Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-39 because it shows the true nature of this Parliament. It is unfortunate, but despite the fact we have a minority Liberal government, the Liberals, as you know, have not lost any of the arrogance that has been their trademark for 9 or 10 years, under Mr. Chrétien and the new Prime Minister.
We saw this arrogance when we found out that Bill C-39 was not consistent with the special agreement signed with Quebec at the conference on health. As a matter of fact, Bill C-39 contained only one mention of a specific agreement with Quebec, in clause 25.9. Also, Quebec was not specifically excluded from other requirements in the bill, like the Canadian Institute for Health Information or the dedicated funds. Bill C-39 showed once more this arrogance of downplaying the importance of a specific agreement with Quebec. The agreement was quite clear. I will have the opportunity to deal with this later on.
I mentioned at the start that Bill C-39 shows the true nature of this Parliament because the Liberals, even though they are a minority government, seem unable to suppress this arrogance towards Quebec and this Parliament. Fortunately, the Bloc Québécois and its members in this House immediately sounded the alarm and sent a clear message to the government and the whole Parliament that the bill was not consistent with the intent and the letter of the special agreement with Quebec. Thanks to this intervention, especially by the member for Verchères—Les Patriotes, the Bloc Québécois critic for intergovernmental affairs, and despite the reluctance of the government, we were able to pass an amendment, and Bill C-39 is now consistent with the intent and the letter of the agreement. We think the bill is now quite acceptable and we will support it.
Just imagine what would have happened had the Bloc Québécois not been here. Bill C-39 would probably have been passed unchanged, and Quebec would have been penalized. This goes to show how important it is to have members who stand for Quebec's interests first and promote an exciting collective project--the sovereignty of Quebec.
I mentioned that it cannot be by chance that the government brought forward the original draft of Bill C-39 without taking into account the specific agreement with Quebec, because that agreement was very clear. For the benefit of people watching us, I would like to cite it. In the specific agreement with Quebec, there was a very clear written statement:
--resting on asymmetrical federalism, that is, flexible federalism that notably allows for the existence of specific agreements and arrangements adapted to Quebec's specificity--
Quebec will apply its own wait time reduction plan, in accordance with the objectives, standards and criteria established by the relevant Quebec authorities--
The Government of Quebec will report to Quebeckers--
It could therefore not be any clearer than what I have just read. However, the Government of Quebec, even though it is led by federalists, knowing the reflexes of the federal government, particularly when Liberals are in power, even had the following disclaimer added at the end of the communiqué, to ensure that there would be no confusion possible, and I quote:
Nothing in this communiqué shall be construed as derogating from Quebec's jurisdiction. This communiqué shall be interpreted as fully respecting its jurisdiction.
Members will understand that we were quite surprised to see that, in the original draft of Bill C-39, there were not more references to the clause 25.9 in terms of that specific agreement. Let us recall that, when that specific agreement was signed, for a few days, people believed there really was a new approach on the part of the federal government, which the Bloc Québécois leader, like MNA Louise Harel, had called asymmetrical encroachment.
The federal government was therefore agreeing, in this specific agreement, to respect Quebec's jurisdiction over health issues, as set out in the Canadian Constitution. It was however an innovative approach. In the recent years especially, with the fiscal imbalance and the Liberal government's tendency to impose a federal presence in all areas of Quebec's and the other provinces' jurisdiction, particularly if there was some sort of visibility or political points involved, this asymmetry in terms of intrusion seemed to be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this respect of Quebec's jurisdictions lasted only a few days. Nothing new there. As I was saying, the defence of the 1867 Constitution caused an outcry in Canada. The member for Verchères—Les-Patriotes was talking about that. The former finance minister, Mr. Manley, condemned that. All the dyed in the wool Trudeau supporters told English Canada that the direction we were taking posed a threat to Canada's unity. Since then, we have seen no new asymmetrical intrusion initiatives since the one made at the health conference.
Moreover, a few weeks later, during the funding conference, the federal government unilaterally decided to restrict the conference to the issue of equalization. It announced the amounts available, right at the start, saying that the formula that had been unilaterally imposed before the latest elections would continue to be used. It dealt with none of the provincial concerns, particularly those of Quebec.
