Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter that remains extremely contentious about the budget that has yet to be voted on and which presumably will be voted on within a short period of time.
It would not surprise anybody that I am rising on my feet to take this opportunity yet again to express the strongest possible feelings about the betrayal so far, and I underline so far, of the government in the current budget. This is about the promise made in the Atlantic accord which is most important and most advantageous to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and of Nova Scotia. However, it is not missed on all Atlantic Canadians that the impact would affect the whole Atlantic region. The impact of this broken promise, of even the threat of the government cancelling the deal that was sealed in the Atlantic accord, is one that would be felt negatively if the government persists in cancelling the deal, or positively if the Atlantic accord is respected and upheld by the federal government. It is something that would impact on the whole of the Atlantic region.
One might ask why I would raise this yet again today. I have raised it again and again. The other New Democratic Party members from Atlantic Canada have raised it again and again. My leader has done so. A great many people who are in the public domain but not necessarily as partisan as we are have spoken out on the subject and have been of one view, which is that a very definite commitment was made in that accord in 2005. No matter how many different constructions the Prime Minister, the finance minister and the ACOA minister, the so-called political minister for Nova Scotia, put on it, it is actually, by the provisions in this budget, a deal that is broken, period, full stop.
The reason I rise on it again today is, as I have said every other time, it is never too late to fix something that every indication simply reinforces is something that has to be fixed. It has to be fixed because it is immensely important to the people of Atlantic Canada. I think there is some indication that Conservatives are beginning to understand that it needs to be fixed as well. It is seen as an astounding breach of faith, an obscene breaking of a promise that was in black and white, that was sealed in a deal, for which the government can offer no excuse or no acceptable explanation.
One dramatic moment in this saga was the decision of the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley to actually incur the wrath of his party to kick him out for indicating that he would be voting against the budget in its final form unless it fully honoured the Atlantic accord.
I see this as a moment of opportunity, another dramatic moment in this saga. I want to stand in my place and unreservedly thank the Premier of Nova Scotia for coming off the fence. I do not want to say that in a pejorative sense but rather to acknowledge that he made a decision. Holding his nose, he made it clear that he was very unhappy with what this budget did to Nova Scotia and to Atlantic Canada. I do not think any of us could totally fault him for saying that he was going to continue to try from the inside, in the back rooms, in the wheeling and dealing and negotiating back and forth between the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and the premier, as well as their senior officials, to see that it is fixed. The premier also signalled, and I noted it here in the House, that he would be making a very different decision if he reached the point that he felt that there was no good faith, that there was no real attempt taking place to move toward a satisfactory resolution of this broken deal. That moment has clearly arrived.
We have made repeated attempts to say to the premier that we want to work across party lines to fix this broken promise. We have pleaded with Nova Scotia politicians of all political stripes to work across jurisdictions to fix this. I respect the fact that Premier MacDonald has now reached the point where he has felt compelled, and I am sure he did not arrive at this lightly, to publicly announce there is no movement or no resolution in sight. The moment has arrived where he recognizes that giving leadership to the people of Nova Scotia, in the tradition of his predecessor, former premier John Hamm, requires and demands he stand up, be counted and make it clear that he is pressing for every Conservative member in the House, representing a constituency in Nova Scotia, to vote against the budget unless it can be fixed.
My plea, once again, to the government and my words to the members on all sides are these. By working together, we can fix this, and it is in everybody's interests to fix this. This is one of those episodes. Some people may say that it is only Atlantic Canada, that they are four provinces, but they do not make up a huge population. They may say that they do not have as many people in all Atlantic Canada, despite the four provinces, as there are in the province of Quebec, or Ontario, or Alberta, or British Columbia. That is true, but we live in a federation. We have four provinces on the Atlantic side of the country that are very upset about this broken promise.
Some of us have hurled some harsh words to say that we understand what is going on. First, we understand that the Prime Minister made a very definite commitment, and he is breaking it with this budget. We understand that the Minister of Finance is aware of that. He is from Ontario. We also understand that there has been a cynical, crass decision made that there are more votes to be courted, as we say in Atlantic Canada, more fish to be fried, by going after the more prosperous and populous provinces where there are more votes. Therefore, the decision was made to throw the Atlantic provinces overboard.
However, that is not good for the federation and it is not good for what plagues this land today, and that is a lot of disillusionment and cynicism about politicians and governments breaking their promises. This is one reason so much appreciation and respect has been expressed, within my own province but across the country, for the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley. He knew he would incur the wrath of his party by standing tall, standing firm, and if necessary, putting himself in that position. Even though he was told he would not be thrown out, within moments of standing up and being counted in the House last week, he was informed by his whip that he was out on his ear. I watched it happen behind the curtain.
The issue is, what needs to happen to fix this? As the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley has said so many times, it is quite simple. Just honour the deal. What is the problem? It is a legal deal. It is a negotiated agreement that has the effect of law, unless the government brings in this final budget measure, which tears it up and throws it away.
As Darrell Dexter, the official opposition leader in Nova Scotia, has again and again proposed that all of us need to pull together, all parties, all elected members, provincially and federally, to say that we stand in unison and in solidarity for the future of Atlantic Canada. To do that, we need to stand together and insist this deal be honoured.
The premier today indicated that he read the statement of the finance minister, which made it perfectly clear that the government was not working to fix it, despite a lot of talk by Conservative members of Parliament from Atlantic Canada, especially by the Nova Scotia Conservatives, who could not bring themselves to stand together with the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley.
