Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to address Bill C-24, a bill that authorizes greater and more stable equalization payments for Canadian provinces and sets into motion a review of the current equalization formula by a panel of experts.
Equalization is an important national program that helps to sustain provincial funding and services, and it needs to be there for the provinces and territories. As the official opposition intergovernmental affairs critic, I want to signal our support for equalization and for the escalator clause that is found within the bill.
We support the provinces in their push for greater stability and predictably within the system. The changes that will result over the next few years and the escalator clause will provide that predictability as will the floors put in equalization and the territorial formula financing. However, the Conservative Party has argued along with several provinces that Canada needs to develop an equalization system that is more sensitive to the local economies of particular provinces. That idea will take up the bulk of my comments this afternoon.
Even with the passage of this bill, the government does not seem to understand the fact that the equalization system and territorial financing do not sit in a vacuum. Instead, it is part of the financial arrangements that shape intergovernmental relations within Canada. These programs need to be considered within the wider scope of provincial economies and the ability of provinces and territories to both provide services and create a favourable business climate.
Finally, and this will come as no surprise to the government, I will comment on the subject of non-renewable natural resource revenues and why we believe that these revenues need to be taken out of the equalization formula.
The Prime Minister and finance minister have, in my mind, waited too long to deal with this issue. It has come back to haunt them first, in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, currently in Saskatchewan, and increasingly in Canada's northern territories. As well the government needs to take note of the current position taken by the government of Ontario with regard to equalization.
Primarily, I want to talk about the legislation but direct my comments more toward the expert panel that will eventually be struck. Sound ideas regarding equalization have been proposed to the deaf ears of the government, especially in the area of natural resource development. It is time the government took these ideas seriously.
My hope is that the panel will find a way to incorporate these ideas so that equalization and territorial formula financing begins to work in concert with the economic and social aims of provinces and territories instead of continually hindering their objectives. We said at second reading that we had no major objections with the bill. We believe that it did not go far enough in making real changes to equalization, but the fact that an expert panel will be established does show two things. First, it shows that the government's acknowledgement of the equalization formula is flawed. This is something that the provinces have said and this is something that our party has argued for quite a long time. Second, it shows that the government is completely out of ideas as to how to change the equalization system.
After the past 11 years it is refreshing to have a government that admits that it does not know what it is doing and that it might need some assistance.
Speaking of assistance, I am glad to see that the provinces will be able to nominate two members to the equalization panel and that the territories will be able to nominate a person to the territorial financing formula panel. As the government knows, there is difficulty in forging a consensus among provinces regarding the formula. The government also knows that different provinces and territories would likely bring new approaches to the equalization formula and it would be better to have these ideas on the table during the process rather than added after the fact.
This is important because Canadian provinces rely on the formula and territories rely on the territorial formula financing whose local economies are most affected by the formula. In fact, we already see provinces coming to the table with their ideas as newspaper reports this weekend have pointed out. Furthermore, whatever changes are recommended by the expert panel, it is fairly clear that provincial officials are going to have a greater sense of how these changes will affect the services that are provided by the provinces or how those changes will affect the business climate in each province.
I also hope that the expert panel will take an expansive view, a look at other measures and other equalization systems being used in federations around the world. As I will discuss later on, the member for Prince Albert has found some interesting statistics that show some of the flaws in the current formula. If there is a better way of measuring not only the capacity but also the fiscal means of each province, I would hope that the panel will have an opportunity to discuss these.
I would like to stress that it is imperative that no province is left worse off by any changes to the equalization formula. If there is one problem that I have with the panel of experts, it is not with the panel itself as much as it is with the government across the way. The government has retained the ultimate decision making authority so it is fair to ask, what assurances do we that the recommendations of the panel will actually be heeded?
It is important from our standpoint and in the view of the provinces that the government puts the recommendations of the panel ahead of political expediency. There are no guarantees in Bill C-24 that this will be the case. Instead we may be left with politics as usual, and given the importance of the equalization system in Canada, we cannot allow this to happen. It is in that spirit that I ask the government to pay special attention to the recommendations made by the provincial representatives on the panel.
I also think it is important in debating this bill that the House not lose sight of the continuing fiscal imbalance in our federation. The purpose of equalization is to ensure comparable services across the country. In Bill C-24, by ensuring stable and predictable funding, the government has at the very least signalled that it realizes that a system which encourages strong, self-sustaining provinces is the best way to ensure high quality and comparable services.
However it is important to remember that until the government recognizes the fiscal imbalance between the provinces and the federal government, it will always use equalization to hold provinces hostage and penalize them for developing strong economies.
Instead of giving more power to provincial governments, ceding more tax room to provincial governments and encouraging every province to continue to build high quality services, the federal government attempts to move into provincial jurisdiction and duplicate federal programs. We saw this last September with health care. We saw the minister's failed attempt at a child care deal this past weekend. It has been an ongoing problem on the Kyoto file. And I am sure we will see something like this in his cities file as well. Of course, the finance subcommittee on the fiscal imbalance will examine the fiscal imbalance and its related issues. However it is important that we keep this in mind over the next year as the panel of experts does its work.
