Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today on behalf of the Bloc Québécois to speak to this Liberal motion. The purpose of the motion is to recommend to the government that investments in infrastructure programs be made in the same manner as in 2005, namely, through a formula for the distribution of the gas tax, which was a per capita distribution for each municipality. This investment represents half of all the funds available in budget 2009.
First of all, our party will support the Liberal Party position. We are setting partisan politics aside, because the situation is critical. We are on the brink of an economic crisis and one good way to stimulate the economy is to invest in infrastructure.
When I say we are setting partisan politics aside, I am choosing my words carefully. That is not what the Liberals did when it came to the most recent budget. They have a political agenda and that is how they practice politics. They chose to support a budget that offered no real solutions for the forestry and manufacturing crisis that mainly affects the province of Quebec, but the Bloc Québécois has made a different choice.
Setting aside political partisanship, we can see that the needs are great. Every city in Quebec has infrastructure needs. That is why the Province of Quebec created the coalition on infrastructure, a huge coalition that includes more than just the cities and is headed by the mayor of Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt.
This coalition also includes contractors and engineers, all the infrastructure stakeholders in Quebec, who, when the coalition was formed in the early 2000s, said that Quebec already had an infrastructure shortfall of more than $12 billion, just for upgrading existing infrastructure. I am talking about equipment and buildings, and also underground pipes such as water and sewer systems.
Quebec already had a $12 billion shortfall. In the early 1990s, the federal Liberal government inherited the Conservatives' deficit and decided to achieve a zero deficit by reducing transfers to the provinces. The provinces could not pay their infrastructure costs on their own, because of rising health and education costs, so they downloaded part of the cost to the municipalities. That is what happened. I was a member of the Union des municipalités du Québec at the time, and I even served as president of the organization from 1997 to 2000.
All across Canada, or at least in Quebec, the provincial shortfall was downloaded onto the municipalities and school boards. Obviously, the municipalities absorbed the costs, but that does not necessarily mean they invested in infrastructure.
Those who took part in discussions in 1992 about the municipalities in Quebec or who were following what was going on at the municipal level know that in the wake of the Ryan reform in Quebec in 1992, the Government of Quebec decided, with the stroke of a pen, to again transfer all local roads and some regional roads that came under the provincial government to the municipalities.
It transferred these roads directly to the cities and municipalities. The same thing happened with all types of works: bridges, culverts and all public construction. These public works and engineering works— municipal bridges and culverts—were transferred all at once and without a cent attached. The cities had to absorb the cost of repairs and maintenance. There was a reason why, last year, following the collapse of an overpass in Laval—a public engineering work belonging to the Government of Quebec—the government undertook a study.
Because the works ceded in 1992 were not being maintained, last fall the Government of Quebec decided to take back all the bridges and engineering works it downloaded in 1992. You can imagine the condition of the infrastructure it turned over in 1992—fairly important works such as bridges, overpasses and sewer and water systems—given that the municipalities had not invested any money in their maintenance.
Money was not invested because of the burden transferred in 1992 under the Ryan reform and in 1998 under the Trudel reform. I am not being partisan. This happened under both Liberal and Parti Québécois governments. The Quebec government had no choice because provincial transfer payments were cut. That is the reality. We have started to reinvest and to give.
There is a reason why the Bloc Québécois has been working hard to have the fiscal imbalance recognized. It has led to an imbalance in tax revenues that has had a domino effect on cities, and I will not even mention the school boards that were affected by this new transfer of the fiscal burden. This led to the creation of the Coalition pour le renouvellement des infrastructures du Québec chaired by the mayor of Laval, Mr. Vaillancourt, as I mentioned earlier.
The idea was to try to address this infrastructure deficit and to restore and upgrade the equipment that already belonged to the cities. And I am not talking about developing new infrastructure. A great deal of pressure was brought to bear on the federal government, which bore the brunt of the responsibility. That is a fact. When it began slashing provincial transfers to try to achieve fiscal balance and a zero deficit, it created an imbalance at the municipal level. The governments, especially the federal government, realized this. Consequently, when it started generating surpluses, it began wanting to give some money back to the cities directly.
