Mr. Speaker, since coming to Parliament back in 1997, like most people, I have endeavoured to raise issues of concern to my riding and to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador on a number of occasions. I have tried to raise these issues in the media and I have tried to raise them here on the floor of the House of Commons.
While some progress has been made, there are a number of matters that I find myself talking about today that I was talking about back in 1997 when I came here, which indicates of course the very little progress that has been made on these very important issues.
The issue, first and foremost, not only in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador and not only in the riding of St. John's East, which plagues Canadians generally is health care.
There was much ado about a meeting that was held a few months ago by the Prime Minister with the various premiers right across Canada. It had to do with a payment. I will not say an additional payment because it certainly did not represent additional moneys into the health care system, but it was a payment of about $2 billion which had been made to the various provinces. It was a promise that was made by the previous Prime Minister.
This money in no way represented or was in any way an indication of a new fit of generosity on the part of the federal government. We should make that perfectly clear right off the bat. This was not new money. The $2 billion in question is only a very small part of the many billions of dollars that have been cut to the provinces in transfer payments over the last number of years.
I never cease to be amazed, that given the fact that health care is the number one issue in the country, that the federal government still does not seem to be getting it. It does not seem to be getting the message that Canadians generally from coast to coast are concerned first and foremost with the health care system in their respective part of the country. The federal government just does not seem to get it.
Yes, the federal Liberals balanced the budget, but it was at a tremendous cost to the people of Canada. It was at a tremendous cost to the various provinces, including my own. It is easy to fix a problem if all one does with that problem is pass it along down the line to the next level of government.
Years ago Ottawa, as we are all aware, paid roughly 50% of a province's health care budget. Today it is down, I think I read it recently in an ad in one of the local papers, to 14% or 16% that the federal government is actually paying in to the health care system. That is one of the reasons that we have lineups at the various hospitals and health care institutions. That is why it is very difficult to recruit nurses, doctors and medical specialists generally. We have somehow lost sight of the fact that the health care system in the country actually needs more money and it desperately needs leadership at the federal level.
We often hear the Minister of Health and the Prime Minister say that the problem in health care cannot be fixed by throwing more money at it. Does it not stand to reason that if, over a 10 year period, we take vast sums of money out of the health care system when the federal government's contribution to health care was 50% and is now down to about 15%, that the health care system would need that money back in order to fix the problems that exist now?
Therefore, for the government to say that just throwing more money at the health care system will not solve the problem, is an absolute farce. Since the federal government has cut large sums of money out of the health care system, it is only reasonable to assume that it would at least put some money back, which would go a long way toward fixing it. To date the federal government has not put any money back into the health care system.
The government comes along every now and then and offers $2 billion but it has cut so much out of it that we are not yet back to 1997 levels of spending. Still the federal government says that it is putting additional money into the health care system.
Health care needs more money and it desperately needs leadership at the federal level. One of the reasons why we have a bit of a patchwork of health care services across the country is that the federal government has lost its moral authority in setting national standards. Simply put, when we pay only a small fraction of the piper's wages, we cannot expect to call the tune. That is the real problem here.
Our health care system used to be one of the hallmarks of Canadian citizenship. Our nation is crying out for visionary leadership on health care, to put the system back on the rails. It has gone off the rails over the last five years in particular. People are looking to their government and to the Prime Minister to show some leadership and vision.
It is hard to know what the government will do. In this pre-writ period it seems to be satisfied to be all things to all people. We have the Prime Minister travelling around the country and if he hears something about education in one part of the country he is implementing or writing the policy on the fly to satisfy that particular group. He then moves to another part of the country and does the same thing. The problem we have with our leadership right now is that it has no vision.
The problem of mounting student debt was also in the recent throne speech. I have mentioned that issue on several occasions here on the floor of the House of Commons. The source of the problem is the cuts made by the government that we have in power right now to transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador the provincial student grant program was the first to go and was replaced with the provincial student loan. Less federal funding at the post-secondary education level also drove up tuition rates.
Today I was reading a story from last week in the Globe and Mail that said that student debt had risen 76% over the last few years. Students are in desperate shape. Many students come to my office on a daily basis telling me that they have a student debt load of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000. What that means is that students are graduating today with tens of thousands of dollars of debt while search for or starting a job, which presumably will be their first job and a low paying job.
One wonders how an individual with that kind of a debt load could possibly start a family, buy a new car, rent an apartment, get a mortgage on a house or whatever, when he or she has that kind of debt load. The federal government has not addressed the problems of students.
The Liberals, under the current Prime Minister's term as finance minister, have created a generation of impoverished students and debt-ridden graduates. However more than lip service is needed to fix that problem. It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister is serious about dealing with the serious underfunding in post-secondary education.
I have a feeling, and I hope I am wrong, that the Prime Minister and the government are just making these promises pre-writ because they want to be all things to all people and, when the election is over, students and the health care system will find themselves in the same positions they are in today.
That is an awful commentary to make on the government but one has no choice but to make it when we see how the government has performed over the last number of years in not keeping its promises.
I want to speak for a moment to an issue that is very important to a lot of provinces, the equalization issue. The equalization program is another good example of where the government talks a very good line but it rarely does anything practical to assist the smaller provinces that want to see some meaningful changes made to the current equalization system.
Instead of truly equalizing the have not provinces with the have provinces, the equalization program over the years has kept us stuck in a semi-impoverished state. The funding under that program prevents the poorer provinces from drowning but it also prevents them from learning to swim on their own. That is the chief problem with the current equalization system.
This sorry state of affairs arises because of the clawback provision in the equalization formula. When a resource rich province like Newfoundland and Labrador earns a dollar in resource revenues, roughly about 80% of that dollar is clawed back by Ottawa through reductions in the equalization payments to that province. It is very difficult for a small province to make any headway under the “earn a dollar, lose a dollar” formula.
We have not been successful in making the country fully aware of the drawbacks of that formula, especially the clawback provisions. I think if people in the country were truly aware of how unfair that formula really is they would insist that something be done about it to help the smaller provinces.
I want to give an example that outlines the problem in graphic detail. I would truly love for everyone who is within hearing of what I am saying to give a little bit of attention to this example.
I will only talk about my own province of Newfoundland and Labrador right now. In six years the revenues flowing to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador from three oil fields, Hibernia, White Rose and Terra Nova, will be $1.1 billion. The federal government, through its corporate tax structure and the clawback provisions in the equalization program, will claw back $900 million out of that $1.1 billion.
I am flabbergasted when I think about that. We are a resource rich province struggling with an $827 million deficit and in six years, when we will have $1.1 billion flowing from three oil wells, the federal government, through its corporate tax structure and the clawback in equalization payments, will take $900 million out of that $1.1 billion.
How can a province like Newfoundland and Labrador ever expect to make any progress under that kind of a system? What that means is that the provincial government, which has an $827 million deficit, will get to keep $200 million of the $1.1 billion, which represents 18% of what is being generated. Something is wrong in how the country operates. Provinces do not have a chance to become equal or to get a foot up and try to swim on their own when the federal government makes those kinds of demands on poorer but, at the same time, resource rich provinces.
To compound that tragedy--