Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in this debate. It will allow us to clarify a number of things being spread around by the Conservatives and the other opposition parties about the position taken by the Bloc Québécois.
First, when the Bloc Québécois was created to represent Quebeckers in this House, it remedied a deficit, the democratic deficit that meant that the 45 to 50% of Quebeckers who had chosen the option of sovereignty for Quebec, who believed that they had no future in the Canadian federal system, were not represented in the House of Commons. This was an extremely significant crack in the democratic system. That is the primary source of our legitimacy. Anyone who does not recognize this is opposed to democracy and has no respect for the 50% of Quebeckers whose choice is sovereignty for Quebec.
The second source of our legitimacy is the fact that we are the voice of Quebeckers in this House. We are the only ones who have the independence that is needed so as not to compromise our principles as all the other parties have to do, setting aside the interests of Quebec, of Quebeckers, often to please lobby groups, and in particular those from Western Canada.
I believe that these two factors are a sufficient and complete explanation for the legitimacy of our presence here. Anyone who questions this might really wonder about what their democratic vision of a country like Canada is based on.
In 1993, we made a breakthrough on that democratic deficit when we came here to Parliament, for what is hoped will be as short a time as possible. Yesterday, we made a partial breakthrough on the fiscal imbalance by making a number of gains that—and we must be very clear on this point—are insufficient, but are nonetheless significant enough that the Bloc Québécois is comfortable in supporting this budget.
There is nothing new in this, and it has nothing to do with the present state of affairs. Our position has nothing to do with the election in Quebec or the fact that a federal election is imminent. Even though the Prime Minister is going around saying that he does not want an election, he is still trying to provoke the opposition into bringing him down.
We are ready for a campaign. Everyone knows that in Quebec, our party is the one that is ahead in the polls. Our party is ready to go into an election. We have done this based on our game plan, which has been common knowledge for a year.
In the last federal budget, my colleague at the time, Yvan Loubier, who was the Bloc critic, explained it clearly. We supported the budget in 2006-2007 because it contained a promise to resolve the fiscal imbalance in the present budget. Since then, we have made known exactly what our expectations are. They relate to three things. Unfortunately, our first concern has been addressed only partially.
First, federal transfers to the provinces have to be restored to the level they were before the Liberal cuts in 1994-95 and 1995-96. Yesterday, a step was taken toward this goal, but it is still not enough. Everyone has seen how the university and college community reacted, from the presidents of universities to university and college professors and student associations. Transfers for post-secondary education and social programs have not provided the money that everyone was expecting, including the provincial governments. On this point, there is a weakness that will have to be corrected and that will be corrected, because the Bloc Québécois will continue to dog the Conservative government's heels to have transfers for post-secondary education and social programs restored to 1994-95 levels, which will take $5 billion more for Canada as a whole and $1.2 billion for Quebec. What has been announced is barely a few hundred million dollars, and that is quite simply not enough.
This is our first concern. The second deals with the power to limit and eliminate spending power in provincial jurisdictions, particularly in Quebec.
In the budget it was merely given lip service.
I would like to read, on page 141, where it says, “Budget 2007 reconfirms the Government’s commitment to limit the use of the federal spending power to—” But no provisions were made. Will this be a law? As Mr. Dumont asked, will the Constitution be reviewed to eliminate this interpretation that the federal government has spending power in provincial and Quebec jurisdictions? In 2006, we had exactly the same sentence. We got absolutely nowhere on that issue. It is just lip service. But that is not a problem, the Bloc Québécois will use this to force the government, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to introduce legislation so that provinces that do not want the federal government encroaching on their jurisdictions can opt out with no conditions and with full compensation. This is what managing and limiting federal spending power really is. This is what the Séguin commission asked for, it is what the governments of Quebec have asked for, and it is what the Parti Québécois government will ask for as of March 26.
This is why we are prepared to support the budget, as I mentioned. We will continue to strive to settle this issue once and for all, but we must also have a partner that can stand up in Quebec City and who is capable of making his demands known clearly. Yesterday we saw the reaction of the three party leaders. Only one of them said what was actually one of the solutions to the fiscal imbalance, and that is to limit and restrict the federal government’s power to spend in the provinces’ jurisdiction. It was Mr. Boisclair, the leader of the Parti Québécois, who said that.
We want to continue the fight on the fiscal imbalance but we need a strong ally in the Government of Quebec. So we hope that on March 26, the Parti Québécois can take up the torch of Quebec’s traditional demands concerning the restriction and limitation—and elimination in a way—of the federal government’s power to encroach on the provinces’ areas of jurisdiction. I reiterate this because we know what the solution is; it is simple. All it takes is the possibility to opt out unconditionally, with full compensation, of a federal initiative in areas of provincial jurisdiction. This is our second concern. As may be seen, we once again get just two lines, as in the previous budget.
