Madam Chair, we have been asking for this fiscal update since May, as have the other opposition parties and the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Finally we have it.
Once again, the government chose to notify the finance community before informing the House. As everyone knows, the news was announced by Bloomberg.
To be honest, the Bloc Québécois did not have particularly high expectations concerning today’s fiscal update. However, we were still disappointed by the economic portrait presented. Basically, the document lists the measures announced and their impact on finances. That is about it.
We made several requests concerning the fiscal update. First, we asked for an unconditional transfer of $14 billion to the provinces and to Quebec. We did not get it. The $14 billion is there, but so are the conditions.
We then asked that changes be made to the Canada emergency response benefit to encourage workers to return to work. We did not get that, either. We also asked for changes to the Canada emergency wage subsidy so that it would include seasonal industries such as tourism and culture. We did not get that, either.
From reading the economic snapshot, one would think we are still in April, but we are in July. Businesses have started reopening. The economic recovery is now under way. It is time to adjust the programs. Today’s fiscal update was a golden opportunity to introduce these types of changes, but that is not what happened.
Take, for example, the Canada emergency response benefit. In my opinion, the CERB is a public health measure. We asked people to stay home and not go to work. In return, the government would pay them $2,000 a month. However, as businesses begin to reopen and the economy starts picking up, the government needs to change its message. It is high time we amended the Canada emergency response benefit.
Right now, workers who earn one dollar more than the allowable $1,000 are ineligible for the CERB. Right now, we are at the economic recovery stage, not the economic stimulus stage, and yet people who earn one dollar more are not entitled to the CERB. That makes no sense.
Here is the situation: The unemployment rate is around 12%, which is very high. If health measures were put in place, many people could go back to work. The chambers of commerce have told us that their members are having a hard time finding employees because the government still has not made any changes to the Canada emergency response benefit. Basically, the message the government is sending is that workers should still be staying home, as they were doing in April. It makes no sense.
We have been asking the government to make changes to the CERB since March. Earlier, the leader of the Conservative Party said that he was the one who first made that proposal. When an idea is good, it should be spread far and wide, regardless of who thought of it first.
The principle behind the CERB should be the same as the one behind employment insurance. In the progressive EI system, if a person earns more than $1,000, that person does not lose everything. For example, Canadians could keep $0.50 for every additional dollar earned.
It has been almost four months now that the government has been telling us that that is too complicated. This type of excuse can work for one or two weeks, maybe even three, but four months is much too long. That does not fly.
The same is true for the Canada emergency wage subsidy. The government needs to change it. If an employer is losing 30%, it is entitled to the wage benefit. However, if it is losing 29%, it is no longer entitled to it. It makes no sense.
We understand that, in the early days, we needed to establish certain criteria, given the urgency of the situation. We even changed the percentage to 15% for the first month. It has been this way for a number of months now, and it is time for a change. We need to enhance, improve the measures.
We also need to change the Canada emergency wage subsidy to give seasonal industries, such as tourism and culture, access to it. The solution is simple. In fact, the solution is so simple that the government itself proposed it a month ago, but still has not done anything about it. The solution was to pay out the wage subsidy based on last year’s salaries rather than on those earned in February when seasonal industries were obviously not operating. That was part of Bill C-17, which was tabled in the House a month ago but still has not been passed.
Why was Bill C-17 not passed?
Bill C-17 was not passed simply because the government chose to sulk. The government wanted the House to pass the bill immediately as it was, word for word, or it would not introduce the bill. We did not have the right to amend it or even debate it. Nothing. Nada. We had to either take it or leave it. It had to be done. This minority government wants to play the dictator's apprentice. It is ridiculous. On a personal note, I want to say that, when a person is asked what country or regime he admires and he answers, “China”, that may be a sign that person wants to play the dictator's apprentice. That is what we are seeing here.
We are still waiting impatiently for the government to make the changes to the wage subsidy, including the change needed for Airbus to have access to it, even though some of the money invested in that project comes from the public purse. We know that things are not going well for the aerospace industry. We need to change that.
While entire sectors of our economy do not have access to the wage subsidy, the Liberal Party has both hands in the cookie jar. In this case, I would have to say that the pandemic is being used as an excuse. It is a terrible ethical issue. While the Liberal Party is benefiting from the wage subsidy, it is dragging its feet. Things have been dragging on for a month for entire sectors of our economy. It is shameful and it needs to change.
What we see in the document is somewhat contradictory. The government still has not passed Bill C-17, but it has chosen to take today’s economic update into account in its financial valuations. It is high time that we debate Bill C-17. Like my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands of the Green Party was saying earlier, on page 20 there is a list of assistance measures for people with disabilities. As we know, this is one of the population groups that have been most affected by the pandemic. The government acknowledges that in its document.
