Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on the most recent budget brought down by the Minister of Finance.
There would be a lot to say about this last budget, but I will try, in the next 20 minutes, to stick to the basics and to the most fundamental aspects of the Minister of Finance's presentation.
First, let me tell the House that, since 1994, every year, before the budget is brought down, the Bloc Quebecois holds some consultations with the Quebec people to complement the ones made by the Standing Committee on Finance, to determine exactly the needs and the priorities of Quebeckers in the budget, in addition to those of Canadians.
Until now, we have not been very mistaken on the priorities given to some budget items, but that the government has not been able to follow up on in the many successive budgets since 1994. I will get back to those priorities for Quebeckers and Canadians.
In addition, let me point out a certain exercise the Bloc Quebecois has been engaging in twice a year since 1995. It involves a very sophisticated device, but one which has become very familiar to most taxpayers, namely a calculator, a little pocket calculator on special this week or $3.95 at Jean Coutu. Taking the figures for government revenues and expenditures—in the first quarter, for example—we simply extrapolate, using the rates of growth provided by the major financial institutions. This could be the Mouvement Desjardins, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Bank or Wood Gundy—any of the outfits who deal with economic growth.
So, we simply extrapolate with certain adjustments that come from our observation of the trends in budgetary revenues and expenditures year after year. As for the state of public finances, in calculating the budgetary surplus—something the former Finance Minister and potential successor to the current Prime Minister made forecasting errors about, in the size of the surplus and deficit, at the beginning, of around 200% per year, on the average—we have every reason to be proud, because our forecasting errors are around 3 to 4%, which is the margin of error one usually expects when making this type of forecast.
And yet, it was the $3.98 pocket calculator and a few connections, especially in the major financial institutions, that enabled us to get these results. I am always shocked to see the forecasts and results from the Minister of Finance, year after year. He must be doing this on purpose, presenting us with such fantastical figures as those he has been dealing in since 1995.
It began with the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard as finance minister and continues with the current finance minister, who is also hoping to become Prime Minister. I wonder whether or not being able to count is a prerequisite to standing for election as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, that is as a potential Prime Minister. Moreover, the first sizeable deficit leading to debts that accumulated year after year within the federal public service was created by the current Prime Minister, who was once, himself, Minister of Finance. It makes one believe that history repeats itself with all these successions, that is, succession as finance minster and succession as Prime Minister, too.
The same thing happened again this year. My colleague, the member for Joliette, who still uses the pocket calculator bought at Jean Coutu for $3.98, was right on in estimating that the surplus for the 2002-03 fiscal year would be somewhere around $10 billion. It so happens that we have just been told that, indeed, the surplus for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2003, would be just over $10 billion.
When my colleague took over as finance critic, I gave him the pocket calculator, and it is still working just fine. We have been using the same $3.98 pocket calculator since 1995.
How can we obtain such accurate results when, just a few months ago, the Minister of Finance was telling us that the surplus for the previous fiscal year would be around $3.5 billion or $4 billion? He was wrong again. It is not $3.5 billion or $4 billion, but $10 billion, just as we had predicted.
What does that do? What it does is that the government, which should be addressing the real priorities of Quebeckers and Canadians, is not meeting these priorities, claiming as an excuse that it does not have the money to do so. That is what we are seeing year after year.
Since memory is not infallible, when the Minister of Finance opens his mouth and says that we must be careful because the surplus will not exceed $2 billion, $3 billion or $4 billion, people believe that they do indeed have to be careful. We are always afraid of going back into a deficit, and rightfully so.
If anyone is being responsible about the management of public funds, it is the Bloc Quebecois. It is the only party that told the former Minister of Finance, some five years ago, it would support anti-deficit legislation, balanced budget legislation, requiring him to be accountable. It is a matter of being accountable for the aboriginals. It would perhaps be a good idea to include the management of public accounts too. The system is far from being as transparent and as accountable as we are being told.
The Bloc Quebecois is responsible with regard to the management of public funds. But being responsible does not mean accumulating astronomical surpluses. Does the House know what an astronomical surplus is? It means that the federal government is taking more money from taxpayers than it needs to face its challenges and administer its programs.
