Mr. Speaker, if you will allow me, I will share my time with my charming colleague from Drummond.
I applaud this first balanced budget since the 1970s. Do not get me wrong, however. I am not congratulating my friends opposite. My congratulations go primarily to the provincial governments, which have had to manage cuts to their social, health care and education transfers. They go as well to the employers and employees who have suffered the adverse effects of the government's shameless dipping into the employment insurance fund in order to balance its budget. That is scandalous.
I applaud the people of Quebec and of Canada, the poor and the middle class, who contribute in no small measure to this government's revenues through increased taxes.
Let us move on now to my comments on the budget. Like most Canadian politicians, the experts and journalists, I find nothing or next to nothing in this budget. The proof is in the press reviews the following day, which said “That's it, that's all”. Journalists and experts were describing it as lacking substance and vision. The economists were calling it weak and insipid. I will leave it at that, otherwise I will be spending my ten minutes commenting on the budget.
It is so nebulous that those opposite have started a promotional campaign and are asking their ministers, their big guns, to visit the ridings and sell the budget. The President of the Treasury Board was in my riding last week to sell the finance minister's budget. What he finally said was that he was there to hear people's views on what the government should be doing.
I have some advice for the President of the Treasury Board. Quit wasting your time. This same finance minister started the practice of having the finance committee travel across Canada to take the public's pulse. I even held a prebudget meeting in my riding. All this work by the experts did not reach the finance minister's ears. He was deaf to it, or perhaps too busy worrying about Bill C-28.
The cross-Canada committee, as well as people from my riding, had some good suggestions for the finance minister. They suggested he stop cutting provincial transfer payments, put an end to the disgraceful waste of this government, clean up existing programs, index taxes and tax credits, reform taxation, lower the premiums paid by employers and employees to the EI fund by a significant amount, not a measly 20 cents, implement job creation programs, introduce an anti-deficit bill, and on and on.
What did the Minister of Finance do? He ignored these experts. He did absolutely nothing.
Yes, there was the Millennium Fund, and I would like to talk about that. What do we know about it? Not a great deal, except that it will perhaps be based on need, or merit, it has not yet been decided, and that its president will be Mr. Landry, the president of Chrysler Canada. This is a good opportunity for him to advertise his automobiles. That is all that we know.
There is one more thing that we know, and that is that this government has cut between $2.3 and $2.7 billion in education since 1993. Now it is preening itself over a $2.5 billion fund. This government is going to continue to make cuts of over $10 billion in education between now and 2003. But still it creates a fund.
What are the stated and unstated purposes of this fund? Is it a way of boosting the Prime Minister's image before he leaves active politics? Is it a springboard for the finance minister in the race for leadership of his party? The Prime Minister himself has admitted that one of the goals is to distribute or promote the Canadian flag. On February 26, the Liberals and the Reformers showed us in this House how good they are when it comes to promoting the Canadian flag.
There is another thing that is condemned by everyone and confirmed by the following media report: “It is the government's stated goal to provoke and to get directly involved in the affairs of provincial governments, under the pretext of helping our students, starting in the year 2000. But students need help now. The government should be ashamed of playing politics at the expense of our students”.
Let me provide some background on Quebec's loans and grants program. It was in 1964 that a true Prime Minister, a true Liberal, Lester B. Pearson, a Nobel Prize winner, set up the Canadian student loans program to help students continue their education.
At the request of the Quebec premier of the day, the Hon. Jean Lesage, who wanted to manage and implement a program that would meet Quebec's needs, Mr. Pearson decided, after giving the idea some thought and finding nothing wrong with it, to give Quebec the right, or rather the privilege, because it did not confer any special status, to establish and manage its own program. The other Canadian provinces could have availed themselves of the same privilege, but they chose not to do so, preferring to manage an already established program.
The result is that Quebec now has a unique student loans and grants program that is superior to anything that exists elsewhere in Canada. Quebec spends $600 million on a program designed to provide loans and scholarships to 170,000 students. Our province also invested $18 million in a scholarship program based on merit. The net result of this is that education costs in Quebec are lower than in the rest of Canada, and the average debt of Quebec students is $11,000, compared to $25,000 in the rest of the country. Ottawa must grant Quebec the privilege to opt out with full compensation.
I will conclude by referring to an article which said that in 1995, the federal Parliament adopted a motion recognizing Quebec's distinct character and formally guaranteeing Quebeckers that the departments, institutions and agencies of the Government of Canada would take that into account when making their decisions. The Liberals must live up to their commitments.