Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in debate on the budget implementation bill, Bill C-52. As you know, from the moment the Minister of Finance delivered his budget speech, the Bloc Québécois has supported this budget, even though it is not perfect. This has to be made very clear. It does, however, have enough good stuff in it for us to be comfortable voting for it and, consequently, voting for Bill C-52.
Obviously, in the budget implementation bill, not all budget items are implemented. But the bill does contain items such as measures concerning corporate and personal income tax, fiscal arrangements with the provinces, particularly with respect to equalization, the Canada social transfer, and the Canada health transfer. This budget implementation bill also deals with trusts and new funds, the amount of such trusts, and direct payments to the provinces, territories and other entities. It also provides the legislative framework for using money saved in debt service from paying down the debt to lower taxes, and it contains a number of other measures I do not intend to get into in any great detail, except perhaps for one, and I will start with that one.
As I was saying, this bill has many items, some more interesting than others. I will primarily focus on the measures affecting fiscal arrangements with provinces and environmental issues.
Moreover, I want to start by bringing up an extremely sensitive point concerning income trusts. Obviously, the Bloc Québécois has supported the principle of preventing corporations from converting into income trusts as of the Minister of Finance's announcement on October 31, for a number of reasons based on various factors. Tax leakage was obviously brought up. While the committee was working on this issue, I realized that there were some revenue losses because of income trusts, but the department was unable to pinpoint to what extent. We were given an absolutely unbelievable figure, which included tax deferrals, since some shares in trusts are in registered retirement savings plans. This represented at least half of the figure presented, and, though I will not go as far as to call it dishonest, I think this method was completely biased.
There was tax leakage for the federal government and the Government of Quebec, but certainly not to the extent that the minister was talking about. Moreover, Minister Audet, who, up until the last election, was the Quebec finance minister—we will soon know who will replace him since, as you probably know, he decided not to run again—told me that the Government of Quebec was currently losing approximately $40 million a year because of income trusts. This is rather far from the figure provided by the Minister of Finance, which was in the billions of dollars over the next few years.
I believe that the government decided to put the brakes on income trust conversions primarily because they would have put pressure on a number of businesses. Take BCE, which did not necessarily want to convert to an income trust but was under pressure because a competitor, Telus, had announced that it intended to do so. It was therefore conceivable that in the future, some immature sectors needing investment would convert to income trusts, thereby causing problems for all of Canada and Quebec. I find this argument more convincing than the tax evasion argument.
Moreover, as I said, on October 31 we were in favour of no longer allowing corporations to convert to income trusts. However, that did not address the problem of existing income trusts. We would have been comfortable with changes to existing trusts that had taken advantage of the established rules for years. The Prime Minister's announcement during the election campaign that the rules were set in stone was irresponsible. It is clear that he promised not to change the rules for income trusts. He broke his promise, but as I said, it was an irresponsible promise anyway. I explained why a few minutes ago.
Nonetheless, the people who invested in existing income trusts did so in good faith, thinking they could trust the Prime Minister, who, as I said, promised not to touch income trusts.
We studied ways to minimize the impact on existing trusts. We would have been comfortable with keeping the 250 or so existing trusts and preventing more from being created. We could have agreed to that.
The government, however, decided to force them to convert back to corporations within four years or to pay the equivalent of the taxes paid by people who invest in regular stocks—which is not entirely true, as the committee found during its work.
As I said, the government decided to allow just four years for the transition. We think the government could easily have extended that period to eight or ten years to mitigate the impact of the October 31 announcement.
As I mentioned earlier, we are going to support the budget. However, when election time comes, the government, that is the Conservative Party, will have to explain to us why it did not heed the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Finance. The Liberals, like the Bloc Québécois, gave suggestions for minimizing the negative impact on the 2.5 million Canadians, including Quebeckers, who invested in good faith in these income trusts and who have since been swindled, despite the Prime Minister's promise during the election campaign.