Everyone was working hard to fix it, but what kept coming back from the Minister of Finance, the Prime Minister and the officials was there was nothing wrong with what was happening. They have said that the deal is fully honoured by the budget, even though it is perfectly obvious that is not the case. On that side, it really seemed to be a case of one hand clapping.
Now the jig is up and the truth is out. I suppose I should applaud the fact the Minister of Finance saw fit to tell the truth and acknowledge that, as far as he was concerned, for the sake of a few votes, he would not honour this deal. If we turn that around and look at the other side of that coin, what he is really saying is there are more votes to be had in other parts of Canada by throwing this deal overboard.
He wrote an op ed article, and applaud the fact that he actually told the truth. There is no interest and no indication that the government is serious about fixing the deal. In fact, the it does not even consider it a broken deal.
In part, here is what he said in his op ed article, which is a direct quote:
Our government is not in the process of making any side deals for a few extra votes. You cannot run a country on side deals. Equalization has been restored to a principles-based program for the first time in many years. That’s what all premiers asked us to do and that’s what all Canadians expect us to do.
The problem with that is a new equalization formula was brought in and in defiance of the Atlantic accord, the decision was made to bring that after the fact equalization deal down hard on the Atlantic accord, tear it apart and toss it aside.
It is true that the equalization formula is immensely complex and it hard for Canadians to fully understand. Let us be honest, it is hard for every member of Parliament to have a full grasp of all the complexities of that formula. However, what is absolutely clear is the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and the Nova Scotia Conservative members and all Conservative members in Atlantic Canada, except the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, hope the complexities of the equalization formula are such that Atlantic Canadians, and all Canadians, can be bamboozled into thinking that there is not a problem with the Atlantic accord being tossed overboard. The real problem is that we do not understand the equalization deal.
I think people understand the fundamental principles of the equalization deal. I think they also, with no difficulty whatsoever, can understand what is wrong with this picture. In the process of bringing in an equalization formula in the budget, on which we are about to vote, the government has decided to violate clause 4, which says that notwithstanding any new equalization formulas, the Atlantic accord shall be honoured.
One thing is for sure, no Canadian anywhere, with any sense of fairness, cannot understand what it means to decide to scrap the whole deal, in defiance of clause 4, and clawback funds that it was promised would not happen. Some will say, “There go the four Atlantic premiers, what's their problem”. Let me remind the House that it is not only Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador that have a problem with the budget and with the broken deals.
I will quote directly from an article that appeared this morning in CanWest News Service, which leads me to believe it probably landed in a lot of places across the country. The Premier of Saskatchewan has equally and eloquently argued the case for his province and his constituents province-wide. The premier said that he received a letter from the Prime Minister saying “there will be no more side deals”. Referring to the Minister of Finance's weekend letter saying there would be no deal with Nova Scotia, he said “It's becoming like Alice in Wonderland. It gets curiouser and curiouser”.
The reality is a similar deal was made, a promise was made, on the eve of an election. At the time, a lot of us thought, perhaps a bit cynically, that there was probably not much of a guarantee that the government would honour the deal. However, the government made the commitment in the light of day and in black and white. It is absolutely understandable that the people of Saskatchewan and the premier and the government of Saskatchewan are equally outraged that the Conservative government has ignored the commitment made with respect to the treatment of the revenues from Saskatchewan's resources as well.
What is not understandable is the fact that Conservative members in the House, knowing what the negative impact both economically and politically would be, could entertain the possibility of supporting the budget. This is causing a lot of anguish on the part of a lot of people not just from Atlantic Canada or Saskatchewan, but in all parts of the country. Further than entertaining the possibility of supporting this budget, Conservative members have made it quite clear they have no intentions of standing against the budget. At the end of the day, this causes a serious problem. This feeds into the sense of disillusionment that people feel. It is hard to perhaps imagine the degree of fury, the sense of wrath, being expressed in Atlantic Canada.
I do not think polling is a good basis for making public policy. However, I do think that when a dramatic number of people say they are outraged at what the federal government has done in the budget with respect to the Atlantic accord and promises made to the people of Saskatchewan, that it behooves the government of the day to consider this. All those people cannot be imagining that this is a grievance.
People are surprisingly forgiving, and I say that as a member of a party, which at the federal level, has never made huge breakthroughs. Sometimes it is disappointing that people are so forgiving of governments that break their promises. Again and again this has come up for mention in this debate over the last many months. It is amazing how people are sometimes prepared to be fairly forgiving and how that is sometimes detrimental to other political parties or politicians trying to earn people's confidence and their support and hopefully retain it.
This is very pertinent to the debate today. The last time the Liberal government, in a major shift of policies and with an absolutely devastating budget affecting Atlantic Canada, turned its back on Nova Scotia, the 11 Liberals representing Nova Scotia's interests in the House of Commons were defeated in the 1997 election. None of the members were prepared to stand up against a very harsh, punitive budget. I would have hoped people would have a bit longer memory and not opened the door for some of those very same members to come back in, but that is the democratic process and I accept this.
In wrapping up let me again appeal, through the premier of Nova Scotia, to all politicians of all stripes, provincial and federal, to stand together to get this job done.
What is the job? It is to fix the budget by honouring this simple, straightforward agreement, the Atlantic accord, and honouring the commitment made to the people of Saskatchewan, though not identical but along the same lines. Let us be able at the end of the day to say that Atlantic Canadians and the people of Saskatchewan are not second class citizens, and that this is a government that honours its commitments.