As I said earlier to the member for Parkdale—High Park, the Liberal critic who gave a speech on behalf of his party, the problem is that Quebec has a law that prohibits any direct federal transfers to municipalities. I am going to take the time to read section 3.11 of the Act respecting the Ministère du Conseil exécutif:
Except to the extent expressly provided for by law, no municipal body or school body may, without the prior authorization of the Government, enter into any agreement with another government in Canada or one of its departments or government agencies, or with a federal public agency.
Municipalities and school boards in Quebec are therefore prohibited from negotiating directly with the federal government. This is in keeping with the Canadian Constitution, because the cities come directly under the provinces. Some provinces do not have such requirements. That is why I want to tell all the members to be careful when taking action and making statements or even election promises.
I see that the Liberals analyzed the money invested in infrastructure programs. They found that 70% of the money spent to date has been spent in Conservative ridings, but not in Quebec. That stands to reason, because in Quebec, it is not the federal government that decides how the money will be invested, but the Province of Quebec. You have not seen us rise to say that there has been patronage in Quebec. There has been no patronage simply because the province decides how the money will be divided up. The Government of Quebec uses a formula involving representatives of the two municipal unions.
There are two main municipal unions in Quebec: the Union des municipalités du Québec, which includes most large and medium-sized cities, and the Fédération québécoise des municipalités, which represents small and medium-sized cities as well as regional municipalities. Both unions are represented on the selection committee.
Quebec already has a framework for distributing the funds, provided that the funds are part of a negotiated agreement. That was the case for the first agreement that the Liberal government at the time had negotiated. As our Liberal colleague showed earlier, agreements were signed concerning the gas tax, the municipal rural infrastructure fund and other funds. Each time there was federal money involved, an agreement was negotiated between the Quebec government and the federal government.
Until now, this has operated by means of agreements. One of those was the gas tax agreement: part of the envelope is distributed per capita, per municipality, with a minimum amount. It was very well received. I personally helped with the planning. At that time, it was Liberal minister John Godfrey who undertook this work on the gas tax. He invited me, as the former president of the Union des municipalités du Québec, into his office and I had the opportunity to discuss it with him and his officials on two occasions. He wanted to know my opinion on how the money should be distributed. I felt, obviously, that the best way would be to ensure that each municipality benefited, since every municipality has needs.
Do not try to tell me that municipalities can receive money through this program even when they do not need it. On the contrary, every municipality has needs and requests. Since 1992, when the federal government decided to cut transfers, municipalities have had to take on extra burdens, for the equipment and infrastructure that was downloaded. Yet they had neither the time nor the money for upgrades.
Clearly, at this time, it would be best to take part of the money and continue to redistribute it equitably among municipalities, on a per capita basis. This will enable them to bring forward some plans. Indeed, each municipality in Quebec must produce a three-year infrastructure plan in its budget and submit it directly to the Government of Quebec. Each municipality therefore has its three-year plan. Under the agreement with the municipal union, the minister can ask the Government of Quebec to produce the three-year plan and he will very quickly learn the infrastructure needs of each municipality. Everything is already very well planned and structured
All municipalities have infrastructure needs. Why not use this opportunity to take 50% of the funds available? That is why we will support the Liberal motion here today, for the sake of fairness, and simply because if we can set party politics aside, it is once again the best way to ensure that work can begin and that the economy can be stimulated everywhere, in all the regions. Of course I will come back to this.
With this motion, the Liberals seem to be trying to address a patronage problem. I want to be honest here, since I said I would not play party politics. At present, since budget 2005, the Conservative government has spent very little, if any money in Quebec. They made a few investments, but they were not made in the context of any agreements.
For instance, the building Canada fund was proposed by the Conservative government in 2007 and the Bloc Québécois supported it. However there has yet to be any agreement reached with the Government of Quebec. We need to know why, and that is the problem. Is it because the Conservatives wanted to engage in patronage? Did they have a new way of presenting that? Time will tell, but so far, I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, because the Quebec government has not shown any openness either, and will not tell us why it has not signed the agreement.
