Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this bill today.
Before speaking specifically about the bill, I want to give the House a brief historical overview. I have been in politics for over 20 years, particularly since my move to the Gaspé in the early 1980s. If any place in Canada has suffered as a result of federal interference in regional development, it is the Gaspé.
I remember that just before the 1995 referendum, the commissions on the future of Quebec were created. I submitted a brief to this commission, the title of which was “Federalism—The Gaspé Peninsula: The laboratory for the failure of federalism in regional development”.
In order to raise its profile, the federal government tried, over several years, a number of different types of interventions in regional development. Because it lacked the basics needed to do this, it had to regularly change its approach.
We remember the former Department of Regional Economic Expansion. Initially, agreements were reached between Quebec government and the federal government in order to decide how investments would be made. However, the thirst for power and visibility led the federal government to withdraw from this kind of agreement and ultimately turn to direct interventions.
First, it was through the Federal Office of Regional Development - Quebec, as it was called back then, which was really an extension of the Department of Industry created by the Conservative government for one main reason. In short, the structure of the Department of Industry was almost entirely controlled by the economic establishment in Ontario. Consequently, it was impossible to obtain the necessary share of investments.
At that time, rather than withdrawing from regional development and giving Quebec its rightful share, the Conservatives decided, for visibility or maybe also out of a desire for greater efficiency, to create the Office of Federal Economic Development. It is somewhat similar to performing bypass surgery after a stroke so that blood can flow. Consequently, we wanted out of the Department of Industry and for the money to reach the regions of Quebec.
This judgment on what I have been seeing for the past 20 years is not aimed at those working in the system, in the bodies providing community development assistance or in the regional offices of Canada Economic Development . We know that the latter are doing the best they can within the rules they have. Our judgment on Bill C-9 has to do with the fact that the federal government instead of withdrawing from areas over which it has no responsibility is doing the opposite. It is continuing to want to take over more and more.
The amendment to the present legislation will enable the minister responsible to become a kind of senior minister, but in a sector that is not a federal responsibility. We should be concerned today with whether there is any overall advantage to Quebec in this bill.
Last week I learned something quite significant that I wish to share with the House. The federation of Independent business surveyed its entrepreneur members and came up with statistics for Canada and for Quebec. The survey was on whether it would be better to have tax credits or federal action by Canada Economic Development.
In the case of Canada, about 50% would prefer tax credits. Still more significantly, the figure for Quebec was 60%. People in Quebec's small and medium businesses are not sovereignists particularly nor people likely to be sitting on our side of the House. They are industrialists, business people, the community, owners of small and medium businesses, and they are they ones saying, 60% of them, that they would rather have tax credits than the intervention of Canada Economic Development.
This has nothing to do with the efficiency or lack of it of individual departmental employees, who are doing the best they can under the circumstances. For a structure like this one within the Canadian system to be effective, it would have to be decided that regional economic development is a federal responsibility, and then the federal government would have to make the necessary funds available to those employees.
Small scale programs are being put forward in every region. The government is trying to make the most of these so as to have as many economic benefits as possible. However, when we look at the payroll that is actually paid out and made available to companies compared to the department's fixed operating costs, it is clear there is room for improvement and a new vision completely different from that introduced by the minister in Bill C-9, an act to establish the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.
Even more insidious is that the current act, as written and in force, states that the agency must promote economic development in the regions of Quebec where inadequate employment and slow economic growth are prevalent.
Yet this clause promoting the agency's intervention in areas having specific problems has been omitted from the new agency's object. This is absurd. We have discussed the principle that there is no need for the federal government to involve itself in this sector. However, if it does choose to do so, this clause removes the government's responsibility to intervene in those regions most needing help. This creates a messy situation.
There are now two departments involved, the Department of Industry, which has all the means available to it, and the Department of Regional Development, which has no means available and which has lost its reason for being, that it exists to help those regions most in need.
Moreover, the clause inherent in the agency's object has been removed, and the new act gives direct authority to the minister to establish as a designated area, for an indeterminate period, any region in Quebec where exceptional circumstances provide opportunities for improvements in employment.
