The House resumed consideration of the motion for an address to Her Excellency the Governor General in reply to the speech at the opening of the session, of the amendment and of the amendment to the amendment.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to say a few words about the government's agenda in this new and very different Parliament and about the subamendment that is now before us from the Bloc Quebecois.
The government's agenda flows directly from commitments made to Canadians in the June election campaign. That is now embodied in the Speech from the Throne. It is an ambitious agenda for an ambitious country.
Beginning with health care, we will implement the historic agreement which the Prime Minister reached with all first ministers in mid-September. By that agreement the Government of Canada will provide the provinces and territories with more than $41 billion in new health care funding over the coming decade. That is on top of some $36 billion per year which the federal government currently invests directly and indirectly in the health of Canadians.
This means that we have met and surpassed all of the federal financial obligations laid out by the hon. Roy Romanow in his landmark report on health care. We have a long term agreement duly signed by every premier from every province and territory. It provides the best terms ever on transparency. It is a triumph of successful Canadian federalism and it allows all of us to focus all of our efforts at long last on the real substance: shorter waiting times, more health care professionals, better equipment, improved primary care, home care and catastrophic drug coverage, better services in the north and for aboriginals, more health innovation, and improved public health and wellness.
To a very large extent, that is what the throne speech and that is what this session of Parliament are all about, but there is more.
There is equalization, the Canadian way of building equity and fairness among all our provinces and regions. Equalization has been an integral part of federal-provincial fiscal arrangements since 1957. It has been in our Constitution since 1982. It typically transfers some $8 billion to $10 billion annually from the Government of Canada to those less fortunate provinces whose revenue raising capacity falls below a certain calculated standard.
The existing equalization system is based upon a hugely complicated formula with at least--count them--1,320 constantly moving parts. Provinces are concerned that it lacks clarity and predictability and it sometimes works retroactively.
When equalization payments go down, as they do on occasion according to the formula, even though that means the gap between the have and the have not provinces has narrowed, and that should be a good thing, provinces still worry about the adequacy of the system. To meet these concerns, we have tabled the biggest changes in equalization in all of its 47 years.
For this current year we will put two new financial floors under existing calculations, boosting overall payments from what was expected to be about $9.2 billion this year to about $10.8 billion all together, well above the average value of the equalization program over the past five years.
For next year and going forward, we will go further to create a new equalization base amount which will then be indexed to increase automatically year by year into the future. The new base amount for fiscal year 2005-06 will be set at the highest level that equalization entitlements have ever reached, that is, $10.9 billion. The index factor on top of that base will be 3.5% per year and we will review the arrangement every five years.
We have thus addressed all three concerns about clarity, predictability and adequacy with what amounts to an estimated $33 billion in improvements in federal contributions to the provinces and territories over the coming decade. First ministers will meet again on October 26 to finalize the details.
There is more. We have outlined important plans for early childhood development, learning and care; for seniors, the disabled and their caregivers; for aboriginal Canadians; for cities and communities; for rural Canada, agriculture and natural resources; for the north; for the environment; and for Canada's place of respect and distinction in world affairs. Still there is more.
Our commitment is to balanced budgets, fiscal discipline, steady and sensible debt reduction, and just as we have done in every budget since 1996, further reductions in federal taxes especially for lower income Canadians, and to enhance the competitiveness of the Canadian economy.
The fact that Canada has been a strong fiscal, economic and social performer over the past seven years is the direct result of our successful battle in the 1990s to beat the deficit. It is a battle that we fought and a battle that we won.
After nearly three decades of chronic red ink, no growth, high interest rates and lost jobs, we balanced Canada's books in 1997 and we have kept them balanced every year since. We are the only G-7 country to be operating solidly in the black. Our triple A credit ratings have been fully restored from where they were in the mid-1990s and later.
Since moving into surplus, the average standard of living of Canadians has increased at a faster pace. There has been more improvement in the past seven years than in the previous 17 years.
