Mr. Speaker, we have now reached third reading of Bill C-43, which implements the government's 2005 budget. I would like to point out, first—because it is hard to avoid it—that we cannot talk about Bill C-43, without talking about Bill C-48 at the same time.
I want to clarify something right from the start. The Bloc Québécois, unlike our NDP colleagues, did not wait until the last minute to make proposals to the government to present a budget bill that meets Quebeckers' expectations.
Right after budget day, we presented the government with a number of points along the lines of the prebudget consultations in the Standing Committee on Finance. Some points were also suggested to us when the Bloc Québécois toured through Quebec to confirm with Quebeckers what we would ask the government.
We offered these points immediately after the budget presentation. We did not wait until several weeks later, nor did we make a last minute deal in an attempt to rescue this government, a deal that totally left out the unemployed, providing no increase in EI benefits, nothing on setting up a truly independent EI fund, nothing to improve accessibility to this very important system, for the unemployed, those in need, those in crisis. Immediately following the budget presentation, we informed the government of our intentions. We told them we were prepared to work with them and even vote in favour of their budget. However, they had to listen to the priorities of Quebeckers, because that is very important. We did make these points clear during the prebudget consultations in the Standing Committee on Finance and during a tour of Quebec. There was unanimity.
I will start with the first point: the fiscal imbalance. Out of 200 elected representatives—that is, 125 at the National Assembly and 75 in the Parliament of Canada—only 21 fail to recognize the fiscal imbalance. It so happens that these are members of the Liberal Party of Canada. In Quebec, fiscal imbalance is almost unanimously recognized as a matter that has to be addressed; there is at least a very broad consensus to that effect. Tax fields have to be transferred to allow provinces like Quebec to provide the services the public has come to expect. Transfers for education and social programs have to be increased. A fundamental reform of equalization is also in order.
In recent months, we have seen the government, acting on promises, the magnitude of which it had not fully measured, make piecemeal agreements having a very substantial impact on equalization. These agreements might even alter the nature of the equalization system. There has to be a fundamental reform of equalization, including raising the ceilings and removing the floors. It is important that equalization recognize and adapt to the economic realities of Quebec and Canada. Instead of being based on five provinces, the average should be calculated for all the provinces and Quebec. Certain calculations in the equalization formula have to be reviewed, especially with respect to property tax. This has been and still is a priority for Quebeckers.
I will mention in passing that, at the Subcommittee on Fiscal Imbalance, we have arrived at a majority report which includes four very important recommendations.
The government can deny the fiscal imbalance all it wants, this does not change the fact that a House subcommittee has written a report on it.
The second essential element for Quebeckers, which I mentioned briefly earlier, is employment insurance.
We have a new minister. Not so long ago, she said she was in favour of expanding access to employment insurance. Currently, only 38% of all EI applicants manage to qualify for benefits. This is disgraceful and despicable. The feds are collecting surpluses at the expense of a segment of the population in crisis and with real, not imaginary, needs. These people are waiting for benefits to pay for their groceries, rent, mortgage or food for their kids. But only 38% of them qualify. This is really scandalous.
Not so long ago, the minister recognized this fact and also recognized that there should be an independent EI fund, so that the government can never again dip into these surpluses. This is scandalous, too. The government has taken $48 billion. Instead of using that money to meet the real needs of our constituents, it took it in order to continue to accumulate astronomical surpluses.
Last year, the surplus forecast was $1.9 billion; the actual surplus ended up being $9.1 billion. If this is not a disgrace, I would like to know what is.
As for improving access to EI, the House adopted a unanimous report recommending reducing the number of hours required for eligibility. What has the government done? Naturally, the Prime Minister repeats in the House that he wants to eliminate the democratic deficit. But, since June 2004, all the government has really done is ignore the majority, and even unanimous, decisions of House committees, and even ignore the majority decisions of the House itself. I need only remind members of the decision to split the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in two.
The Kyoto protocol has been raised in the House on a regular basis. Quebeckers are concerned about the environment. They have made serious efforts to encourage industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Much work has been done. Quebec has made a huge effort. But what does the government do? Once again, it introduces a bad plan based on the polluter-paid, instead of the polluter-pay, principle.
The government really needs to be sent back to redo its homework. It went completely off the track in drafting Bill C-43. God knows we tried to help it. We presented it with proposals that were, it seems to me, not only credible but also effective, given the financial means available to the government at the present time. What did it decide to do? It shunted them aside just like that.
Unfortunately, we are often far too creative for this government. To give just one quick example, my colleague from Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher introduced a private member's bill that proposed a very simple solution, one to foster a better environment and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. It proposed a tax incentive to users of public transit for the purchase of bus passes. This was something so simple and easily applied. But no, it had not crossed the government's mind. We thought of it, though. We presented this bill to the government but we are still waiting to hear its reactions.
Another really simple element could also be readily applied. Why not have a tax credit for the purchase of hybrid vehicles? This would both encourage a major industry and thereby create employment, and result in a cleaner environment. This is exactly in line with the concept behind Kyoto.
But this government is far too concerned with piling up a surplus, with ganging up on the sovereignists in particular. This government realizes it has nothing to gain in Quebec. It has already dumped it and continues to ignore it.
As for agriculture, we again made some concrete and precise proposals to the government. Agriculture is going through the worst crisis in decades. Mad cow—I hardly need say more. I can remember meetings in Quebec of the Union des producteurs agricoles, when the minister preferred to hide here in the House rather than go out and meet them. The Bloc Québécois did go. In fact, a number of Bloc Québécois MPs left Ottawa and went to meet the farmers in Quebec City. We listened as they told us what they needed, and reassured them that we would defend their interests. We came back here in order to be in the House when there was an opposition day on agriculture.