In fact, it might be pertinent to be able to do so, but we must ensure that it is structured correctly; it is not just a question of political partisanship leading the way, which may lead to something other than desirable outcomes in terms of economic development.
This new act is a clear step backward for the regions of Quebec currently struggling with problems of economic growth or insufficient employment, because their recognition as a designated area would become conditional on the goodwill of the minister rather than being based on objective criteria as it is now.
I have an aside to make here. Recently we have been discussing RCMP staffing in the regions. There was a decision that will, today, I hope, be overturned following the presentation by the mayors to the Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. That decision was to withdraw personnel from all over the regions.
This kind of behaviour by the federal government, coming from within the Department of Justice, will now be justified and legitimized by the amendment to the act. It is as if there was finally some backing up. Previously, there was a commitment to intervene in the regions where the need was greatest. Now, the minister will be able to decide which regions these are, and, in the end, it will become a much more partisan decision that it was before. Therefore, this bill presents no added value.
In fact, by handing over the general guidelines for intervention to the political level, Bill C-9 hides another flaw, that of taking another step toward the achievement of the Liberal government's objective of investing as much as possible in Quebec's fields of jurisdiction, which will lead to increased confrontation with the Government of Quebec.
For a number of years, the Government of Quebec has had regional development structures in place, including the CLDs or Centres locaux de développement, which are now governed by the regional county municipalities. The current Liberal government in Quebec is a federalist government , which has to live with both structures. All over Quebec, right now, there are two structures. I do not believe this is the best way to achieve objectives.
Something much more practical and consistent with Quebec's structure could have been done by delegating the necessary resources to Quebec. It would essentially have involved coming back to something similar to what the Department of Regional Economic Expansion used to do. Expenditures to be made in Quebec were made under agreements between Quebec City and Ottawa. This ensured consistency between Quebec's policies and the federal government's involvement. That has changed.
There are currently enough areas of federal responsibility, including international trade, to move forward and have the federal government look after those areas within its jurisdiction without enacting legislation that will basically move Quebec backward instead of forward.
We know that, to justify introducing this bill, the federal government is referring to similar legislation passed previously with respect to the Maritimes and western Canada. But there is a fundamental difference where these regions are concerned. In the Maritimes and western Canada, the legislation was requested by the provinces, which did not have their own department or ministry responsible for regional development.
It is different in Quebec, where this is a major department with a past record which speaks volumes, and which is getting interesting results. The Government in Quebec has put a great deal of effort into putting in place the appropriate regional development structures. Decentralization activities have already been carried out. The current federalist Liberal government even conducted an operation to make elected representatives more accountable.
Now, a second structure would be added next to the existing one, when that is not necessarily desirable. It is not relevant to take the example of the Maritimes or western Canada to justify establishing such a department in Quebec. It is unacceptable for the federal government to try and meddle in this area of provincial responsibility.
According to Canada Economic Development officials themselves, Bill C-9 does not bring anything to the agency, from an administrative point of view or in terms of new money. Therefore, it is nothing but a new structure to promote nation building by the Liberal government which, following the 1995 referendum, decided to invest in Quebec's jurisdictions and to aggressively increase its visibility in that province by taking advantage of its huge surpluses and its spending power.
What could the Liberal government have done to meet the real needs of the regions? Instead of constantly getting involved in Quebec's jurisdictions and duplicating services in a totally unproductive fashion, the federal government should—but currently refuses to do so—withdraw from regional development. However, if it absolutely wants to continue to get involved, it should at least make sure that it will improve the services that come under its own responsibilities.
The first thing that it should do is to adjust federal programs to the regions' realities. The number of battles that must be fought to ensure that federal programs finally become flexible enough to apply to Quebec is simply unbelievable. Moreover, this necessitates energy that should not have to be expended like this.
The best example in this regard is the mad cow issue. If the necessary flexibility had been there, things could have been different a long time ago for Quebec, even by merely recognizing that, in our province, we had a traceability system that should have exempted us from the ban that resulted from the discovery of the mad cow disease. Indeed, in Quebec we were already able to identify sick animals and to determine their origin. Therefore, the impact of the problem could have been confined and we could have avoided turning this into a world issue that adversely affected all producers in Quebec and Canada.
