Mr. Speaker, it is a very great pleasure for me to take part in the debate on Bill C-39, to implement the agreement entered into last September between the federal government, Quebec, the nine provinces and the three territories.
It is even more of a pleasure for me to speak today on a bill which, you will recall, the Bloc Québécois opposed at second reading. We did so because of the provisions of the bill at that point. In fact, we pointed out one fundamental flaw at that time, and this was corrected in committee. Consequently, we will be able to support it most enthusiastically today.
I believe it would be a good idea to start with the health agreement entered into between the federal government, Quebec and the provinces and territories. We need to take a few moments in order to have a proper understanding of the nature of Bill C-39.
Obviously, additional funds have been put into the health care system by the federal government, but it must be acknowledged that they are insufficient. I will return to that point later. We must also acknowledge that the federal government has concluded a separate, specific agreement with the Government of Quebec, which stipulated the following, in particular:
—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—
To be certain that there could be no confusion, the communiqué went on to say:
Nothing in this communiqué shall be construed as derogating from Quebec's jurisdiction. This communiqué shall be interpreted as fully respecting its jurisdiction.
So we have to acknowledge that a specific agreement with Quebec was entered into. This was to be described—as it is in the communiqué—as asymmetrical federalism. A few days ago, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs referred to my having praised the health agreement, to having nothing but good to say about it. Let us not get carried away, here. Yes, I did have some good things to say about it, to which I have referred here, but it must also be said—and the minister took care not to—that the agreement suffers from certain shortcomings. We have expressed a number of reservations about it.
For example, reference was made to the so-called asymmetrical federalism. Let us be clear that for the provinces and territories, except Quebec—but a way including Quebec—there is an understanding that the federal government can encroach on a jurisdiction that is exclusive to Quebec and the provinces. We cannot exactly call that asymmetrical federalism. In fact, we should be calling it asymmetrical interference.
The nine provinces and three territories have had no problem recognizing from the outset that the federal government has a role to play and can interfere in their exclusive jurisdictions. In a way, Quebec has recognized that the federal government has a role to play, but that its role needs to be well defined. We could only talk about asymmetrical federalism if the federal government allowed the provinces and territories to encroach on federal jurisdictions. Only then will it be possible to talk about asymmetrical federalism.
Furthermore, this side deal has been presented as quite an extraordinary innovation. Need I remind this House that this side agreement with the Government of Quebec is not a first.
The Government of Quebec has already negotiated side deals and special administrative agreements with the federal government on immigration with the Cullen-Couture agreement, on the pension plan, or on the creation of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, to name a few. This type of negotiation is nothing new in the history of Quebec and Canada.
We also notice that this asymmetrical agreement, described as asymmetrical federalism, has yielded relatively modest results. The Prime Minister had announced with great fanfare that he wanted to resolve the problems in the health care system for a generation. We can conclude at least that the government is apply a band-aid to the problem in health care for the next few years, or maybe even months, but it certainly has not solved anything for a generation.
I want to look at the numbers simply to understand the limits of this agreement reached among the federal government and the provinces, Quebec and the territories. For the Quebec government, this represents $502 million, or 2.5% of a health budget of over $20 billion. In concrete terms, this amount will run the health care system for nine days. Thanks to this injection of federal funds, the so-called health system will be able to operate for nine days. If, to the Prime Minister, these mere nine days constitute resolving health care problems for one generation, this agreement is obviously quite limited.
It is all the more surprising since the federal government has been literally swimming in the surplus for the current fiscal year. In fact, this surplus is said to be close to $12 billion. So, it is hard to understand the government being so tight-fisted when it comes to ensuring that our constituents have access to the reasonably acceptable health care services they deserve.
I want to come back to the concept of so-called “asymmetrical” federalism. It must be concluded that this concept was strongly contested, in short order, within the Liberal Party ranks. The Prime Minister was even criticized in the newspapers by certain Liberal Party luminaries, such as John Manley and Senator Joyal. So he was criticized for apparently having been too generous to Quebec. Too generous. What an idea. The Prime Minister was too generous to Quebec.
However, what happened—as later events attest—is that a few weeks later, there was another federal-provincial conference, which was supposed to focus on the much larger issue of the fiscal imbalance, which some people, on the opposite side of the House, call the “financial pressure” on the provinces, Quebec and the territories.