This is serious, because people are overtaxed, particularly in terms of federal tax. I have often compared federal taxation to Quebec's taxation system and Ontario's, for example. We could also talk about Nova Scotia's tax system. The Bloc did a comparative analysis of all these income tax systems. As a result, we see that Quebec taxpayers, like those in the rest of Canada, start paying federal income tax when their income exceeds $12,000 or $13,000. The poverty line is nearly three times as high. There is no provincial income tax for those earning less than $12,000 or $13,000. Yet, taxpayers do pay federal income taxon such amounts.
For example, a family of four would pay no provincialincome tax on earnings under approximately $23,000 or $24,000, but this is the base amount for families to start paying federal income tax. Under Quebec's income tax system, this same family of four would start paying income tax only on earnings over $43,000. That is a huge difference.
Does this mean that the federal government is taking too much tax money from a middle income family of two adults and two children? It should not be taking as much, particularly from a family like that with an income of $23,000. It makes no sense.
The federal government is amassing huge surpluses. It is a matter of billions, whereas the forecast was—how convenient—a maximum of $4 billion. It is the same every year. Does this also mean that what the Minister of Finance has been doing to the employment insurance fund—theft, pure and simple—with the federal government's blessing, every year for the past six years, is unjustified? Mosat definitely, because this is theft, since the federal government does not contribute a cent to that fund. The money in it comes from the workers and the employers, who pay into it in order to insure those who had the misfortune to lose their job, not in order to line the pockets of the Minister of Finance.
Does this mean that there is not only no ethical justification, but probably no legal justification as well. The CSN has a case before the courts at the present time. Does this mean that not only is it unjustified on these bases but also unjustified on the very basis of the federal government's arguments, which are that we would be running a deficit again if not for the surplus? That is not true.
With a $10 billion surplus, the government would not have needed to steal this year's forecast surplus of $4 billion from the employment insurance fund. It also means that more than only 39% of EI applicants could have qualified for benefits. That figure is quite low. It means that 61% of applicants who have lost their jobs or who are in regions with seasonal employment and who have to cope with the infamous gap could have collected employment insurance. However, because of the Minister of Finance's greed, and the government's greed, and because of the lack of expertise in managing public finances, which are being hoarded year after year, these people are still being refused EI. The same will hold true for this year.
Incidentally, there is a protest movement that is starting up again across Quebec, and we hope that it will catch on in the Maritimes and the rest of Canada. The Maritimes are also hit harder than most other regions in Canada. There is a movement that goes by the name “sans chemise” that has started up again; it is based in the Charlevoix region. At one point, the government wanted to reorganize the regions to set the number of weeks of work needed for people to qualify for EI.
The “sans-chemise” said, “No, you cannot do that”, because it would exclude about a third of EI applicants if the government went ahead. So there was a demonstration and the “sans-chemise” were born.
The movement has started up again, because people find the whole situation unbelievable. So far $44 billion has been pilfered from the EI account, and the tradition has been maintained in the latest budget; $44 billion has been stolen and could have been used, in part, to ensure that more than just a minority of applicants qualify for EI benefits.
Some of this $44 billion could have been used to help softwood lumber workers, for example. On Wednesday I heard the Minister for International Trade say that the government has already done a great deal. Of course, we agree with the minister, but success still eludes the government. And employment insurance could have been a catalyst with regard to the impact of this international trade decision.
I heard the secretary of state for economic development and member for Bruce say “Quebec did nothing”. Quebec has done a lot in this area even though it does not come under its jurisdiction. The government is very good at talking about jurisdiction when it suits its purpose, but when it does not, when the time is not right, it does not talk about it. However, international trade is an area of federal jurisdiction and the federal government is responsible for any proceedings relating to countervailing duties imposed by the Americans or sanctions against our exports.
One would have thought that the federal government would have taken part of that $44 billion to help the hardest hit workers and to broaden eligibility criteria. When the situation is such that only a minority of the targeted clientele can benefit from a policy, it means that policy is not working, because any given policy is meant to benefit the clientele as a whole. If it does not, changes are needed.
