going? Eliminating this tax would help the taxpayers who need to put gas in their cars to go to work.
But no, this government prefers to sock away the surplus and take precautionary and preventive measures. The little that remains is spread all over the map, over a period of five or ten years. It seems like tonnes of money but, in reality, it is just crumbs.
The Bloc Quebecois has condemned on numerous occasions the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. From one end of the country to the other, all the provinces, all the premiers, as well as economists, associations and federations, notice the fiscal imbalance between the central government and the provinces, and they also notice that the federal government is collecting more money than it needs for its operations.
This government is the only one to deny the existence of fiscal imbalance and to lay the blame on the provinces. There are all manner of justifications given for this. How can it be that everyone, political analysts, economists, all stakeholders, provincial premiers, finance ministers, the official opposition and all parties in opposition, can see a fiscal imbalance while the government closes its eyes and denies its very existence? That is something to think about.
As far as the federal strategy on fiscal imbalance is concerned, I have already said that the government continues to underestimate its revenues. For the next two years, I should point out that the figure being talked about is more than $14 billion, maybe as much as $20 billion. These amounts are being concealed from the public so as to avoid debate and to make it possible to have a budget where a few crumbs are tossed to everyone, in the belief that this will enhance visibility. But rest assured, the voters and the taxpayers are not taken in.
The proposed capital tax measure is one illustration of fiscal imbalance because it allows us to see the disproportion between the means available to the federal level and to Quebec and the other provinces. At the present time, Quebec has a plan to reduce its capital tax, which will enable it to halve the contribution rate by 2007. The federal government is announcing it will do so now. This shows the disproportion between the two levels of government.
As well, there was an expectation that the Minister of Finance would put an end to the theft from the employment insurance fund, this method of virtual accounting which lets him get his hands on the contents of the fund. We are now being told that the Minister of Finance has merely said he would consult. Maybe a committee or board will be created, and it will set the contribution rate. This will happen within two years.
According to calculations, the surplus this year and next in the EI fund will be between $3 billion and $4 billion. This is money the minister will siphon off into his coffers, thus creating imbalance. This accounting method lacks transparency.
Remember that the employment insurance fund is insurance for people who are unemployed. The current government no longer contributes money to the fund and is not entitled to use the surplus from it for all sorts of sketchy reasons. The budget does not establish an independent fund. The Bloc has been asking for an independent employment insurance fund for a long time.
The Prime Minister, the former Minister of Finance who wants to replace him, and the member for Ottawa South are all the same. It seems like for the past ten years they have all had the same speech writer. I wonder which one of them does the dictating.
The Minister of Finance is not even embarrassed. I asked him why, when we have such large surpluses, the government continues to help itself to a fund belonging to workers.
The same taxpayer who contributes to the employment insurance fund has also been paying a special gasoline tax since 1995 in order to reduce the deficit.
In less than 18 months, the cost of heating oil has gone from 39 cents to 62 cents a litre. Remember that often the people who use oil to heat their homes are seniors. These are people who receive a meagre pension which the federal government has never indexed. It has no wish to do so and has not made it a priority. And it leaves these people to continue paying 62 cents a litre for heating oil.
Soon these people who are living on the brink of poverty—because we know very well that the federal pension now falls below the poverty line—will have to choose between heating or eating. Is that right when the government currently has a huge surplus?
The Liberal government's insensitivity to ordinary Canadians, as the Minister of Finance called them, has produced, today yet again, terrible results. I am talking about people from a plant in my riding who will lose their jobs next month due to the softwood lumber crisis. These 130 employees, 130 households, will fall victim to the government's failure to support this industry. These 130 unemployed will join the 7,000 Quebeckers directly affected by this crisis.
The Prime Minister wanted to leave a legacy, but it will be a sorry one. What about the government's attitude to the disabled and their families? The government rattles on forever about its enormous investments, but it neglects to mention that it has made their lives difficult. We have condemned the unfairness of the eligibility criteria for the disability tax credit. Since this strategy did not work, the government dreamed up another and announced the creation of a committee to do its work for it. Let us face it, this announcement goes against a motion that was passed unanimously by the House last November.
This is further proof that this government is incapable of respecting not only its commitments, but also the work of parliamentarians and the population.
You have not heard the last about the board it wants to create for the disabled to establish eligibility criteria. This board would decide if the disabled are entitled to the disability tax credit due to their physical condition, or if parents are entitled to the tax credit for their child. This is unacceptable. Who do they think they are to judge those who are already suffering?
We have before us a government which has been hard hit by scandal and corruption and which is trying to cover up by playing Santa Claus. It is having to face harsh reality. This budget does not meet the demands the Bloc Quebecois made over the past few months, nor the needs of Quebeckers. There is nothing in this budget to resolve the fiscal imbalance, but a series of measures and programs showing the government's determination to centralize and homogenize everything.
This is an unacceptable approach and one that is inadequate for all provinces. There is nothing in this budget to address the lack of transparency relating to the EI fund. Nor anything about doing away with the gas tax. There is virtually nothing concrete on infrastructure, and we must not forget this government's refusal to implement the Kyoto protocol in a way that is fair and respectful for Quebec.
When the minister stated in his speech that public funds in Canada will be administered with greater transparency, not many people were convinced of it.
There is one solution left, however. For all those who have been ignored, be they women, aboriginal people, victims of the softwood lumber dispute, self-employed workers, or microbreweries, there is one real change still on the horizon. For Quebeckers there is but one way to envisage a different future, and that is sovereignty.