What did the minister do in the meantime? Said he had been unable to go. Defending the interests of Quebeckers means defending them in this House, defending them in our ridings, defending them at meetings like the one I just mentioned, and bringing word of their true needs back to this House.
There was talk in this House this afternoon about international aid. Again, the UN has set a noble target, whereby Canada should allocate 0.7% of its gross domestic product to international aid. Bill C-48 does provide a $500,000 increase in that respect. The UN's goal is for this 0.7% target to be met by 2015. What is this government headed for? Provided the required investments are made and maintained, this target will not be achieved before 2035. Again, the government is totally off the mark.
Now, let us look at the issue of respect for the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces. Understandably, this is an important topic for us. Today, in this House, there were more discussions about early years child care. The Prime Minister had pledged to transfer funding to Quebec with no strings attached. Yet, several months later, he is still negotiating. Can you tell me, Madam Speaker, what is there to negotiate when there are no strings attached? It eludes me. Or did I misunderstand something? There are no strings attached. In that case, what is there to be negotiated? Why does he not simply transfer to the Government of Quebec the funding for a system which he himself holds up as a model?
Where the Canadian Francophonie is concerned, our francophone cousins in the rest of Canada have been completely ignored in this budget. In some ways, I find it somewhat ironic that the Bloc Québécois is far too often the one championing the cause of French-speaking minorities outside Quebec. In this respect, my colleague from the NDP, the name of whose riding unfortunately escapes me, regularly emphasizes the importance of protecting the French-speaking minorities in the rest of Canada. I want to commend him on his work on that.
I said earlier that we cannot talk about Bill C-43 without talking about Bill C-48. Briefly, I will say that, on Bill C-48—and I hope that my words will not be too harsh for this place—the NDP has been royally had. It is as simple as that. Why did that happen? Let me give a quick example.
The NDP said that the reduction in the capital tax had to be withdrawn from the budget and invested in social measures. The government said that, of course, it would do that. In doing so, last week in this House, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance said to us that, if we were not convinced, he would invite us to examine the document he had in front of him so that, I paraphrase—although the government is introducing a motion whereby only 40% of businesses will benefit from the reduction in the capital tax, in any case, whether it is accepted or not in future legislation, the government intends to reintroduce this capital tax. So, it will reintroduce it.
The NDP has been had, and that is only one of the ways.
More important still, we heard from Mr. Charles-Antoine Saint-Jean of the Treasury Board Secretariat in the Standing Committee on Finance a few days ago.
On the subject of Bill C-48, my colleague from Joliette pointed out that, with a budget surplus of $2 billion, the government could do the spending provided in C-48. I will quote from Mr. Saint-Jean:
The opportunity is there; it is not mandatory. The bill makes it possible—
The member for Joliette replied: “Ah, so it is not mandatory? Remind us why.” And Mr. Saint-Jean replied:
This bill enables the government—
It enables it. It does not oblige it. A little while later in this committee meeting, I wanted to make sure I understood. I will quote myself, with your permission. I asked Mr. Saint-Jean:
So, if I have understood rightly...the government needs the $2 billion surplus. It can then, if it wishes and if its priorities have not changed, if, in the following year, in a new budget, it does not introduce a bill eliminating the $2 billion, it can allocate up to..., but it is not obliged to do so. In addition, there is the $2 billion, naturally—$2 billion in surplus.
So I want to make sure I understand that, Mr. Saint Jean. The government can, but is not obliged to, spend up to— the amount specified in Bill C-48.
Mr. Saint-Jean's answer was as follows. I invite both my NDP and Conservative Party colleagues, along with the parliamentary secretary of the finance minister and his Liberal colleagues to take note of the answer. It is very important, and our fellow citizens must understand.
Indeed, clause 11 provides clearly that the Minister of Finance may make payments to be taken from the Consolidated Revenue Fund up to the amount of the difference. So that is “may” and not “must”.
And I concluded, “That concludes very well, Mr. Chair”.
So they made a deal with the government. Basically, it involved removing the elimination of the capital tax. The government has already said it did not intend to do so, as it will act, in any case, under future legislation.
The government gave itself a way out by saying that there absolutely had to be a $2 billion surplus accrued at the end of the year. We are not talking about quick investments. There needs to be a $2 billion surplus. However, nothing in Bill C-48 requires the government to pay the amounts mentioned.
It could pay $0 or $1. It could pay half the amount. It could pay the full amount, I agree. Nevertheless, it is not required to. Next year, it will table a new budget. It could decide that it no longer has the same priorities as those mentioned in Bill C-43 and Bill C-48, especially C-48. It could present a budget that might end up reducing the surplus, hypothetically speaking, to $1.5 billion. It would thereby be free from its virtual obligation imposed by Bill C-48. And the NDP will have been had. Even if there is a $2 billion surplus, nothing requires the government to spend the amount stipulated in Bill C-48.
Since I have only one minute remaining, I will wrap up my speech. Unlike the NDP, we did not wait until the last minute to present the government with the priorities of Quebeckers. We presented the government with important and achievable items based on the consensus in Quebec that would serve the best interests of our constituents in Quebec, as well as those in the rest of Canada. We did not make a last minute deal and we were not had by the Liberal government.