Mr. Speaker, it is interesting to participate in today's debate on the prebudget consultations. First of all, I would like to thank my colleagues from the Standing Committee on Finance, as well as the entire staff that helped us in our work on this. Naturally, dialogue and debate can be intense, since we all have different opinions. In my case, the hon. members for Jeanne-Le Ber and Saint-Maurice—Champlain support me in my committee work as the Bloc Québécois representative. We try to work as a team as much as possible.
In my first year as finance critic, I addressed the question of budget consultations by first initiating very broad consultations in my riding in August and September 2007. I organized six two-hour public meetings in six different municipalities. I sent a flyer to all households in my riding, urging them to share their opinion with me. We then proceeded with a Quebec-wide consultation.
We tried to respect these recommendations as much as possible in this report. There are some things that were not supported. Nevertheless, there are other things that the committee agreed to include in the report that I think are very important. I hope the government will also accept them.
Let us recall our six budget priorities.
First, we wanted an aid package to support workers and businesses affected by the manufacturing and forestry crisis—a package worth more than the $1 billion announced, which is clearly not enough.
We also wanted measures to give seniors back their dignity. These measures would make the guaranteed income supplement retroactive and increase it, which would allow seniors at least to live at the poverty line.
We also wanted the reinstatement of education and social transfers to 1994–95 levels. Financially, that is where the fiscal imbalance continues to hurt: the problem has not been resolved at all.
We wanted increased funding for social housing and a reversal of the ideological cuts made by the Conservative government, particularly with regard to women's groups.
We also wanted to see increased funding for culture. We recommended about $400 million.
We wanted to see a 180-degree turn on the environment, where we really need an approach tied to energy savings and sustainable development. This remains an important objective.
I will now examine each of these objectives. One of the Bloc Québécois' recommendations found in the report was to provide $1 billion for just the forestry sector and not for both the forestry and manufacturing sectors. This week, as we had requested, the government agreed to provide that amount without tying it to the budget. It finally accepted our position. It did an about-face and that is just as well because the money will be available more quickly.
However, we were looking for $1 billion for the forestry sector alone. We wanted the government to allocate $1.5 billion in reimbursable contributions to allow companies to purchase new equipment. That was also accepted by the committee.
Next, we wanted to move up to 2008 the transfer of 5¢ of the gasoline tax to municipalities, rather than waiting until 2010 as planned by the government. The objective is to stimulate the economy in this period of economic slowdown where we can sense that the Americans are on the verge of a recession and the Canadian economy is attempting to avoid it. However, it is uncertain whether we will do so given the strong pull of the United States, particularly in the construction sector, which has a significant impact on our manufacturing and forestry industries.
The majority of the committee recommended injecting $3.5 billion in economic renewal. That is what we called on the federal government to do last fall and to use this year's surplus to do so. The Conservative members from Quebec said that made no sense and that the Bloc Québécois was being irresponsible.
The Bloc Québécois was being irresponsible? Now they should say that the Standing Committee on Finance is being irresponsible, since it is recommending exactly the same thing. The members from Quebec need to understand that and what better way than to join the Standing Committee on Finance. It would be interesting to see them there and to see whether they have anything interesting to say. The Standing Committee on Finance has accepted a constructive Bloc Québécois proposal.
What is more, the committee is recommending creating an independent employment insurance fund and to implement an older worker adjustment program. We will have to make sure that it is indeed an income security program when the government implements it. Let us not forget that today's debate is on the prebudget consultations of the Standing Committee on Finance. The government's position may differ. We still need to get the government to make commitments in the budget. However, having the majority of the Standing Committee on Finance recommend a Bloc proposal is already a big step.
I hope the government will follow through on this report. We would like to see it move forward.
We find it regrettable, however, that the committee rejected the Bloc Québécois proposal to use the surplus from the independent fund to enhance the system. We know that our seasonal workers are currently subject to four or five pilot projects under a section of the Employment Insurance Act. These projects are still not enshrined in the legislation and they expire after six months or two years. They constantly have to be renewed, which is very complicated and causes insecurity among our seasonal workers and our seasonal industries. We wanted to see this situation corrected immediately, but it is not in the report and we will continue to fight for it. Although the Committee supported the Bloc Québécois’ demand to create an independent Employment Insurance fund to end government pillaging, it refused to enhance the program, as I have just explained.
They also refused to put $500 million back into Technology Partnerships Canada, telling us that after that program was eliminated, money was injected into the aeronautics industry. That is fine, but there are industries other than aeronautics that also benefited from that program. For example, in my riding, there is a company that has, on three occasions, received substantial amounts of money that it used to create hundreds of jobs.