The third issue unfortunately is completely missing from the budget. Members must bear in mind that that was not a gift we got yesterday. It is our money which is finally coming back to Quebec, money that the Liberal government had unfairly used for other purposes—and my colleague from Chambly—Borduas mentioned it—in particular to pay down the debt when there are plenty of other concerns and priorities in Quebec and Canada. This is the fact that it is not at all logical for Quebeckers to pay taxes to Ottawa that are then transferred back so that Quebec can assume its constitutional responsibilities in health, education, post-secondary education and social programs.
We believe it would be logical—and I think that anyone with a bit of common sense and no particular biases, a federalist bias, will understand this matter of federal visibility in Quebec and in the provinces—that the part that corresponds to the transfers for health, post-secondary education and social programs should be returned to the provinces and to Quebec in the form of tax points. For example, transfer of the GST to Quebec was the suggestion made by the Séguin Commission. This would be simple to do because the Quebec revenue ministry already administers the goods and services tax as it does the Quebec sales tax. This should be transferred to ensure that Quebec now has the autonomy, the partial independence necessary to assume it own responsibilities in its own areas of jurisdiction without fearing that, as in 1993-94 or in 1995-96, a government, whether Liberal, Conservative or—why not dream—New Democratic, will decide to cut these transfers unilaterally and thus cause huge problems. You know how all the Canadian provinces are experiencing financial problems and have trouble balancing their budgets.
When I see them saying in the document, for example, that the provinces, overall, had a surplus of X, you realize that about 80% of that surplus comes from Alberta. That is distorting the reality of the situation. In fact, when Quebec does manage to balance its budget, it is often because it has been forced to sell some assets. Mr. Audet was forced to sell $800 million of assets last year to balance his finances. He is already forecasting a shortfall of $900 million in his financial framework for next year. We believe that Quebec must have its own revenue sources that are controlled by the National Assembly, and that are not subject to the sword of Damocles, which is the unilateral desire of the federal government to do whatever it wants, in the belief that it knows better than others what they need.
We had another example. One might have said that it was under the centralizing Liberals, and so forth. But no, when the Conservatives took office, what did they do? They tore up the agreement on child care. That deprives Quebec of $270 million as of this year. That is the reality of the situation. Once again, we are talking about an area of jurisdiction that belongs to Quebec.
The fight that we want to lead seeks not only to limit the spending power of the federal government; not merely to ensure that transfers are restored to the levels they were before the Liberal cuts—with indexation, obviously—but also to ensure that, within its jurisdiction, Quebec and the National Assembly can make decisions on spending, without having to account to anyone but the citizens of Quebec. As I have said, we will continue the fight.
As we heard this afternoon, the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Finance believe that it is a done deal. Well, it is far from it. Those who think it is a done deal are completely disconnected from reality. In any event, in my opinion, the Conservatives are disconnected from Quebec. They use a certain surface polish to try to show that we are a little different from the others; but when you scratch that surface, you realize that it is the same centralizing federal government. Red or blue, the national parties in Ottawa are all centralizing. When you read the budget carefully, it is full of intrusions into Quebec’s areas of jurisdiction. One need only consider the Canadian Securities Commission. There will be a major constitutional problem if the federal government wants to proceed. That is very clearly spelled out in the Canadian Constitution.
Those who think that it is over are mistaken. In fact, no one in Quebec said that it was over. Everyone may have said that the step is more or less of interest. However, no one asked the Bloc Québécois to vote against this budget: not the three leaders of the political parties who are in the midst of a provincial election, not the leaders of the labour unions, not the business associations or even the student associations. The latter could have said to the Bloc Québécois that there is almost nothing for post-secondary education and that the members should vote against it. They understood that there was something in the increased transfers for students. No one has asked us to vote against the budget. Yet no one believes that it is over and that the fiscal imbalance has been resolved and is a closed issue. Far from it. We will continue the battle. Quebeckers do not believe that the Prime Minister has kept the promise he made in the 2006 election.
Today, one step has been taken. It is a small step, but a step nonetheless. We must now continue forward. As I mentioned, in the coming months the government must make a commitment to increase transfers for health, post-secondary education and social programs. Not only do we need an increase in transfer payments but we also need a piece of legislation, a law, that will provide a framework for the federal government's spending authority. The government will also have to prove that it is willing to negotiate with the provinces—Quebec in particular—to transfer the tax room that corresponds to federal transfer payments for health, education and social solidarity.
For the time being, this small step is sufficiently valuable for the Bloc Québécois to feel comfortable in supporting the budget. However, we must realize that not only is it not over but that it is the beginning of a process initiated by the sovereignists. It is important to remember this. Personally, I had never before heard Mr. Dumont speak of the fiscal imbalance. Yesterday was the first time. However, it is true that Mr. Charest has pressured the federal government to resolve the fiscal imbalance.
