Madam Speaker, I will begin my speech on the budget by making it clear that this year's budget must have hit a new low as far as any excitement or interest was concerned.
We MPs, even on the government side, get all excited at the prospect of the Minister of Finance coming to announce what we hope will be something interesting. He turned up with a fresh rose in his button hole, but I did not have a chance to look at his feet. According to tradition, he is also meant to have new shoes on.
It did not take long for people to realize several things about the budget's contents. The main one is that it had nothing to their advantage in it. I will explain.
People are beginning to understand that the Minister of Finance has for some time been intentionally underestimating the end of year surplus. When there turns out to be a surplus, like this year's $12 billion or so, people's reaction is that these mistakes have been happening for some years now. The day after a budget, I never notice anything different about my pay cheque, or anything in my community either. Yet, if there is a surplus, that means that I had too much tax taken off my pay cheque, and paid too much in other kinds of taxes to the federal government but it does not take advantage of this opportunity to give it back to me. Instead—and we all must agree on this—it goes out and makes investments, it reduces the debt. That is what has gone on in recent years.
Now, it is doing something even worse: increasing spending in areas of activity that have no impact on middle or low income people. The public says “The federal government had more money this year again, a surplus of $12 billion or $13 billion. That is the same as always, and yet I see nothing around me that shows that this money has been well invested”.
All the sympathy and enthusiasm was short lived. People figured out in no time that nothing had changed. When then get their pay cheques, they will see that nothing has changed, and when they make purchases, they will see that nothing has changed: there are still taxes and they have not been reduced.
But there were means available to the government to help the mainstay of Parliaments, that is the middle class. These are the people who contribute the most to the governments' budgets. This is not only true at the federal level, but also at the provincial level, including in Quebec. The middle class is the one paying. These people leave home with their lunch boxes to go to work in a garage, a hospital or the private sector. They are the ones paying, but also the forgotten ones.
The government had an opportunity not to forget them. What would it have cost the public purse in Ottawa to reduce the GST? Let us talk about our Liberal friends. We all remember the promise they made in 1993 to scrap the GST if they were elected. It would have been a good thing for us, for the taxpayers to scrap the GST. It would have put more money into circulation, more money into the pockets of voters and taxpayers. It would have fueled economic activity in all the regions.
That is not what they did. They maintained the GST. They did so again in the latest budget. Since they took office, the Liberals have maintained the GST and have been counting on this money. They could have afforded saying, “Instead of having a $12 billion surplus this year, let us reduce the GST by a few percentage points and give people a chance to pocket some of this money. It will revive the local economy”. This could even have been beneficial to the federal public purse.
A budget entails political choices. We feel that, year after year, this government falls short in its budget. Yet consultations have taken place. It cannot be said that this government is not consulting.
We, as parliamentarians, also conduct consultations. But we often caution the middle class and the disadvantaged, saying “We are prepared to convey what you will tell us to the government, but it is highly unlikely that the Liberal federal government will grant your requests”.
I would even say that it is a very rare exception when the government does so. So, the government had an opportunity to slowly reduce the GST, but it did not take it.
There is something else, namely employment insurance. The minister says that he will lower the premium rate to $1.98, but we know that the system would be self-funding with a rate of $1.60. Why does the minister do that? Again, it is because he wants to accumulate surpluses, at the expense of the jobless.
The government is silent about improving the system. The program will remain the way it is and premiums will go down by a few pennies, since the minister announced that they would go from $2.10 down to $1.98. But the government had already mentioned that they would be set at $2. So, it can be said that employment insurance premiums will go down by about 2 cents.
And the minister is waiting for another consultation later on. Why? To once again accumulate surpluses at the expense of those who need the money the most, and there are a number of people who currently find themselves in that situation. Just think that, when the Liberal government took over this program, seven people out of 10 qualified, whereas now only four out of 10 do so.
The government is far from having improved the program, because it has reduced the number of weeks of benefits. In some cases, it has also extended the number of weeks required to qualify. There are even students who will never qualify for the employment insurance program even though they are contributing to it. Imagine all the money that the government is accumulating, but not redistributing to people.
There are also other examples relating to the employment insurance program. What is the government waiting for to make the program an independent one? The government does not make any contribution. It is the unions and the employers who pay, but the government sets the rules. There is something very wrong here.
If the government gave that independent fund to those who contribute to it, to workers and employers, there would be no need to worry, because they would adjust the fund according to the needs. At that point, the two sides would negotiate, probably with a view to improving the program.
I am not sure whether, for once, workers and employers would agree to improve Quebec's parental program, which is something that we have been asking for for a long time. The Quebec government is prepared to make a little money available to allow young mothers in Quebec to extend their maternity leave by a bit under decent conditions.
But once again, the federal government refuses because that means helping the middle class and the less well off. Multimillionaires do not necessarily need this help. But the federal government is telling those who do that they are out of luck.
It is the same thing for self-employed workers and forestry workers who are grappling with the softwood lumber problem. They are being completely forgotten.