Technology Partnerships Canada was condemned by the Conservatives. There may have been a few small problems, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater. It was a worthwhile program, and it would be appropriate to use it during these times when companies must innovate and invest in research and development and our regions must be strengthened. It is a useful and effective tool. It would have been appropriate to continue making it available, but it was not approved by a majority of the committee. The Bloc is not satisfied. We express our displeasure and will continue to fight for this.
There is another very important recommendation by the Bloc in the report. It relates to retroactive payment of the guaranteed income supplement, in an amount estimated at $3 billion. At present, in the legislation, when someone becomes eligible for the guaranteed income supplement and realizes that he or she should have been receiving it in the past, the person is given a maximum of 11 months of retroactive payments. Often, however, these are older people who have very little income and who should have been eligible for it for three, four or six years.
The typical case is usually someone whose spouse handled the money and who has been widowed and did not start the process to get the payments. Guaranteed income supplement payments did not start automatically and people had to take some action in order to get it. It was determined that over 200,000 Canadians and 70,000 Quebeckers were in this situation. Marcel Gagnon, a Bloc MP, led a campaign that resulted in some of those people being identified. But the government still refused to make payments retroactive. The Standing Committee on Finance has now agreed to act on that recommendation. We hope that the government will adopt it .
Along the same line, we would have thought that the committee would agree to recommend that the government increase GIS benefits to reach the poverty line. The committee is preventing the most vulnerable members of our society from getting out of poverty. The guaranteed income supplement is about $110 a month below what is needed for a senior citizen to have the bare necessities. In our budget consultations, we realized that this is an important issue.
Throughout eastern Quebec, in regional county municipalities where there are the most senior citizens receiving the guaranteed income supplement, that is, in the poorest regional municipalities, only 79% of those people are receiving it. Even in the wealthier regional municipalities, only 52% of senior citizens are receiving it. That means that a lot of people need that income. They cannot make ends meet and so they need support. We would have liked the committee to go that far, but it did not. We will continue to fight for this.
Ultimately, I hope that the government will fix this situation completely by giving retroactive payments, as the committee recommended, and by providing the maximum that people are entitled to in order to provide them with this minimum of financial security.
When it comes to the fiscal imbalance and funding for post-secondary education, the Bloc Québécois hit a wall. None of the other parties thought that funding for post-secondary education should be restored to the 1994-95 levels. That was about $3.5 billion for all of Canada and a bit more than $800 million for Quebec.
We say now in our society that we should invest in innovation, that people should be able to go to school, and that our universities should contribute to research and development. But our universities say they are underfunded. This government measure could have been very helpful. If the federal government is going to claim that its approach is different from that of the former Liberal government, it should follow through and completely eliminate the fiscal imbalance. But it will not do that. The federal government simply will not provide adequate funding for post-secondary education.
So there is a major omission here. This was one of the Bloc’s main conditions and it still seems very pertinent to us. We hope that the current requests from all the universities in Quebec and in Canada, and from the industrial sector as well will bear fruit. Indirectly, adequate funding for our universities helps with the development of new products. This can be done under the heading of business assistance according to our international agreements and is something that is needed.
I want to turn now to another of the Bloc’s priorities: social housing. At our initiative, the Standing Committee on Finance recommended that the government use the surplus that Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is running to invest in social housing. CMHC has a huge surplus of about a billion dollars. The committee did not put an exact figure on it, but we wanted $1 billion a year to be invested in social housing out of the CMHC surplus in order to create decent, affordable housing and increase the supply.
If we made this investment, we would be killing two birds with one stone, or even three. We would increase the amount of social housing available, we would help cushion the economic slowdown by boosting construction, and we would reduce such phenomena as homelessness. All in all, we would make a major contribution to the fight against poverty. In our view, the Standing Committee on Finance was headed in the right direction in this regard and $1 billion is about the right amount.
We were unable in committee, however, to reverse the ideologically motivated cuts to the court challenges program and Status of Women Canada. These cuts are widely condemned by women and progressive people all across Canada.
There is still a lot of work to be done. Groups must be provided with the tools they need. When confronting the machinery of government, it is very difficult to move a case through the system without the kind of funding and support provided by tools like the court challenges program. These are not huge sums of money, but the tool should be reinstated. The Conservatives should do what they did with the income trust issue: recognize that they made a bad call, change their minds and go back to their previous position so that we can get this program back.