While he did not use the expression "fiscal imbalance", Mr. Bouchard had also started talking about the problems caused by the unilateral cuts in transfers from the federal government to Quebec. However, it must be recalled that it was the Parti Québécois government of Bernard Landry that created the Séguin Commission, and that that commission achieved consensus in Quebec. I point this out because we are going to be hammering that theme. The Séguin Commission recommended three things: bringing transfers from the federal government back up to the level of before the cuts, taking inflation into account; circumscribing the federal government's spending power; and negotiating the transfer of tax room so that the Government of Quebec would have the independent revenues that it needs in order to meet its own responsibilities.
So it was Mr. Landry who took that initiative, and it was the Parti Québécois that took up the battle. Obviously, it was the battle of all Quebeckers, and all parties in Quebec clearly understood this, and there was one unanimous motion after another in the National Assembly demanding that the federal government respond to Quebec's expectations. Yesterday, we got a first step toward a response. However, and I repeat, I can assure you that no one in Quebec thinks that this case is closed.
If the Conservatives think that, they will have a serious surprise in the next election. I can assure you of that.
I would perhaps like to conclude my presentation by pointing out that we are not at all satisfied when it comes to equalization payments. Certainly, for this year, the figures are attractive. We are talking about $1.6 billion. That is not everything that Quebec had called for, however.
I remind members that Quebec had called for calculation of equalization payments to be based on the 10 provinces—which we have achieved—and on 100% of renewable resources. I do not understand why the federal government, with its new structure, with a two-tier equalization system, two choices, two options, has not given the provinces that want it the option to get amounts based on 10 provinces and 100% of revenue from the provinces, including non-renewable resources. That did not take anything away from Saskatchewan, Alberta or Newfoundland and Labrador, but it allowed Quebec to get its true share of equalization payments. Remember that equalization is not paid by Albertans or Ontarians, but by Canadians and Quebeckers. It is not a gift from the West. It is simply the concrete expression of what is written in the Canadian constitution.
You know that the spirit of equalization was distorted by the Liberals, but it is there in the Canadian Constitution. This is not something the evil sovereignists made up. It is a decision that was made by Canadians and Quebeckers in order to ensure, throughout the Canadian political federation, that for an equal tax burden, the revenue is equivalent.
That also needs work. There needs to be an equalization formula that not only takes into account the 10 provinces, but also 100% of revenues, including non-renewable natural resources. That is the work that lies ahead of us.
As I said in the beginning, a year ago we announced that our decision on whether or not to support the Conservative budget would depend on the response, or the beginning of the response, to the fiscal imbalance problem. Yesterday, as I was saying, we were able to announce our support for the budget because of that very aspect.
However, it is clear that a number of issues were forgotten in this budget and the Conservative government will also have to answer for that in an election campaign. There is a lack of assistance programs for older workers. We do not need a whole new series of studies, as the Minister of Labour was saying. I believe the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities has done a number of studies on this issue. There was even a motion passed unanimously in this House before the last election. We now have to take action. We are talking about a program that costs practically nothing, between $75 million and $100 million. When we consider that the federal government's income exceeds $230 billion, this is a drop in the bucket and yet necessary for decreasing the economic insecurity that a number of regions in Quebec are experiencing.
Take, for example, my own region. In my riding, in northern Lanaudière, there is a municipality called Saint-Michel-des-Saints. At one time, there were two big Louisiana-Pacific plants there, a sawmill and a waferboard plant. Louisiana-Pacific closed these two plants for reasons related to economic conditions, namely, the slowdown in residential construction in the United States. The unemployment rate in that municipality and the neighbouring municipality of Saint-Zénon is around 40% to 50%. Those people will be collecting the last of their benefits in August. If the Bloc's bill had been passed, they would have been able to collect for at least five more weeks.
Many of those workers are over 55. Their only option now, because there is no other employer, is to leave the region. This exodus of older workers, on the heels of the youth exodus, will happen because they will be forced to go somewhere else to try to earn a pittance. We could easily enable them to exit the labour market in a dignified manner with a certain degree of financial security that would allow them to stay in their communities. With just a little money, we could keep all of these communities alive. This is about dignity, a concept that has been thrown out the window.
There is nothing here about social housing. Many of the programs cut during the $1 billion round of cuts have not been revived or have been revived in a way we consider unacceptable.
So there is a lot of work to do, and I hope nobody gets the wrong idea about the Bloc's support.
The Bloc's support will be limited, based on what we announced a year ago—and therefore no surprise—and based on what we read in the budget concerning transfers to Quebec for next year.
As I said earlier, much remains to be done. The fiscal imbalance issue is not resolved. I would like the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to know that it is not over. This is just the beginning.