Three years ago, members a House committee unanimously agreed to change the insurance employment plan. Even the Liberal members voted in favour of doing that. That mollified somewhat the coalition of the “sans-chemise“. They thought, “If a committee of the House of Commons is unanimous in this respect, it means the employment insurance plan can be changed and that we can count on at least some of the 15 recommendations being acted upon, particularly the recommendation asking that restrictions on eligibility be reduced”. But no. Three years later, we are back to square one. Nothing has changed. It is business as usual with this budget. Of course, premiums have been lowered and we are very happy about that. However, there is always a way to find balance in life. And that also goes for managing the employment insurance plan.
Contributions may have been reduced, and this qualifies as an indirect tax cut, but at the same time benefits must be increased. The government must take a good hard look at itself and say, “The plan is no longer working; it is time to change it”. But no, someone stands up in every day this place and sings the same tune every time we ask questions—I would almost feel like saying plays the same broken record—and tells us, “We have done a lot; the EI plan is much improved”, and sits down. Then, that someone stands up again and says, “This is unwarranted; the criticism is unwarranted”, and sits down again. Meanwhile, 61% of the unemployed are not eligible for benefits.
This is one of these situations. We are told that the $44 billion has been spent. We know very well what it was spent on, but it should be entered in the government's books as a debt to the workers, employers and unemployed, who have not been able to rely on employment insurance for the past six years and continue to be penalized because of the federal government's inaction.
Once again, the budget ignores the humanitarian considerations that should guide all parliamentarians, and government members in particular, out of concern for serving the people we are supposed to be representing, and serving them well.
Many references are made in the Speech from the Throne to aboriginal issues. I would like to clarify a few things. This is my third throne speech since 1993, and it is still fashionable, it still looks good to state in the introduction that the first nations have needs that must be recognized, that the good federal government will do everything in its power to help its aboriginal people. Putting things that way smacks of colonialism.
In the last budget, there is practically nothing for the first nations. In the past 10 months I have been able to observe how much the first nations are suffering all over Canada. There was even a UN observer who came here for about a week and a half. He went around to a number of reserves in Canada and he was completely flabbergasted. He thought that situations like that could only arise in Africa, for example. He found that even within Canada, one of the G-8 countries, one of the eight most industrialized countries, there were many reserves that did not even have running water and drinking water. He also saw that people were living in unhealthy housing. He also noted that underemployment could reach 95% in certain first nations communities. That means that only 5% of the people are working, if we look at it the opposite way. Such situations prey on the mind.
Despite all that, at the present time, there are 500 specific claims negotiations with first nations that are pending. There are 500 more coming along. For example, the negotiations on self-government could have been completed with a few million dollars more in the budget for the first nations. Unfortunately, the money is not there.
Another 500 claims will be filed over the next two years. Instead of concentrating on improving the first nations' socio-economic conditions and tackling the real issues, we are being handed garbage like Bill C-7, which no one wants.
I have just come back from Kenora, in the riding of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. There were 8,000 first nations representatives. It was not the chiefs, as this minister claims when he says that only the chiefs oppose the legislation on governance. No, there were 8,000 aboriginal children, adolescents and adults, who were not chiefs. They spontaneously took to the streets in the riding of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to ask for his head.
He does not get it at all, and his attitude harks back to colonialism. The bill reeks of racism, and the government continues to claim that this will relaunch plans for self governance, thereby accelerating the process by which the first nations obtain this right. I did not say that the minister was racist. I said that the bill was racist, with all due respect.
Much more could have been done with this budget. Unfortunately, the other side of the House has no imagination and is unable to show openness and above all to recognize the inherent right of the first nations to self governance.
As a result, Bill C-7 continues to hurt communities which have already suffered for 130 years under the Indian Act and which are continuing to suffer also from unqualified prejudice that cannot withstand ten minutes of analysis. People still think that aboriginals do not have the right to want more than the federal government is willing to give, although all the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations, have said that they are nations and, as such, entitled to respect. It is our duty to negotiate with them on an equal footing.
I am completely opposed to this budget for these reasons.