Our careful planning and prudent budgeting have given Canada the strength to deal with expensive and unpredictable crises like security threats, natural disasters, the SARS outbreak, and of course BSE in the livestock sector.
We have also had the wherewithal to invest in primary Canadian priorities like health care, learning, families and innovation while also paying down debt, cutting taxes and always balancing the books. However, we can never take our fiscal and economic success for granted. It is crucial to the well-being of Canadians everywhere but it is not automatic.
That is why I was very pleased to see a substantial portion of the Speech from the Throne devoted to the challenge of how we maintain and build upon our economic strength, because that is the enabler for everything else that Canadians want to do. It is the enabler for the things we do in common with our provincial colleagues and partners, things like health care and equalization, but also post-secondary education, certain other social programming, infrastructure, the environment, agriculture, immigration, regional development, housing and alleviating homelessness, innovation and research.
Our economic success is also the enabler behind our direct federal responsibility for things like the public pensions of an increasingly aging society, international diplomacy, foreign aid and world trade, national defence, national security and dealing with national emergencies. Of course there is still that federal debt of more than $500 billion, which incidentally is nearly double the size of all provincial and territorial debt combined. Just keeping that debt current consumes about 20¢ out of every dollar of federal revenue. It adds up to about $35 billion a year, probably the biggest single expenditure item facing the Government of Canada.
No one should doubt the serious responsibilities carried by provincial governments. Of course, their jurisdictions, just like the federal jurisdiction, must always be respected. At the same time, in fairness, it also needs to be noted that both orders of government have access to all of the same major tax bases.
It has to be noted that some provincial revenue sources, like royalties and the proceeds from lotteries, are not available to the federal government. It has to be noted that provinces have complete autonomy in setting their own fiscal policies. It has to be noted that federal fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets and debt reduction save interest costs not just for the Government of Canada but for all Canadians, including provincial governments.
It has to be noted that recent improvements in national economic performance will boost not only federal revenues but also provincial revenues. It has to be noted that the Government of Canada is already committed to substantial increases in its annual multibillion dollar transfers to assist other governments, most notably for health care of $41 billion, and equalization of $33 billion, not to mention other things yet to come, such as child care, communities and others.
It has to be noted that, just like the provinces, the Government of Canada too has serious responsibilities to discharge, as I have already outlined.
It is interesting to note that international comparisons show that Canada, as a very successful country, a very successful federation, is one of the most decentralized federations in the world.
On the money side of the equation, total provincial revenues, that is, their own source revenues plus federal cash transfers every year, have substantially exceeded federal revenues for more than two decades now and they are expected to continue to do so.
For all of these reasons, I have profound difficulty with the motion from the Bloc Quebecois, which is now before the House. Both its premise and its remedy are, in my view, fundamentally wrong. It denies recent progress on things like health care and equalization. Most seriously, it ignores the duties and the responsibilities of the government and the Parliament of Canada by proposing essentially the delegation of a huge portion of national fiscal decision making on an unaccountable and absolutely open-ended basis to one single provincial premier acting alone.
Let me make it clear. I have enormous respect for the premier of Quebec. I had the honour of sitting in the House with him and working with him on such things as the environmental challenges, for example. He is an outstanding leader of his province and he did a superb job at the recent first ministers conference on health.
I think we are all very proud of Mr. Charest, but that does not change the fact that it would be a distortion of our democracy to bind federal fiscal policy to the pronouncements, past, present or future, of any person or authority outside this chamber and not accountable to this chamber.
Further, to single out the premier of one province, as this motion does, is a fundamental disservice to the leaders of every other province and territory. The premier of Quebec, I suspect, is not the only premier with some pretty strong views on financial matters and it is probably true that among the premiers there are many and varied opinions. It is not a case of one size fits all.