The federal government, however, had first set the terms, given its habit of being very authoritarian, to ensure that this conference focused only on equalization. The federal government gave only crumbs to the provinces, Quebec and the territories. As a result, the so-called “asymmetrical federalism” proved its flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings just a few hours or days after being celebrated amid great fanfare and praise.
The release regarding the agreement between Quebec and the federal government said that the funding made available by the Government of Quebec would be used by the Government of Quebec to implement its own plan for renewing Quebec's health system.It also said that the Government of Quebec would report to Quebeckers on progress in achieving its objectives.
Moreover, it said that Quebec's health commissioner was responsible for reporting to the Government of Quebec on Quebec's health system and that he would cooperate with the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
The agreement was very clear. But when we saw Bill C-39, to our astonishment and irritation and disappointment as well, I must say, we noticed that the bill made no reference to the side deal with Quebec. To be fair, a very slight reference was made to it on page 4 of the bill, in section 25.9, dealing with parliamentary review, the only reference to this side deal with the Government of Quebec.
Naturally, the Bloc Québécois checked with the government, suggesting that there had probably been an oversight, a little something left out. The government took the matter under advisement and came back with a rather terse response, saying that it would look into it. To make sure that the government would indeed look into it, on February 10, I rose in this House to put a question to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. The answer came from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health.
With the arrogant, condescending and authoritarian attitude this government is known for, the parliamentary secretary rose in this House—of course, whenever remarks are made or an opinion expressed by an opposition member, the people opposite suggest we are not quite with it because, by definition, an opposition member cannot be right. So, the parliamentary secretary rose in the House and said that my concerns were unjustified. According to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, my concerns about the provisions of the side deal with the Government of Quebec not being reflected at all in the bill were totally unjustified.
This is strange. There is a side deal with the Quebec government. The bill makes not mention of it. We are saying there is something wrong, but we are told that there is no reason to be concerned, that there is no problem, and they wonder why I am complaining again! Of course, we pointed out to the government that the parliamentary secretary was probably out to lunch himself, because the bill is indeed totally silent on this side deal with the Quebec government.
So, the necessary adjustments were made in committee, at the request of the Bloc Québécois, which had identified this problem, this flaw. The government agreed to amend the bill and made the necessary adjustments, so that Bill C-39 reflects, in its essence, the agreement reached with the Quebec government, even though we realize that this agreement is not perfect.
Let us be clear here, Nirvana, it is not. We will always agree with the federal government investing more of its huge budget in health, so that our fellow citizens can have access to proper care. We will always agree with that and with the federal government respecting its own Constitution and, consequently, the jurisdictions of the provinces and territories, even though, in this particular case, this respect may be tarnished by ill intentions.
Of course, we agree with this agreement. However, we realize that it is flawed. It is incomplete.
As I said earlier, the money invested by the federal government will only last nine days in the health care system. This is not enough. The need is much greater. The Quebec government was expecting something on the order of $3.3 billion in federal transfers, for 2004-05 alone. However, as we know, the transfers are far below this figure, both under the equalization program and the health care agreement.
The result is that the Quebec government is still confronted with a shortfall of some $2.4 billion. Therefore, the agreement is not adequate. The federal government must further increase its transfers to the provinces, to Quebec and to the territories. Having said that, we are of course pleased, as I mentioned a few moments ago, that there is more money and that the federal government reached a specific agreement with the Quebec government.
However, it is very clear that the fundamental problem has not been fixed. This fundamental problem is the fiscal imbalance that some members across the way continue to call “financial pressures”. The fiscal imbalance problem has not been fixed. We are hoping that the federal government, in the budget that it will bring down next week, will correct a few things and start to redress once and for all this fiscal imbalance where the federal government collects more tax money than it needs to meet its constitutional responsibilities, while the tax base of the provinces is far too small to meet their responsibilities, such as health and education.
We have to correct this fiscal imbalance. The problem will only get worse, the result being, according to the Conference Board, that, by 2015, the federal government will have accumulated a surplus of some $166.2 billion while the provinces will be running deficits as high as $68.7 billion.
That is what the fiscal imbalance is all about. While the federal government shamelessly amasses surpluses, the provinces must scrape the bottom of the barrel or even borrow to discharge the responsibilities that are within their jurisdiction and that address directly the needs of the public in terms of health, education and welfare, for example. This is totally unfair and inequitable. Whatever happens to Bill C-39, which we will support this time, we must fix the problem of fiscal imbalance once and for all.