These 2.5 million Canadians, including many Quebeckers, are not all millionaires or wealthy people. Many of them are even retired individuals who are now having a hard time making ends meet, because they have had a good portion of their income cut off. I understand why they are angry. The Standing Committee on Finance, the Bloc Québécois and the Liberal Party have made suggestions to the Minister of Finance. He did not consider those suggestions. Thus, it is up to the Conservatives, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to explain, in an election campaign, why they did not consider the suggestions made to them, for example, by the Bloc Québécois.
That said, as I mentioned, we agreed with the approach in principle. We believe that the Conservative government, the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister failed to show compassion for hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of people who invested in good faith in income trusts.
I therefore wanted to send out this caveat—or update—because, clearly, many people who followed the work of the Standing Committee on Finance concerning income trusts are having a hard time understanding that, even though we disagree with how this measure is being implemented, we are nevertheless going to vote in favour of the budget.
We are going to support the budget because—as I have said many times—it represents a significant, yet largely insufficient, step towards correcting the fiscal imbalance. We are talking about money that Quebec desperately needs.
As we all know, the Prime Minister promised on December 19, 2005, to correct the fiscal imbalance. Thus, the Bloc Québécois supported the previous budget primarily, although not exclusively, because it promised to correct the fiscal imbalance in this budget.
The Bloc Québécois looked at what an appropriate solution would mean for Quebec and made a certain number of conditions. They may not have been met in their entirety but some have been partly met by this budget. In any event, the conditions have been met to the extent that the Bloc Québécois feels it can support Bill C-52 at this stage. However, this is not an indication of what will happen in future, especially when the next budget is tabled. If no other significant steps are taken towards the definitive resolution of the fiscal imbalance, we reserve judgment on future budgets.
I would like to say one thing. What was extremely important to the Bloc Québécois was that there first be an increase in transfers to Quebec and a change in the equalization formula to take some of Quebec's claims into account. When the amounts were announced, the financial imbalance caused by the Liberal government, the former Prime Minister and the former Minister of Finance in 1994-95 and 1995-96—when draconian cuts were made to provincial transfers to deal with the deficit—had to be corrected. At that time, the problem was simply dumped on the provinces.
What is very serious is that, beginning in 1997-98, large surpluses were routinely recorded and the situation was not resolved. The imbalance has yet to be corrected.
We calculated that $3.9 billion was needed to correct the fiscal imbalance. Because we are realistic, understanding and moderate in our approach, we proposed that this amount be disbursed over three years. Therefore, in this year's budget, there is the equivalent of an additional $1.7 million in equalization payments, the Canada social transfer and the Canada health transfer.
Unfortunately, I must subtract $270 million from this amount because the Conservative government unilaterally tore up the child care agreements it had with the provinces. Therefore, this year there is an additional $1.723 billion for Quebec, which is not bad in view of the fact that two years ago the Government of Quebec had to sell $800 million of its own assets in order to balance its budget. This money was needed.
For the next year, according to the 2007-08 budget, the government is already announcing an additional increase of $888 million and of $330 million for 2008-09. I know that this is very far from now, but this wish has been expressed and put down on paper. This comes to a total of $2.9 billion, or almost $3 billion. Adding a number of other things, we reach $3.3 billion, which is not far from the financial target of $3.9 billion that we had established.
This is a financial adjustment. The former Liberal prime minister said that the provinces were under financial pressure and this would have to be corrected at some point. That had never been done systematically. Some money was put into health and some into infrastructure programs, but, as a whole, the government had no approach and was unable to put a figure on the adjustment that had to be made to reach a fiscal balance.
However, the current Prime Minister promised us to redress the fiscal imbalance, not the financial imbalance. Now, all he has done is partially redressing the financial imbalance. As I was mentioning, the increases that would be necessary to correct the situation that was created in the middle of the 1990s were estimated at $3.9 billion in the third year, and he is at $3.3 billion. Let us say that, in the next few years, we force him to put in a little more, if we are all still here, of course. As we know, this Conservative government is in a minority position, and I hope it will keep that in mind.
