Mr. Speaker, before I begin I would like to say that I will be sharing my time with the member for Rosemont—Petite-Patrie.
When the Minister of Finance delivered his budget speech on March 23, 2004, I was expecting to see surprises. I told myself that the party responsible for the sponsorship scandal was heading for an election so it would certainly want to give a little more to the public and the regions to try to beat out the Bloc Quebecois members. My colleague just asked a question.
Moreover, I would like to point out to the public that the budget document is roughly 450 pages long. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers from insomnia. Just read a page or two every night. The obscure language used in the budget speech would certainly put anyone to sleep very quickly.
I was curious. I told myself I would begin by reading the section on the regions. This did not take long because there is absolutely nothing about the regions in the budgetary plan that was presented to us on March 23, 2004.
I asked myself what the people in the regions wanted to see in the budget, in particular the people from my region. First, they wanted a real reform of the employment insurance system.
Since 1993, in the riding of Matapédia—Matane alone, the government opposite has taken $58 million annually from the pockets of the constituents. In so doing, it forces them to live through the spring gap and they end up collecting welfare. The government automatically encourages people to go on welfare for income security.
This is another burden placed on the Government of Quebec, which is responsible for supporting its citizens. More than this, by destabilizing family finances, we create a gamut of social problems that, once again, the government of the province has to address.
It is not just my region that is affected. We could talk about the riding of Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. The constituents of this new riding have been losing $65 million annually since 1993. The Liberal government has taken this money right out of the pockets of the constituents.
Knowing this, I think that the government should have provided compensation by changing the employment insurance program to make it more accessible. The fact is that, in 1993, 83% of workers who lost their jobs qualified for the program. Today, only about 40% of them do. Worse still, the rate is only around 30% to 35% for women and young people.
But there is something even worse for our regions regarding employment insurance. Currently, because of the measures taken by the Liberal government, young people are leaving our regions. I will explain why this is happening. It is easy to understand.
Take the case of a young person who graduates from university or college, particularly in areas that relate to our region, such as tourism, fishing or forestry. As we all know, this young person will end up doing seasonal work. One cannot go fishing when there is six feet of ice on the St. Lawrence River or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and one does not cut wood in the middle of winter, when there is six feet of snow in the bush.
Of course, these young people have no choice but to rely on employment insurance. However, because they must first work 910 hours to qualify for the first time, they never qualify.
When the government boasts and claims that 83% of workers qualify for employment insurance, it is absolutely false. Fewer than 40% of workers qualify. And the rate is even lower among young people.
When young people have no income in the fall, what do they do? They go and work in large urban centres. They have no choice. They leave the region and do not come back. This is why, currently, the employment insurance program plays a major role in the fact that young people are leaving our regions.
We could also talk about the softwood lumber crisis. This is another issue that was not mentioned in the budget. We are fully aware of the fact that, since the beginning of the softwood lumber crisis, our regions, and particularly my riding of Matapédia—Matane, have lost hundreds of jobs.
At the present time, all of these workers cannot qualify for EI either, because there were just small programs made available to them, such a minor contribution that they are now on welfare.
These are skilled workers who are going to be lost because of government inaction and its unwillingness to come up with phase two of the softwood lumber assistance program. They will, if they are able, move out of the regions and find work elsewhere. Otherwise, they will end up on welfare, as many of them already are.
There is one other thing that affects our region, that is the riding of Matapédia—Matane. Because the federal government's actions are encouraging young people to move out, this is a region with a very much aging population.
Now as you all know—we have said it many times—over the years the federal government has stolen a large chunk of the guaranteed income supplement from seniors. In the case of the riding of Matapédia—Matane, we are talking of 1,200 people who were deprived of the guaranteed income supplement for years.
In a twist of fate, when we were able to identify these people and they managed to get the supplement, the federal government gave them a mere one year's retroactivity, whereas some of them had been eligible but had not received it for three, four, five years, or even longer. The mean-spirited government went back a single year only, while it will go back ten years if a person owes income tax, and will impose what I would call an exorbitant rate of interest.
Now for health, they announce $2 billion. This is the fifth announcement, at least the fifth, and the $2 billion is already spent.
There is another announcement relating to health, the creation of the Canada health agency. The first thing that comes to our minds is: does Quebec need a Canada health agency? The answer: no. Because one of the key roles of such an agency is immunization against infectious diseases.
I have good news for the federal government. We have been giving vaccinations for a long time in Quebec, and we already have an agency. Does that mean that we Quebeckers will have to be vaccinated twice against infectious diseases? That is nonsense. An investment of $500 million is announced to create a Canadian public health agency, but no one even bothers to check if such an agency already exists in Quebec. So, there are no negotiations with the Quebec government to determine whether or not compensation should be provided, allowing Quebec to opt out of a program of as little interest to us as to all Canadians.
There is one very important element that nearly went unnoticed in the budget, and which I want to highlight. I will read from the document. It is in the budget summary that was presented to us. I will read the paragraph that tells us what the government intends to do.
As well, the Cabinet Committee on Expenditure Review is examining all programs to identify at least $3 billion annually in savings within four years—
That is $3 billion multiplied by four years. We know full well that this program review means that, again, jobs will be lost in the regions.
We saw it with the program review at the Department of Human Resources Development. Practically all the regional offices were closed down in favour of a huge bureaucracy in Ottawa. Precious jobs were taken away from the regions and moved to the national capital region. Ottawa has been thriving and growing at the expense of those who live in the regions, but these people are not getting their due.
In conclusion, I would like to quote the candidate from the sponsorship scandal party in the riding of Matapédia—Matane. He said this on March 20, in Quebec City. He was so discouraged that, during a meeting with his colleagues who want to run in the election, he said, “You are not giving me anything to defend myself with in my riding. You are telling me to go and get buried alive”. I am not the one saying this. These are the words of the candidate who wants to run for the sponsorship scandal party in the riding of Matapédia—Matane.
This truly reflects what the regions have been getting from this government since 2000, and indeed since 1993: services are taken away from the regions and the people who live in these regions are deprived of everything they need.