Madam Speaker, do we have to say it again for the government finally to understand: Quebec farmers are facing a major income crisis.
According to the latest Statistics Canada data, in 2003, under the reign of the Liberals, agricultural income reached its lowest point in 25 years.
In 2003, net income, i.e. the difference between farm revenues and operating expenses, fell by 39.1% from the figure for 2002 to $4.44 billion.
According to the UPA, farm debt has increased on average by 207% since 1993. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of farms declined by 10% in Quebec to 32,000. Every week two farms disappear in Quebec.
The problem is that farmers are left on their own by Ottawa, that is to say, by the party in power.
Few countries neglected their farm sectors as much as Canada did when the current Prime Minister was Minister of Finance. Now more than ever, producers have less support, and at a time when agriculture is in a full-blown crisis caused by the collapse of prices and the mad cow crisis. In addition, when Ottawa does take action, it is to adopt Canada-wide measures, which fail to meet the needs of Quebec producers. We cannot say it enough: agriculture in Quebec and agriculture in Canada are different, they are organized differently, and they do not have the same needs.
According to OECD data, government support for farm incomes in Canada was US$182 per capita in 2000. The equivalent per capita figure for the same period was US$378 in the United States, US$276 in Europe, and US$289 on average in the OECD countries.
The parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Agriculture has been consulting recently in order to find out about the problems facing farmers. He needed only to listen to us. We have been telling him over and over since the House convened. I am well situated to tell you: I went through my own baptism of fire last October at the time of the famous emergency debate on the mad cow disaster.
Our party and the entire agricultural community have been telling the Liberals for months. The problems and solutions are well known. But they are not listening. All they need is to show a little public will.
The Liberals tell us over and over about their budget surpluses. The money is there, but what good is it doing? Who is benefiting? If the farmers of this country numbered among the Liberals' pals, maybe there would be some money for them, who knows?
Last year, the government accumulated a surplus of $9 billion. I remember that and our farmers remember too.
The CAIS program does not work very well. Farmers are not very enthusiastic about it. On January 22, 2004, the president of the UPA said on La Terre de chez nous : “CAIS, you will remember, was imposed on us by the federal government, which threatened to cut Quebec off if it did not sign.” What great solidarity! Despite the federal government's rigidity, the Bloc Québécois managed to get this program administered by La Financière agricole.
That makes it possible at least to harmonize this program with the other risk management programs administered by La Financière.
The CAIS program provides minimal coverage, which does not include all kinds of risks, which can vary considerably from one farm to another or one region to another.
If CAIS were doing the job, why were seven different programs created to deal with various crises? The program would seem poorly designed.
CAIS was useless for the cull cattle problem. It did not do anything.
Let me quote the president of the Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec for you:
I would like to point out as well that milk producers are not eligible for CAIS. In order for a milk producer to be eligible, he or she must have losses of at least 30% over the last three selected base years. In our case, even if our cull cattle were sold for $0.00, we would not even qualify for the part of the CAIS program covering catastrophes, the only one for which we are eligible.
Let me give just one example. According to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, managing the deposits costs $14 million in administrative expenses, while they only bring in $34 million. Assuming an interest rate of 6%, the administrative costs are high.
Let us now look at the motion put forward by the Conservative Party of Canada this morning.
On February 8, the agriculture ministers will be meeting to discuss the CAIS program, among other things. We would hope that the federal government will not show up empty-handed. It was for just that reason that it did not make an appearance at the last UPA congress. This week the Canadian Federation of Agriculture asked once again for the initial deposit requirement to be abolished. This is the measure that is the subject of the present motion. It is supported by the UPA and by various agricultural organizations.
Ultimately, this is a marginal measure, for it represents only $34 million in annual lost profits in Canada. My colleagues and I support this measure, which should however be funded in its entirety by the federal government.
Let us fact facts. The deposit requirement is a major irritant for agricultural producers. It is not right for hard-pressed farmers to be obliged to borrow in order to make their deposit. The basic question with the CAIS program is this: who do we want to help? The agricultural producers or the bankers?
Time is short. We have to go much further. We acknowledge that the Conservative Party's motion would give farmers a bit more time, but it does not go far enough. It seems to us essential to promptly launch a debate on the effectiveness of the CAIS program. The committee that was supposed to be studying the effectiveness and management of this program has still not convened, and there will be no major change until 2006.
The minister should also be worried about the low number of Quebec producers enrolled in this program, even in a period of crisis. That speaks volumes. This low enrolment rate is explained by the simple fact that the program does not meet their needs, period.
Let me now cite the latest brief from the UPA, which recently submitted four proposals to the federal government. First, the government has to substantially increase its budget for the income security program. Second, it should offer Quebec and the provinces more flexibility in managing the funds earmarked for income security. Federal and provincial assistance has to be decompartmentalized to meet the specific needs of each of the regions and types of production. Third, ways of reducing the program's red tape have to be proposed, particularly as regards establishment of the reference margins. Finally, the impact of international subsidies must be assessed annually in order to adjust the reference margins in a fair and equitable manner.
So this is what the Bloc Québécois believes must be done to improve the Canadian Agricultural income Stabilization program. I want to reiterate that this government, led by its former Minister of Finance, has been constantly coming upon budget surpluses as if by magic, year after year, for ages now. If this government really wanted to make itself some new and genuine friends, it would turn to those who provide us with our daily bread and who now find themselves in a situation which has for some time now been well past the crisis point.
Our people have faced some serious problems since this party came back to power. Consider the fiscal imbalance, which has imposed a terrible burden on those who want to receive real health care, both in Quebec and in the Canadian provinces.
Think of the farmers who are forced to sell their farm because they have lost hope, because of mismanagement of public funds by this government, because of deficient sanitary practices by supposedly responsible persons, who would do well to model themselves on the sanitary methods used in Quebec.
There is still time to help those who provide us with our daily bread. All we have to do is listen to them, stop trying to find solutions in ivory towers in Ottawa or elsewhere, roll up our sleeves, and really move things forward. It is doable. But is this government capable? Up to now in Quebec, it has not proven much of anything.