Since we have a duty and a right to study Bill C-17, when will the government submit it for debate so that we can make the necessary amendments and pass it? We have been waiting for a month.
Another subject keeps coming up: the overpayment of benefits. There have been cases of fraud, and the government said that it would be recovering those amounts. There is not one line about this in today’s fiscal snapshot. There is a story I would like to tell. It is a powerful one, so I would advise members hang on to their hats. During the technical briefing the government gave to the opposition parties earlier today, I asked a question about this. I was met with silence, and someone exclaimed, “What the fudge!” That is what we got as an answer. Not the best answer ever, I dare say. This is not a joke. The Liberals wondered whether they had forgotten to address the issue. What happened? Another missed opportunity.
As we expected, the document confirms that we have an enormous debt. The deficit so far is $343 billion. That is what it will be on March 31, 2021, if no further funds are voted, there is no second wave and no other measures are put in place between now and then. That is the minimum. That is where we are, and it is obviously troubling.
There is a shocking and interesting bit of information in this document. Servicing the debt, or the interest payments on the debt, goes down because the interest rates dropped as a result of the massive support from the Bank of Canada and all the central banks in the world that have done this with their economy. In the short term and in the long term as well we hope, we are talking about 10- to 30-year bonds that will help lower the interest payments.
Like the other G7 and G20 countries, the government went into serious debt to support the economy during the pandemic. As they say, it was the least bad solution.
That kind of deficit could be justified if we spend the money properly. That is what we are asking for: proper spending. Let me explain. I spoke about this earlier in my speech. An unconditional transfer of $14 billion would be proper spending. Changing the Canada emergency response benefit to include an incentive to work would be proper spending. The government must do this as soon as possible. We were expecting to see that in today’s document. Also, the Canada emergency wage subsidy should be extended to seasonal sectors such as tourism and culture.
Given our historic deficit, the government is offering a simple, perhaps even simplistic, solution: government bonds. As I said earlier, these are significant, long term bonds, over 10 to 30 years. We are not talking about income growth.
In the document, the government says that it will not do anything more about tax evasion or tax avoidance or to make web giants GAFAM pay their share of taxes and fees. The government’s message today is clear. Web giants, banks and multinationals that do not pay their share of taxes will not have to start doing so, and the record debt we are seeing will not change a thing. It is a serious issue and it needs to change. The Bloc can be counted on to continue bringing pressure to bear.
The government based its economic forecast on private sector forecasts and is telling us that there will be a 6.8% decrease in activity this year, offset by 5.5% growth in 2021. At the end of next year, when we compare these numbers, we still will not be where we were before the COVID-19 crisis. That is what economists call the inverse square root. What does that mean? It goes down, it goes up, but then it stalls at a lower level than before. It is troubling. The government should have reduced uncertainty as much as possible by immediately announcing changes to its assistance programs, like we have been saying all day. Another important measure would have been to extend the assistance over a longer period for economic sectors we need to support and that will be in difficulty for a longer time, such as aerospace and culture. We need to reduce the uncertainty.
In its fiscal snapshot, the government acknowledges what businesses have been telling us. Its rent assistance program is not working. How many applications for rent assistance have been filed across the country? Only 29,000. When we compare this with the $40,000 emergency loans, that is almost $700,000. The rent assistance program is used almost 25 times less often. That sends a very clear message. The government published the numbers in its document. We need to review and enhance the program, since it does not make sense that it would be used 25 times less often.
Given the spike in health care costs, Quebec and the provinces will be hit with quite a bill. The $14 billion announced will cover only some of the new costs. The conditions imposed in this situation have no other purpose than to further centralize power in our federation by undermining the provinces’ jurisdictions.
The health care system was already underfinanced before the pandemic. The Parliamentary Budget Officer demonstrated that very clearly. As always, the power lies with the federal government, even if Quebec and the provinces are spending huge amounts. Since Lester B. Pearson in 1964, there has not been a single transfer of a single tax point from the federal government to the provinces, despite the fact that the most costly sectors, namely health, education and social services, are under provincial jurisdiction.
The federal government negotiates agreements piecemeal. It systematically infringes on provincial jurisdiction by imposing conditions. It has been reducing transfers while increasing conditions and its interference. This has to stop. It does not work and it has gone on long enough. We see it on the ground: Our public services are gasping for air, and the federal government is doing nothing to help.
Ottawa's handling of this crisis is amplifying centralization and it needs to stop. Again, we are calling on the government, as a gesture of good faith, to remove the conditions attached to the $14 billion and to transfer the money as soon as possible. That would be a step in the right direction.