The main point though that I would like to make in my address today is the one concerning natural resources. It is quite an important point and one that has caused great activity among the provinces over the past week. In my comments on this bill at second reading , I mentioned our disappointment with the fact that the contentious question related to natural resources was not solved in this bill, and instead was pushed off to a panel of experts. I also noted that this question would have to be resolved, especially given the Prime Minister's inept handling of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia question. In fact, I said that any deal with Newfoundland or Nova Scotia would lead to calls from other jurisdictions for a similar arrangement, and today, while the Prime Minister signs deals with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, this prediction has come true.
I would like to spend some time on this subject because it really speaks to the inconsistency of the Prime Minister's position, as well as his neglects of the very issue at the heart of Premier Williams' anger with him, and that is the right of any province to have full ownership over its natural resources. Provinces should be able to develop and enjoy the profits of these resources without the threat of federal penalty, and they should not have to negotiate this right from any federal government, and any province means any province.
No sooner than a week after the offshore deals with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were finally struck, the Saskatchewan minister of finance asked for a similar arrangement for Saskatchewan's natural resources, which include oil, gas, potash, uranium, diamonds and others. Premier Calvert has asked only that should Saskatchewan again fall below the equalization standard, that the government stop clawing back the province's non-renewable natural resource revenue. This seems reasonable, especially given the arrangement that has been made with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Saskatchewan is quite a special case because it is now considered, via the equalization formula, to be a contributing province despite the fact that by any measures it faces significantly more difficult challenges than some of those provinces that are still beneficiaries under equalization.
As the member for Prince Albert has so astutely pointed out, Saskatchewan faces several challenges, including out-migration, a declining tax base, lower than average per capita income, longer than average wait time for MRIs and other concerns, yet because of natural resource development it turns out that Saskatchewan is considered a have province, but this does not seem to add up.
Yet when the member for Prince Albert asked the Minister of Finance why we still have an equalization formula that obviously needs to be fixed or why Saskatchewan is being penalized for developing its natural resource sector, the Minister of Finance responded that the current system is already more than fair to Saskatchewan. Again, this does not add up.
British Columbia has also signalled that it too would like to ensure that it receives fair treatment for its natural resources. British Columbia may one day develop the natural resources that lie offshore in the Pacific Ocean. Both the federal and provincial government know that there is a great deal of wealth off the coast of British Columbia and the province would like to have the opportunity to develop those resources without a federal clawback.
New Brunswick has also said that it would like to see a special arrangement made with respect to its natural resources. New Brunswick has a mining industry and would like to keep 100% of the revenue from those resources.
Ontario, on the other hand, is upset by the Prime Minister's signing ceremony today. Ontario sees the side deals for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as unfair and is wondering about other side deals that might be signed by the government.
In response to Ontario's concern, the Prime Minister has said that Canadian is a wide and diverse country and that deals need to be struck to ensure all regions have the opportunity to succeed. We could not agree more. My question, however, is: Are these deals going to be struck under a consistent argument based on logic or are they one-off arrangements made out of political expediency?
For the Prime Minister, expedience carries the day. The problem, of course, is that the Prime Minister found himself down in the polls and he needed to find a way to boost his support in the east. Therefore he thought he would make the same promise that the Leader of the Opposition made.
However, whereas the promise made by our leader was one that he had consistently made and one that he had thought about within the entire range of equalization policy, the promise made by the Prime Minister was hasty and stood in direct contrast to his record on the subject.
The Prime Minister has spent the last 12 years coming up with every excuse possible to not allow Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to keep 100% of the profits from its offshore oil and gas industry. The Prime Minister has also done everything in his power to ensure that natural resource revenues remain within the equalization formulation. While we disagreed with his position, we could at least say that he was consistent.
That being said, when he made the promise to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, he broke his consistency. He should not be surprised that provinces and territories now want him to be fully consistent on this point; that is, they would like him to fully embrace the policy of the Conservative Party of Canada. We cannot have one without the other. The Prime Minister cannot give a side deal to two provinces and not expect other provinces to want to benefit on equal terms. It is, after all, called equalization.
Our party does not have the difficulty that the Prime Minister does. We have always believed in giving Newfoundland and Nova Scotia the benefit of a deal that ensures that they have 100% of their resources , with no federal clawback. We think a deal like that would be good for the local economies of those two provinces. We think that by allowing those provinces to keep resource revenues they would have a fighting chance to develop their resource bases further.
We also think, however, that it should not just be Newfoundland and Nova Scotia that benefit from such an arrangement. Every province and territory ought to have the ability to develop its own natural resources and to keep the profits from those resources.