So, we are currently at $3.3 billion. A little extra effort will be necessary to get closer to $4 billion. Still, that does not correct the fiscal imbalance because, as indicated by the word fiscal, this is a fiscal matter, something having to do with the level of fiscal autonomy that can be achieved by the provinces and Quebec. This means that the tax base will have to be renegotiated. But there is no indication in Bill C-52, or in the budget for that matter, that the federal government is prepared to open negotiations with the provinces to transfer the part of the tax base corresponding to the transfers for health, education and social programs. It makes absolutely no sense for Quebeckers to send money to Ottawa and then be forced to grovel on their knees to try and get their tax money back for programs that fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces, Quebec in this instance. We are talking about health, post-secondary education and social solidarity.
It is another ball game where equalization is concerned, because equalization is entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. As long as we are a part of Canada, the Constitution should continue to apply to us. Incidentally, I often like to joke about the Bloc Québécois being the only party in this House that really cares about enforcing the Constitution of 1867 and respecting the areas of responsibility of the provinces and the central government, which is much more than a federal government. That is what we will be working on in the coming months. My colleague from Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, who will be taking over as our finance critic, will therefore bring pressure to bear so that negotiations are opened with respect to transferring to those provinces that so desire the part of the tax base corresponding to the transfers for health, post-secondary education and social programs. Quebec so desires, and the Séguin commission was very clear in that regard.
As I have already mentioned, equalization will continue to be implemented. This program is not only enshrined in the Constitution, but it is a program that transfers revenues with no strings attached for the Government of Quebec to use as it sees fit, which is not the case with dedicated transfers. This is the first thing that is missing from Bill C-52 that we are working on.
The second thing is federal spending power. The government has not been silent about this, but it talks about it in a roundabout way and it simply pays lip service. The federal government and the Conservative Party are committed to limiting spending power. We do not want to limit it; we want it to be controlled. We are waiting for a very clear bill from the Minister of Finance to explain how he intends to control the federal government's power to spend in the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces. How can federal spending power be controlled in Quebec's jurisdictions? There is just one way: by giving the provinces who so desire the unconditional right to opt out with full financial compensation of a program implemented by the federal government in a shared jurisdiction or an exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces; and the province should be compensated.
Unfortunately, that is not exactly where things are headed. I will read a number of paragraphs from the 2007 Budget Plan for budget 2007-08. For example, I will read from page 120. In the objectives stated by the government, by the Minister of Finance, for renewing and strengthening the Canada Social Transfer, they talk about jurisdictions belonging to Quebec and the provinces. Among the concerns are: “The accountability and transparency of the CST—”.
As far as the accountability of the Canada Social Transfer is concerned, what are the Conservatives talking about? The provinces and Quebec are accountable to the federal government when it transfers their money to them.
We are far from the true approach to controlling or even limiting the federal government's spending power. The following sentence is smooth, “—Canadians are not informed of how much federal support is being provided to each of the three priority areas that the CST supports (post-secondary education, social assistance and social services, and support for children)”.
Not only does the Conservative government not have any intention of limiting or controlling the spending power, but it also wants to ensure that federal support—which is essentially the taxes of all Canadians and Quebeckers—will be more visible in the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces. It has absolutely no responsibility in this jurisdiction.
However, because of the fiscal imbalance, the federal government has more money than responsibilities. It is looking for responsibilities and is finding them in provincial areas of jurisdiction. So it adds money. Otherwise, what would it do with that money? It could lower taxes and transfer that money in the form of a tax base to the provinces that want it, as I already mentioned. It could also do useful things in its own jurisdiction. For example, what about the RCMP detachments that were closed? The Conservative Party promised to reopen RCMP detachments that had been closed, as was done in the Lanaudière region, where the Saint-Charles-Borromée detachment was closed. What about employment insurance, which falls under federal jurisdiction? It could at least ensure that the program meets the objectives for which it was created.
As we can see, it is a small step that is significant enough for us to be comfortable supporting Bill C-52, but not enough to talk about correcting the fiscal imbalance. I am sure that Quebeckers understand this very well. I am also sure that they will send back a majority of Bloc members to the House after the next election, to truly defend them. They will force the government—Liberal or Conservative—to genuinely correct the fiscal imbalance. The government cannot just go part way, as it is doing now, when it comes to restoring federal government transfers in areas of provincial jurisdiction.