When we saw the first draft of Bill C-39, which did not take into account the distinct nature of the agreement entered into at the health conference, the member for Verchères—Les-Patriotes asked a question on February 10, 2005, of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health in order to alert the Minister of Health to the fact that there was no explicit reference to the specific agreement with Quebec, except, once again, section 25.9, which was clearly inadequate.
The parliamentary secretary answered that the member's concerns were not justified. We were heading toward a dead end. You will recall that, at second reading, we had opposed Bill C-39. Given the inadequate reference to the specific agreement with Quebec, we could not have supported it.
The Bloc Québécois proposed amendments to Bill C-39, in line with the accord signed in September. First, we reincorporated in the bill the fact that the funding made available by the Government of Canada will be used by the Government of Quebec to implement its own plan for the renewal of Quebec's health care system.
Those who have been following the politics of Quebec for the past few years, know that there have been many studies to reform the health care system, just as in a number of Canadian provinces. First, there was the Rochon Commission, then the Clair Commission. The reforms are now well underway. The so-called expertise of the federal government in this domain is not needed at all. It manages only a few veterans hospitals, which are constantly being criticized.
Second, in our approach regarding the amendments to Bill C-39, we made sure that the Government of Quebec would be accountable to the population of Quebec. We excluded any hierarchical relationship where the federal government thinks that it is supposed to decide on the validity of the actions of the Government of Quebec. The Government of Quebec is accountable to the nation of Quebec, to the people of Quebec only. When elections take place, Quebeckers express their view of government management of health care and many other things.
So our second concern was about the Government of Quebec informing its own population of the progress achieved in the pursuit of its goals.
The third aspect is the Health Commissioner of Quebec being responsible for reporting to the Government of Quebec on Quebec's health system. The Canadian Institute for Health Information should not, therefore, be informing the public on advances by the Government of Quebec, the health department and the other players in the health care system, with respect to the concerns of the public and issues such as the modernization of our health system. These issues must take a number of challenges into account, in particular the challenge of demography, which, as you know, is linked to the aging of our population.
There obviously will be cooperation with Canadian Institute for Health Information. Though it was never a problem, it should have been made clear that Quebec's Health Commissioner was responsible for reporting to the Government of Quebec and, through it, to the public on the state of health care.
This amendment we moved was adopted by the committee. As I mentioned, the original version was unacceptable, but we will support the amended version of Bill C-39.
I mentioned that the concept of asymmetrical federalism, which is in fact asymmetrical interference, was very short lived. To prove it, I point out that on October 26 of last year, at the conference on the provinces' financial situation, which covered more than just health, which had been the only subject of conference in September, Ottawa decided unilaterally that equalization would be the only item on the agenda. The federal government said right at the start what amounts would be available and announced that not one cent more would be added to equalization and that the formula used in its calculation would remain unchanged. I remind you that the formula had been imposed unilaterally by the federal government a few months before the last elections. Moreover, the Prime Minister refused once again to admit that there was a fiscal imbalance and spoke only of fiscal pressure on the provinces knowing full well that the situation is a lot worse.
I repeat that that asymmetrical interference or asymmetrical federalism, as they called it, did not last long. We saw it during today's question period. There is still no agreement on parental leave despite an agreement in principle signed before the elections. There is still a gap of about $200 million between the positions of the federal and Quebec governments. Here again, we can see the federal government's hard line attitude common in its relations with Quebec.
So the problems go well beyond the area of health. Let me give you another, more regional, example. As you know, there is a crisis in the tobacco industry. It is a totally understandable crisis considering anti-tobacco campaigns. Being a non-smoker, I support those campaigns. But the fact is that there was a sharp decline in demand for tobacco. Moreover, the three major tobacco companies decided to stop buying tobacco in Quebec to concentrate their purchases in Ontario.