Of course the answer to all of these concerns is to wait for the expert panel to report. I guess that is what we will have to do.
However somebody should at least advise the finance minister that his Prime Minister has stirred up a political problem and has left him holding the bag. This is a political problem borne out of an inconsistent and not very well thought out position. Instead of developing a plan that would solve this problem up front, the Prime Minister has now shuffled it off his plate, much to the dissatisfaction of Canada's premiers. Either he still has not understood the inconsistency of his position or he realizes what he has done and is trying to find someone else to carry the file forward from here.
In any case, it is clear that natural resource revenues are the major issue for equalization. The right thing for the Prime Minister to do would be to follow the Conservative lead and take non-renewable natural resources out of the equalization formula altogether.
I should also say that it is not just the provinces that are watching to see what the government will be doing with regard to natural resources. We also know that Canada's northern territories are watching this file closely. Territorial formula financing is different than equalization in that there are added components to ensure that the north can provide comparable services despite the fact that it has a small population base spread out over large territories of land.
This legislation is, in the short term, a positive development for the territories in that it would provide stable and predictable funding.
However the legislation itself does not have a wider or a longer view with regard to natural resource revenue sharing or territorial devolution. Of course much of this is found within the northern strategy. However it seems important to me that we start to develop the fiscal framework of devolution immediately.
Given the Prime Minister's musings on territories becoming provinces, one would think there would be something in place in this bill to help all the territories get there.
The file is most urgent for the Northwest Territories, which has an abundance of oil, gas and diamonds that are exported around the world but Yukon and Nunavut are developing natural resource bases as well.
With an appropriate resource revenue sharing agreement in place, there is no question that the Northwest Territories could be a have jurisdiction. This is Premier Handley's point, which is why he has asked for a similar deal to the one that Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are receiving.
The oil and gas fields in the Northwest Territories are rich in potential. Diamond mining is a $3 billion per year industry in the Northwest Territories. The territorial government sees exactly zero dollars from either of these industries.
Nunavut and Yukon would also like to reach self-reliance through resource revenue sharing and strategic economic development, and these territories have both the resources and the capacity to become have jurisdictions over time as well.
In Nunavut, natural resource development is still in its formative stages. One of the challenges that Nunavut faces is that there is not an accurate assessment of the true abundance of Nunavut's resources. The knowledge is there, however, that mineral deposits exist in places like the Jericho diamond mine. The government needs to develop its physical capital as well as its human capital in order to get those minerals out of the ground.
However, as both the Government of Nunavut and the Conference Board of Canada have suggested, the key to this development is ensuring that the people of Nunavut have greater control over the resources and greater self-reliance in the future.
It is becoming clear that when companies find the way to efficiently harvest the natural resources of the north that the north will contain Canada's next resource based economic boom. It is just a matter of getting from point A to point B. However the problem, as it relates to Bill C-24, is that with regard to territorial formula financing the federal government has not made the commitment that is necessary for northern development.
Territorial transfers are based upon an abstract formula that takes into account revenue raising capacity and the capacity gap that exists between provinces and territories. The formula falls short, however, because it fails to address the real needs of the north. The current formula does not take into account the fact that due to its remoteness the costs of energy, construction, transportation and infrastructure, all the things that are staples of government activity and that are necessary for harvesting natural resources, are significantly higher in northern Canada than in the provinces.
In Bill C-24 there is no commitment toward the development of a formula that results in adequate fiscal capacity for the territories reflecting the real costs that face Canada's northern territories.
When we take equalization and territorial formula financing together, with one the government penalizes those provinces that attempt to generate revenue from their natural resource base, and with the other, the government is not taking the necessary steps to ensure revenue sharing and an even larger northern resource development sector.
The system needs to be changed to fairly address the natural resource issue, and my feeling is that this change could be done right now. It does not require a year of study. It is already apparent that this has become a political issue for Canada's provinces, territories and the federal government. For every year of delay, that is more provincial money going into federal coffers and less toward provincial economies.
It is quite ironic that we are debating third reading of Bill C-24 today. For the benefit of the House, it might be helpful to recap the Prime Minister's path to this legislation.
The bill is a result of a federal-provincial agreement that was struck in late October 2004. By looking at Bill C-24, one would think that conference had been a roaring success. However it was at the equalization summit that Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams walked out because he was tired of the Prime Minister attempting to control the natural resources of his province. Premier Williams was tired of having to negotiate a deal out of the Prime Minister just to get the Prime Minister to keep his promise. Today the Prime Minister is signing an agreement that he should have signed on June 29 because that is when this party would have signed the agreement.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, our party supports the bill but the House should not forget about the things that are not in the bill. Bill C-24 would set into motion an entire process of review and it is in that review and a subsequent federal-provincial-territorial meeting that the Prime Minister's handling of the resource revenue issue will come to light once again. My hope is that in the meantime the government will not jeopardize the intent and the spirit of the equalization program.