However, one thing is clear: the Conservative government has not spent one penny on any programs in Quebec, so there has not yet been any patronage. We can forget that. I want everyone to be very comfortable on that score.
Obviously, if this motion were adopted, it just might resolve the apparent impasse between the federal government and Quebec, with no agreement yet signed. Is it because they are completely at odds with one another? One way of resolving the impasse would be to send 50% of all infrastructure monies directly to each municipality, which is the current practice. SOFIL, a non-profit corporation, was established. Every municipality has its own amount of money. It negotiates with Quebec the work it has to do and Quebec outlines the main requirements. At present, in the first phase of the gas tax transfer, water and sewers are the priority. After that, investments will be made in roads. However, I know that municipal unions are asking that the process be more open and that additional new work be funded through these envelopes. That would surely allow recreational, cultural and other types of facilities to be built and that would create jobs.
I agree with the Conservative government that one way to create jobs is to invest in infrastructure. Our main point of contention about the last budget was not about infrastructure; we were asking for a different cost-sharing formula. That is why, today, with the sharing of the 50%, municipalities would not have to invest directly. We are asking for a new formula: 50% from the federal government, 35% from the provincial government and 15% from the cities.
As we all know, cities have reached their maximum debt loads. This is a little complicated because municipal debt loads are not the same throughout Canada. We have to be honest with all of the members and try to better understand the situation. In Quebec, the province's credit rating is excellent right now, and one of the main reasons for that is our cities' debt load. Historically, the province has always kept municipal spending in check to ensure a better credit rating. That is the reality. In Quebec, municipal debt loads are a lot lower, which helps the province maintain a better credit rating. That is how we have always done things. Other provinces allowed their cities to go deeper into debt. In Quebec, there is more oversight, and in some cases, to avoid accumulating debt, cities are not allowed to go ahead with certain projects. That is why we need more and more direct funding and less municipal participation because they have reached the maximum debt load allowed by the province.
That is the reality we have to deal with. The Liberals have suggested that, with this new program, if 50% of the money were to be allocated per capita with no obligation on the municipalities to invest, the government would be helping the vast majority of municipalities who have already reached the limit because every other program forces them to invest one-third. When the Liberals were in power, they had infrastructure programs and there was a gas tax, but even with the gas tax program, municipalities were required to participate. Now they understand and they are more open to municipalities, so they would not demand a contribution. We would be happy with that.
On the other hand, we also need to question the Liberals' will to solve this problem when they could have done it in their agreements with the Conservatives in the latest budget. It is a bit surprising that this comes along a few days after the budget was adopted. The Liberals have decided to find themselves a new vocation—saving the cities—when they could very well, when negotiating their support of the budget, have asked the government to include these standards in it. I still do not understand why they did not. Once again, they woke up too late. That is the Liberals' problem. They got kicked in the—pardon the expression, I will leave out the rest—in the last election and they are having trouble getting over it. That is the reality. They are always a month, a month and a half, or two months behind everybody else. One of these days they may catch up; that day will come. But it is still surprising that they did not take advantage of their negotiations with the Conservatives around the latest budget to get this included. The municipalities would, of course, have greatly appreciated that.
As I said at the start, this is serious. One good way to jump start the economy and create new jobs is to rebuild the infrastructures. We are very much aware of that. That is one reason we have always fought here in the House to get a fair shake for the forestry and the manufacturing sectors. The investments that can be made serve to protect existing jobs. We are well aware that, in the forestry sector, modernizing businesses in order to enhance their competitiveness will not increase the number of workers. One good approach is to stop the loss of workers in these industries—and the same thing goes for the auto industry. Investment is needed to stabilize the situation. An approach is needed that will create new jobs to offset the ones lost all over the country. The situation is not as the Minister of State (Transport) has described it. The forestry problem will not be solved with the infrastructure program. A program is needed to help the forest industry. One good way of doing so is what the Liberals are proposing, and we will be supporting this motion.