The federal government administration should also be less concentrated. The staff reductions of recent years were made in the regions, in the areas where the links were the weakest. This way the powers and the personnel that is left is now concentrated in Ottawa. The result of this is that the government's vision of what regional development should be is somewhat disconnected from the reality. Also, when the government began to enjoy surpluses, it created a number of jobs, but it is Ottawa that benefited.
We would like for the programs—if they are maintained—to be more regionally based and for there to be truer decentralization of powers in order to ensure that decisions apply to each of our regions of the country.
The federal government must also bring capital spending back to an acceptable level and substantially increase the regional development budget of Quebec, which is three times lower than in the Maritimes. Accordingly, the money available could be paid to Quebec and the amounts paid have to be much higher.
Our fellow citizens have noticed that the federal government has a $9 billion surplus. Meanwhile, they also notice that it is very difficult to get the money necessary to stimulate research and development in our regions and to ensure that our small businesses have access to programs to help them be competitive in the new global reality.
Accelerating and simplifying operational modes is needed to make companies competitive and to have products in the appropriate niche markets so that we can assume our responsibilities and maintain and develop employment rather than have a defensive policy like the one we have now. People in the textile sector are being told, “We will give just $25 million, nothing more. Deal with the influx of products from China, India and Pakistan and fend for yourself because we cannot help you any more than we already are right now”.
When people hear that, and then on the other hand, see the Minister of Finance announce a $9 billion surplus, they think that it is basically as if someone had decided to pay off their mortgage in five years and starve their family just to pay it off as soon as possible. Here too there are signs that the federal government has not assumed its responsibilities with regard to regional development.
The fact that there has been no indepth reform of the employment insurance plan is the most obvious sign of its lack of sensitivity. The Bloc Québécois arrived here in 1993. At that time the Liberals promised a real reform of the employment insurance plan. Mr. Chrétien made that promise during the Liberal leadership campaign when he said that there would be positive reforms for the unemployed. There is even a letter confirming it. As soon as he came to power, he did just the opposite: he tightened the screws, restricted eligibility and deprived the regions of a regional development tool, a tool to stabilize economic activities that is no longer there.
Without having compensation programs to jump start the regional economy, at the same time they closed down a source of reinvestment in the region that was very helpful and made it possible to maintain the social covenant between the resource regions of Quebec and Canada and central Canada. In the past, industrialization occurred mostly in urban centres, and resource regions had employment insurance to compensate for the fact that they lived off seasonal employment.
The federal government's lack of sensitivity in this respect cost it dearly during the past four elections and yet it still has not heard the message that it should carry out a real reform of the employment insurance plan. It is easy to understand why people are concerned when they are told that a new agency will be created under the authority of the Minister for Regional Development, who will no longer necessarily have to reinvest in the regions that need it the most but will be able to choose the regions that he will develop. That way the agency will reach conclusions that will not be in the best interest of Quebec's economic development.
When this bill is referred to committee, if it is passed by the majority in this House, it will have to be changed entirely to at least ensure that the current situations do not deteriorate. We must bring back the fact that the vocation may be limited and ensure that it will apply to Quebec regions that need particular assistance, as was provided in the current act. We must ensure that there is no partisanship, in order to promote the development of economic activities in our regions.
We are now living an economic reality that is totally different from what it was 10 years ago. The whole manufacturing sector is facing an extraordinary challenge. We see this particularly in my region, for example, Montmagny, where we have experienced major closures. Currently, many businesses have difficulty remaining competitive with other countries of the world. It looks like the federal government does not adapt quickly enough to these new realities. It is always behind.
The bill before us will not ensure that the government's action will allow businesses to continue to compete, to move forward and to maintain their jobs. It is important that parliamentarians in this House are aware that we must decide whether or not the federal government is to continue to intervene in the way that it has in the past, with the results that we know. The auditor general herself raised major issues on the effectiveness of the current department.
The fact that the government brings us today this type of bill does not appear to me as the best way to intervene in order to help regional economic development in Quebec. This is why the Bloc Québécois, at this stage, will vote against the bill. Indeed, it goes entirely against Quebec's development objectives. It is not the proper tool to promote harmonious development in Quebec or to face new world competition.