Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on the third reading of Bill C-24, An Act to impose a charge on the export of certain softwood lumber products.
The Bloc Québécois members for Joliette and Sherbrooke have worked on the various committees, and their work has finally led to third reading of this bill in the House. Amendments have been made by the various parties. We, of course, made the decision to support this agreement, unlike the NDP members, whom I respect very much.
Why did we decide to support this agreement? The member for Burnaby—New Westminster has often asked us the question. We always give him more or less the same answer. We analyzed the agreement and consulted our companies and our unions. They too analyzed this agreement, but this long-lasting dispute has had a very big impact on employment in our softwood lumber industry. Caught in a bind, our companies and our unions recommended that the Bloc Québécois approve the agreement.
The Bloc Québécois is a party very close to its base, which is made up of workers, unions, associations and industries. In short it is very close to the people and it defends Quebeckers’ interests. So in the end it made the commitment to these economic stakeholders to support this agreement. These include the Québec Forest Industry Council and the various unions, led by the FTQ.
Of course, with regard to the comments by the Conservative Party—which I will return to a little later— that we will recover $4 billion under this agreement, we must not forget that we nevertheless have lost $1 billion. The member for Burnaby—New Westminster is right to say this. This is not a new additional amount of money for the Canadian softwood lumber industry, but money recovered by our industries, which had paid it in countervailing duties. Actually the industry is getting back part of this money, the $4 billion.
This third reading will bring to a close this long legislative process respecting the softwood lumber agreement. The Standing Committee on International Trade began its study of this agreement last May. The committee held numerous meetings to discuss the agreement, which was signed about July 1 by the Conservative government and the Bush administration. I was in Geneva when this agreement was very hastily signed, thus somewhat surprising all members of the House of Commons.
Finally last September 20, the government introduced Bill C-24. Its purpose is to implement the softwood lumber agreement. In addition to determining the procedures for the repayment of the countervailing and anti-dumping duties to the companies, the bill establishes a system for returning the billion dollars to Washington that the Quebec and Canadian companies have to leave on the table and it authorizes the return of the export charges to the provinces. So we get $4 billion but are leaving $1 billion on the table.
Finally, the legislation determines the barriers that will regulate the softwood lumber trade between Canada and the United States, that is to say, the control system that sets up an export charge and export permits.
It is very strange to see that this control system takes the form of amendments to the Export and Import Permits Act. This act is generally used to control trade in arms and dangerous materials or to limit trade with certain countries under economic or military sanctions. In the current case, though, it is Canadian producers who are hit by the restrictions in the act.
Finally, the agreement provides for a complex combination of export charges and quotas. They are very complex. It took us many hours to understand all the issues. After a careful examination, the government of the Quebec nation—the Government of Quebec—chose option B. The Quebec nation was actually recognized in the House because our hon. colleagues voted in favour of the Conservative motion. As we know and as I discussed with a certain colleague here, they did not vote in favour of the Bloc motion. Still, we are now a nation.
I realize that the export quota procedures are not determined by the act but rather by regulation. However, some questions remain. The Quebec industry is concerned, and rightly so, that the agreement provides for the quotas to be attributed on a monthly basis and that the possibilities of exceeding the monthly quota, in case of a major delivery, are so limited that companies might not be able to honour their contracts or even reach their full annual quota.
Prior to this agreement, there was a quarterly quota, but now it is monthly. Insofar as the regulations are concerned, the Bloc Québécois still thinks that the agreements with the companies are very important in order to enable them to reach at least their possible softwood exports.
It is important to remember that the construction industry is cyclical and that lumber deliveries are therefore likely to vary a great deal from one month to the next. This issue remains unresolved. Let us hope that, within the binational panel, the federal government will try to address the Quebec industry's concerns and relax the monthly export caps. Quebec has high expectations about this.
On April 27, 2006, the Conservative government and the Bush administration announced that they had reached an agreement to settle the softwood lumber dispute. The text of the agreement, which the two countries completed on July 1, 2006 and finally signed on September 12, gave rise to Bill C-24.
It is important to give a bit of background here. Although we had been selling softwood lumber to the United States for decades, major disputes arose in the lumber trade in the 1980s, as the American softwood lumber lobby became increasingly intransigent. In May 2003, at the conclusion of an investigation that international tribunals would subsequently invalidate, the American government accused Canadian producers of receiving subsidies and engaging in dumping.
However, it is important to point out that throughout the dispute, the tribunals ruled overwhelmingly against the United States. Washington was never able to prove that American companies were being harmed. All the companies that went before the tribunals received no support from either the Liberal government at the time or the Conservative government.
As for the American claims that Canadian lumber was subsidized, there again, a NAFTA tribunal handed down a clear ruling that that was not the case.
Throughout this lengthy dispute before the courts, the Bloc Québécois has, since May 2002, repeatedly called for an assistance plan including loan guarantees. How many times did we ask the Liberals at the time, in this House, to support the softwood lumber industry? We asked for loan guarantees for companies, but we received no reply. The government did not support the industry, and companies were left on their own to face the huge American lobby.
We did not help our businesses during this dispute. We are supporting this bill against our better judgment, because we have no choice. The present softwood lumber agreement would not exist if our governments had stepped up to the plate and at least listened to what the Bloc Québécois was proposing for supporting the industry. No. The Liberals and the Conservatives turned a deaf ear, and so today we are losing $1 billion under this bill.