The government could make the transition easier for them. Yes, it was announced that $300 million is being given, but this $300 million is for the entire country.
There are villages in Quebec currently having difficulty coping with the closure of their lumber mill. They are forced to beg the government and ask them daily to share a little of the surplus, but the government does not want to help these people.
These are examples where the government could have intervened, but it chose not to.
There is another very interesting, and very current, aspect and that is gasoline. In my riding, people are telling me that they cannot pay more than $40 every two weeks to fuel their vehicle. Now they will have to put their vehicles away a few days a week because there was an explosion in gas prices at the pump.
What is the federal government doing for these people? When it was running deficits, it imposed a deficit reduction tax of 1.5 cents a litre. We have not had a deficit for five or six years and the tax still exists. Maybe it is time to eliminate it. Of course, they will say that if they do, the major oil companies will find a way to make it up.
The federal government has jurisdiction over competition—or non-competition—within the oil industry and it is doing absolutely nothing. We have been asking the government about this for two weeks, we have been saying that it needs to conduct an investigation and tell the oil companies that they are inflating their prices. We have evidence. Just stand at a corner where there are four service stations to see the prices all change in the span of three minutes.
We need to understand. It is not difficult. Once again, the government is closing its eyes and people are suffering.
Why will the government not say that it will eliminate the GST on all products? It could be taken off gasoline, forcing the oil and gas companies to operate without recovering the 6.5% or 7% GST. The government is not doing this. It is leaving everything as it is, because it knows that the higher the price, the greater the revenues from GST on gas and the 1.5% tax, to fight the deficit, it can pocket.
Do not tell me that the Liberal government members are helping the middle class. These people often need their cars to get to work. That is without counting the cost of gasoline and inflation and the increased cost of food from the corner store or the supermarket. When fruits and vegetables come from Florida, and trucking companies pay higher gas, who do you think will foot the bill? Consumers, that is who. They will pay more for their food. These people are already having problems. The middle class is saying, “We are paying for everything and we never get anything back”. Now is the time to help. But, the government has missed the mark when it comes to gas and employment insurance.
There is another group of people who have been suffering greatly for some time, because the government took money from them and did not tell them they were entitled to it. I am talking about the elderly, seniors. A thousand of them, in the Saint-Jean riding, were entitled to the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and they were not informed.
So we needed to go out looking for the seniors, the people of three score and ten. We really got them stirred up by asking them “Are you interested in this issue? If you know any people affected, let them know they are entitled to the GIS”. There were a couple of hundred people in St-Jean who got the supplement in the end. We got phone calls thanking us. “Thank you, Mr. Bachand, for helping me get my Guaranteed Income Supplement”. We called upon the government to remedy this injustice, which had been going on for nine years. If a person is now 75 and receiving the GIS, why not go back 9 years and give him or her retroactivity?
It is pretty strange. When the tax department decides it is going to look into past returns, we cannot say a word, and have to pay up. Seniors were entitled to the GIS, so why has the government not given it to them in this budget? It ought to acknowledge that it has done people an injustice, and give them their back payments.
I might point out in passing that this would inject money into the economy. It is the same thing with employment insurance. If people get help, then they spend money in their regional economy, which will help them in the end. The government has the means but does nothing.
There is also nothing in the budget whatsoever about older workers and POWA, the older worker adjustment program. Goodness knows we all have people aged 45 to 60 coming into our offices. I have people telling me, “Mr. Bachand, we have lost our jobs and no one wants to hire us”. There was an excellent program but it was done away with; no trace of it remains. There is nothing in the budget as far as any government programs that might help these people are concerned. Absolutely nothing.
Fiscal imbalance is often mentioned. Quebec should be getting $50 million each week; that is $2.5 billion a year. What happens when people need to go to the hospital? They see the emergency wards are overflowing, and they blame the Quebec government. They must be made to realize that Ottawa is the one with the money. Quebec City will not have a surplus this year. Ottawa is the one with the surplus and the provinces are the ones with the expenses. God knows that we are not alone in saying this. The Séguin commission says it, and Mr. Séguin is not the biggest sovereignist. The members of the National Assembly are also saying it. It is not just the “evil separatists” as the Liberals say. In fact, there are ADQ and Liberal members in the National Assembly. Everyone says that this situation is unfair for the provinces and Quebec. Only the Liberal government in Ottawa refuses to face reality and is bent on pocketing surplus after surplus and not helping people.
Unfortunately, I am getting the signal that I only have a minute left. I could have addressed the issue of infrastructures and the fact that municipalities could have been given a hand up. I think that in Montreal alone, infrastructure requirements are in excess of $10 billion. The government provided hardly anything. In fact, it is being questioned daily on this.
Once again, the Liberal party missed the boat. It could have helped the middle class and the disadvantaged but did not, once again telling them to keep paying because there is nothing coming their way.
It is clear that this budget is not to the liking of the Bloc Quebecois. Sadly for the Liberal party and luckily for the people we represent, we will gladly be voting against this budget that ignored what the people said and does nothing either for the middle class or for the disadvantaged.