The region that I represent, namely Joliette and Lanaudière, was home to virtually all tobacco farmers. Out of the 57 who were in business three years ago, fewer than a dozen continue to produce a small amount of tobacco, trying, naturally, to diversify their operations, production and crops, and only three intend to continue growing tobacco to meet the demand of independent manufacturers like Lépine cigarettes and other manufacturers operating in first nations reserves.
This is therefore an emergency. Tobacco farmers need assistance to switch from one type of crop to another, such as Chinese cabbage or kiwi; anything that can grow in sandy soil ought to be considered. Anyway, these growers need assistance.
Like parental leave, this assistance was announced a few days before the election. Electoral democracy is good after all. A few days before the election, approximately $70 million in assistance was announced. That was many months ago, yet we are still waiting for the terms and conditions of this aid package for tobacco farmers in Quebec and Ontario to be defined.
It would appear, and this is more serious, that assistance for the 57 tobacco farmers in Quebec, 95% of whom are in the Lanaudière region, is being blocked by a dispute between Ontario farmers and the provincial government of Ontario.
I find it completely absurd that producers in Quebec are being taken hostage in a situation that is totally out of their control. Naturally, for the federal government—and that is what we were told by the parliamentary secretary in response to a question I put to him last week—the same solution has to apply to producers both in Ontario and in Quebec. Consequently, until an agreement has been reached with Ontario farmers, no money will be made available to the farmers in Quebec.
Their situation is totally different, though. These farmers in Quebec have already stopped growing tobacco or started efforts to quickly switch crop production. To conclude this brief aside, I want to emphasize that the funding problems facing these tobacco farmers is largely due to the fact that tobacco companies have forced them to replace their dryers just two years before they decided to stop buying any tobacco in Quebec.
They need help for converting their land because switching from tobacco to asparagus does not just happen in one season. Often it takes five years before production becomes efficient. They are also burdened by debt, which they are unable to amortize with financial institutions in the region.
As I was saying, this asymmetrical approach was nothing more than a virtual approach, which did not even last long enough for the ink to dry on the separate health agreement. The government no longer mentions this approach. Again, refusing to acknowledge the fiscal imbalance makes it impossible to find a definitive comprehensive solution to the funding problem. This is so for Quebec, but also, unfortunately, for many other provinces. However, the federal government has been much quicker and much more generous with provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador and others over the past few weeks, while Quebec has to continue to struggle.
As I was saying, the agreement on health does not solve the fiscal imbalance problem. It is like taking an aspirin to try to get rid of cancer. I will give some figures, although the hon. member for Verchères—Les Patriotes already gave some earlier. Nonetheless, if I have time, I would like to go into more detail.
The specific agreement on health provides Quebec with approximately $502 million more this year, out of a budget of $20 billion. Consequently, this fresh federal input represents only 2.5% of the Quebec budget, or about 9 days of operation. That is just for health, so what they have done is the equivalent of helping Quebec meet its health care responsibilities for the equivalent of nine days.
The federal government boasts that it is getting close to the 25% target the Romanow report recommended for health and social funding. When we look at all social spending, that is education, social assistance, the areas covered by the Canada social transfer, which is now, as we know, divided into a transfer for health and one for social programs, it is obviously far from that 25% figure. Especially because, as far as equalization payments are concerned, the results have not been what might had been expected, that is, a new formula that is fairer, more stable and more generous to the provinces needing these federal transfers.
In fact, after the October conference on the provinces' financial difficulties, which eventually shrank to nothing more than a conference on equalization, Quebec will end up with a mere $300 million more in equalization payments.
Overall, in its “generosity”, this government will have transferred $800 million more to Quebec this year, whereas the shortfall—according to the Government of Quebec, or its finance department—is in the order of $3.3 billion. As a result, the shortfall for Quebec, as far as fiscal imbalance is concerned, is still $2.4 billion.
We must therefore hope that the federal government, with its fabulous surplus of $9 billion last year—this year, some $11 billion or $12 billion—will, in the budget to be tabled and debated starting next Wednesday, get its act together and find some definitive solutions by transferring the $2.4 billion Quebec still lacks to resolve the extremely serious problem of fiscal imbalance.