When the Liberals were in power they consistently refused to establish this assistance plan. But since they have been in opposition, they have, curiously, changed their minds. It is hard to understand, but the Liberals are saying something completely different. Today they think that the proposals that the Bloc Québécois made for the first time in 2002 are now necessary. This is hard to grasp and understand. They turned a deaf ear for years, both in relation to the program for older worker assistance—which I will come back to a little later in this speech—and in relation to the assistance plan for the industry, regarding loan guarantees for companies.
Unfortunately for the Quebec and Canadian forestry industries, the federal government’s decision not to take concrete measures to ensure better financial health for our forestry industry will be damaging for them—for the industries in Quebec and the industries in western Canada alike, in British Columbia for example, as my friend from the NDP was saying.
Today, the Liberals must bear a large share of the responsibility and acknowledge that they have caused irreparable harm. The Conservative Party has signed an agreement that we support because there was no support in the first place.
When the Conservative Party was campaigning, it will be recalled, it offered Quebec loan guarantees for companies. And then when it came to power, it did the same thing as the Liberals: it offered no support for those companies. It simply signed an agreement.
Allow me to quote a passage from the Conservative Party platform on this point. I do not know whether my Conservative colleagues remember their election platform, but we on the Bloc Québécois benches paid attention to it.
That platform says: “Provide real help for Canadian workers and businesses coping with illegal American trade actions”.
That is what their election platform said. They presented that to Quebeckers. I repeat: “Provide real help for Canadian workers and businesses coping with illegal American trade actions”.
Power does make people corrupt or blind, it has to be said. I do not really know what to say about this, because the softwood lumber agreement does not really reflect the political direction that was announced to Quebeckers regarding the softwood lumber agreement as we saw it in the election platform.
As I said, the Conservatives wanted to support the industry by giving loan guarantees, but they did not do that; no sooner was the government elected than the promise was forgotten. Quebeckers will remember.
I have said on several occasions that the attitude of the Liberal and Conservative governments left a bad taste in the mouths of some representatives of the forestry industry and forestry workers.
Scarce financial resources, abandonment of the industry by the Liberals and Conservatives, not forgetting the intransigent attitude taken by the Conservative minority government in refusing to listen to and support the interests of our industry when it called for changes to the agreement—all these factors certainly contributed to weakening the industry and ultimately forcing it to accept this agreement.
We accept this agreement because we have no choice. The government has put a gun to our head. Thousands of jobs are being lost. People are at the end of their rope. There is no more money. Companies are closing. The government is not giving us what we need, despite enormous surpluses here in Ottawa. It is not listening to businesses. Businesses are telling us that under the circumstances, they have no choice but to support the agreement.
The Bloc Québécois supports this agreement reluctantly. We are supporting it because, as I have told my committee colleagues many times, Quebec's forest industry and Quebec's worker representatives have asked us to. They have studied the agreement thoroughly. These are lawyers, manufacturers and people working in this sector. Their jobs are at stake. Their export needs are high and they need to start producing more softwood lumber so they can export it. Thousands of jobs depend on that. These people have concluded that it is important for us to support this agreement, and that is why we are supporting it.
Nevertheless, we continue to believe that, since the beginning of the conflict, there should have been a plan in place to help the industry. The Conservative government is wrong in thinking that this agreement will solve all of Quebec and Canada's forest industry problems. Because both the Liberals and the Conservatives failed to support the forest industry, it has been crippled by the softwood lumber dispute. It is now facing an unprecedented structural crisis. A number of Quebec forest industry stakeholders have stated that the government cannot claim that this agreement solves everything. They say the Conservatives are now responsible for taking concrete action to help the industry through this major crisis.
I would like our Conservative colleagues in this House to listen to what we are saying. This agreement will not solve all of our problems, so we are asking for an assistance plan to complement it. The forest industry is in big trouble and needs an assistance plan. We have already lost 7,000 jobs in Quebec. Closures announced by Abitibi Consolidated are just the latest in a string of similar announcements over the past few months.
According to the Quebec Forest Industry Council, no less than 7,000 jobs, as I mentioned, have been temporarily or permanently lost in Quebec since April 2005. That is a significant number. Many jobs have been lost due to this government's failure to act. I would even say that, because Quebec still remains within this federation, we cannot master all our economic development levers. Quebec could have supported the industry on its own, but we are still within this federation. We are still here today, asking for this government's support, which unfortunately, we have not yet been able to obtain for the Quebec forest industry.
The Bloc Québécois is calling for an assistance package that includes an income support program—the infamous POWA—for older workers who lost their jobs because of mass layoffs in this sector, as well as a number of initiatives to help businesses become more competitive by updating their equipment or venturing into secondary or tertiary processing activities. The package includes measures such as faster amortization on production equipment, diversification of lumber markets and special tax treatment for the $4.3 billion in countervailing and antidumping duties that will be paid back.
Since the very beginning of the dispute, the Bloc Québécois has been proposing concrete measures to help workers and businesses in the softwood lumber sector.
Now that the bill has support, and if it is passed by the House, we hope that the Conservative Party will propose a plan—