Madam Speaker, as this is probably the last time I will have an opportunity to speak formally in the House before Christmas break, I would like to wish everyone, and especially you, Madam Speaker, a merry Christmas and season's greetings.
It is an honour to rise in this place to speak to Bill C-24, an act to amend the Salaries Act and to make a consequential amendment to the Financial Administration Act.
The bill takes aggressive steps to eliminate the positions of six ministers for regional development. It places all those responsibilities in the hands of one minister. I believe the government operations committee did not hear from a single witness on the issue of regional development agencies. Not one. That is incredible. This is a huge change. I would assume there are plenty of experts from across Canada willing to comment on this matter. To not give them a voice seems unwise.
For better or worse, the federal government has far broader jurisdiction than provinces, and much more expansive taxation powers. This is partially by design, the British North American Act. It reserves the most significant powers for the federal government. Had the BNA's drafters foreseen the massive expansion of government that was to come, with education and health care, they might have been under federal jurisdiction as well. Then of course, they let the natural resources go. That one really got away from them.
However, we are also a huge country. Our population is spread across a massive geographic area. Over time, our country has rightfully adopted a more decentralized approach to governance. Our previous Conservative government certainly respected the importance of a decentralized approach, giving provinces money and letting them make the decisions. However, now it seems the government is taking a step in the wrong direction.
Unsurprisingly, one-size-fits-all solutions are not always desirable. Something that works in the Prairies might not make sense for southern Ontario. Something that works in southern Ontario could be a really bad fit for Quebec. Something that works great in Quebec could be a disaster for B.C., and the list goes on. Where possible, we want regions to be able to make decisions about their own development, in a way that makes sense for them. In a large, diverse country like ours, we want certain decisions made through a local lens. When there is an opportunity to do it that way, it makes a difference.
The government claims to believe that diversity is our strength. Well, let it put its money where its mouth is and keep diverse regional voices involved in regional development, and at the cabinet table.
I hope I do not have to remind the government that we westerners are especially skeptical of centralized decision making. Us old guys remember the national energy program. That wreaked havoc in the west and Alberta for decades. We have not forgotten that one. We have had a bad experience with decisions being made in Ottawa by people who are not from our region and who do not have an intimate understanding of its needs.
The tax changes are the latest example of decision makers in Ottawa not understanding the unintended consequences of the impacts their policies will have across the country. I have heard time and again at round tables in my riding of Bow River how the government does not understand what its policies will do to rural agriculture and small businesses. The Liberals are taking the Ottawa bubble to a whole new level, and this bill is just another example of their heavy-handed and centralized thinking.
Therefore, I hope my hon. colleagues opposite can understand why getting rid of ministers, like the minister for western economic diversification, and investing their decision making power in the hands of one member at the cabinet table might raise some eyebrows.
Furthermore, I am surprised that more of my colleagues opposite, representing ridings in Atlantic Canada, are not standing up for their region. Why are they not demanding a minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency at the cabinet table? The Prime Minister implied that a Toronto minister needed to handle ACOA because of the “kind of politics” in Atlantic Canada. That is an interesting comment. What kind of politics would incentivize the government to erode regional representation in favour of needless centralization? It just does not add up. It is a major hit to the federal government's ability to allocate funds in a manner that is regionally representative.
A former ACOA president said that many in Ottawa had never liked regional development agencies. Apparently, axing them has been on the agenda for some time.
I think Canadians care that regional representative at the cabinet table has been eroded. I think Canadians in Atlantic Canada will be unhappy to find, as the Liberals' Atlantic caucus subcommittee reported, that processing times have increased threefold, since the employment of the one minister.
Therefore, Bill C-24 means Canadians no longer have a regional development minister to fight for their region's interest. They will not have a voice for regional development at the cabinet table. Obviously, all Canadian regions will still be represented in cabinet, but those ministers have responsibilities that relate to their specific portfolio, not to the region. When it comes to spending regional development funds, the regions simply will not have the voice they did before. They are being robbed of that voice in cabinet for no good reason.
The bill also lacks transparency. We are being asked to approve the appointment of three mystery ministers. What will these ministers be? Will they be the minister for fancy socks, the minister responsible for selfie procurement, and the minister responsible for remembering French villas? The government should tell Canadians what its plans are. What do the Liberals have to hide?
Bill C-24 also fails to create ministerial equality. Legislating equal salaries does not mean all ministers are treated equally. Do ministers with more junior portfolios have their own deputy ministers? Do they have the same departmental budgets and authority as do ministers with more senior portfolios? As long as the answer to these questions remains a resounding no, I do not see how the government can claim the bill is about ministerial equality.
Moving cabinet members from the Ministries and Ministers of State Act to the Salaries Act would do nothing to change the answer to these questions. It is optics and no substance. Is it about gender equality? Given the ministers still have unequal authority in resources, I do not see how it could be.
We are also hearing some conflicting information from hon. colleagues opposite. Some have said that it is meant to advance gender equality. Some have said that it is not meant to address such issues. Therefore, Canadians have been left scratching their heads. What is this bill about? Does the government even know what it is about? The Liberals cannot seem to get the story straight on this one.
I will quote a University of British Columbia law professor, who specializes in gender equality, on why the bill would not do what some of the members opposite think it would. The professor said:
Pay equity is a piece of but not the whole of gender equality. People want these jobs and women need these positions of leadership, not because of the actual amount of dollars, but because of the responsibility, the profile, the prestige, the authority that those positions command.
That is certainly not a ringing endorsement.
Overall, the legislation is fundamentally misguided. It would take authority away from six regional ministers and would give it to one. It would not meaningfully advance ministerial equality. Even Liberal caucus members do not understand what the front bench's agenda is in introducing it. Needless to say, I will be not supporting this bill at report stage.