Another of the six conditions is funding for cultural activities. We are very disappointed that not one initiative to provide funding to cultural activities was included in the prebudget consultation report even though we know that a dollar invested in the cultural sector will provide one of the best possible returns because more jobs are being created in this sector than in just about any other.
We find the federal government's indifference to be somewhat worrisome. Numerous cuts to funding programs for museums, the elimination of the public diplomacy program that financed international cultural tours, and the lack of funding for film and television speak volumes about the fact that this government does not really seem to care about culture as a way of promoting Quebec and Canada not only abroad, but also here at home. The government does not recognize the importance of culture to a society like ours.
In this report, we are asking the government to change course, reinstate programs to help museums and the public diplomacy program and reinvest in the Canada Council for the Arts' feature film fund and the Canadian television fund. This would cost about $398 million.
Another of the Bloc Québécois' six conditions has to do with the environment. The Standing Committee on Finance recommended that the government institute a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emission credits. That is interesting. The committee also recommended that the government set up various tax incentives to promote the acquisition of energy efficient transport trucks and adjust the accelerated capital cost allowance on rail equipment to encourage investment.
All these measures are interesting, and we hope that the government will implement them. However, we would have liked to see the government adopt our proposal for the establishment of regional, absolute greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, to bring emissions down to 1990 levels, and development of a framework for a carbon exchange mechanism in Montreal.
We will have to explain things again to the Conservative government. If only there were strict rules. In fact, investing in the environment sector is becoming more and more profitable. When the rules are confusing, businesses do not benefit. If this recommendation were supported, if the government decided to implement it, there would be a significant impact on the economy.
Think about it. There is the whole issue of refundable tax credits for research and development, but there would also be an environmental advantage. Businesses would be more productive if they used less energy, and at the same time, they would be helping to decrease greenhouse gases. There would be an added incentive. I urge the government to move forward on this.
It is particularly interesting that the Standing Committee on Finance accepted all of these recommendations: $1 billion for the forestry sector alone; $1.5 billion in aid for the industry; and $3 billion for the guaranteed income supplement. These are all measures that have been criticized by the Conservative Quebec members, who called it overspending. Now, it is the position of the Conservative government and the Standing Committee on Finance, which adopted these motions. This means that our figures were not so far-fetched, since they have now been adopted by the Standing Committee on Finance and recommended to the Minister of Finance.
That shows that there is a great deal of interest in the work we did and the consultations we held in communities across Quebec and Canada. The bottom line is that the current level of financial assistance for the manufacturing and forestry industries is not enough. The figures prove this. The Standing Committee on Finance has made a practical, positive recommendation in this regard. It is no longer just the position of the Bloc, the NDP, the Liberals or the Conservatives; it is the position of the entire Standing Committee on Finance.
We hope that the Minister of Finance will incorporate these recommendations directly. He can even act on them without delay. Canada has a $10 billion surplus. On March 31, 2008, if this surplus has not been allocated, it will all go to pay down the debt. That would mean that even though the Standing Committee on Finance recognizes that $1 billion is needed for the forestry industry, $1.5 billion for the manufacturing industry and $3.5 billion for the guaranteed income supplement, the government would turn a blind eye and allocate the surplus to the debt and would not address these problems.
But we can address them now, before March 31, as we did for the trust. That would enable us to deal with a lot of irritants and emergencies, as the leader of the Bloc Québécois said, in terms of the economy, assistance for workers affected by the economic slowdown and the crises, and equity for seniors who have not received their retroactive guaranteed income supplement payments.
There are a number of interesting recommendations in the report. Our six conditions have not been met, but we will keep working on that. We would like the government to take real action soon and move forward. This is the perfect opportunity: the Prime Minister is due to meet with the Premier of Quebec shortly. He and the Bloc Québécois, as representatives of the coalition or consensus in Quebec, said that money was needed immediately. The government decided to do an about-face, accept the recommendation and hold a vote on it immediately.
But the Premier of Quebec, the Bloc Québécois, the people of Quebec, the labour congresses, the forestry sector and industries are saying that more money is needed. This is what remains to be done. More money must be allocated in the coming days, out of this year's surplus.
I will close there. There many other measures in the budget and, overall, a good number of recommendations by the Bloc Québécois were included. However, some are still missing. We will continue the debate and fight for our proposals. We hope that at budget time, the budget will reflect the consultations that we held with Quebeckers. If the budget does not include what it should, we will vote against it. We are prepared to go to the polls if need be. We have presented what Quebec would like. We now have proof that our numbers have the blessing of the Standing Committee on Finance, which flies in the face of the irresponsible comments made by the Conservative members from Quebec.