On the question of equalization, for example, I know the premier of Quebec has a very strong position and I respect that position. However, with the greatest of respect, I also know that the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has a very strong position, as does the premier of New Brunswick, as does the premier of Saskatchewan and, I suspect, on the other side of the equation, so does the premier of Alberta and so does the premier of Ontario.
The issue here is not speaking for provincial premiers. My point is this: it is simply not acceptable to enshrine the view of any authority outside of Parliament as the basis of federal fiscal policy. It makes no sense from the perspective of responsible government because this is the place where those fiscal decisions are ultimately made, and it makes no sense from the perspective of fairness and understanding within our federal system.
Therefore, I would urge all hon. members to support the thrust and the fundamental direction of the throne speech itself and to defeat the subamendment in the voting later tonight.
Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Finance is saying so many incorrect, narrow and twisted things it is outrageous.
To say that our amendment to the amendment is threatening the accord on equalization is twisted. What our amendment to the amendment says is that we must go further than equalization, resolve equalization, but go beyond and examine all federal transfers.
The Minister of Finance, who prides himself on helping the agricultural sector, does not recall having made a commitment that he did not live up to when he was responsible for the Canadian Dairy Commission four years ago. He cut the $6.03 a hectolitre provided to dairy producers. It provided Quebec dairy producers with $120 million. He said he would raise prices accordingly to compensate for the losses. He never did. This man does not honour his commitments.
Today, he is talking nonsense. He just told my Conservative colleague that our amendment to the amendment is threatening the equalization accord. What equalization accord?
Two weeks ago I attended the first ministers' conference. They presented a convoluted position for reforming equalization. He says there is no agreement. Yes, there are agreements with the receiving provinces to make substantial changes to the equalization system based on all 10 provinces and a realistic view of property taxes.
This minister is talking nonsense, as the government did earlier, as the Prime Minister did during oral question period when he said this would be abdicating the federal government's responsibilities.
This is so wrong and warped that it is bad faith. It is bad faith. It reeks of bad faith.
I have a question for the Minister of Finance. Will he admit that he and the Prime Minister made promises?
They need to broaden the scope of the first ministers' conference and come better prepared than they were two weeks ago at the health conference, when the Prime Minister did not even know what he was talking about. They need to be ready to explain to the provinces the shameful surpluses that were accumulated not by good administration, but by making cuts to employment insurance, health and education. That is what you have been doing for 10 years. So much for your good administration and your surpluses.
While people have needs in health and education, there are surpluses here. Will he address the public's real concerns?
Mr. Speaker, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time with the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl.
First, I begin by congratulating you on your return as our Speaker. Your steady hand in the past has given us the confidence to move forward with the challenges a minority government situation can bring.
I would also like to thank my constituents for returning me to Ottawa as their representative. Their support and encouragement is humbling. I look forward to exceeding all their expectations. The campaign seemed very brief, but I met many of the new constituents.
I would like to especially thank at this time all those who took the time to assist with my campaign, while putting my aspects of their person lives on hold. Their participation in our democracy is a gift to us all. Thanks again.
This week we heard the Speech from the Throne, and many of us could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Much of what we heard was recycled, rehashed, repromised Liberal letdown. I am not surprised, but I am disappointed.
Given that the Prime Minister has been in power for almost a year, and planning for a decade before that, I expected much more. I expected a vision, a focus for Canada, organized priorities with organized goals. Instead of a finely trimmed racing schooner heading for the finish line, we see a government that resembles a dinghy floating on an ocean, lost, drifting and in desperate need of a plan.
Nonetheless, the government reoffered its throne speech again. Again the Liberals have promised to introduce a national child care program. This is a promise that former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien promised three times before and failed to deliver on. Now, under much of the same cabinet, the Prime Minister has promised the same thing yet again.
The government is promising a quarter of a million spots within the next five years. This plan apparently will cost $5 billion. However, before we get too excited, let us not forget that this is the same government that promised to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Instead of achieving their goal, it bought new VIP jets for themselves. Life is about choices and choices are about priorities.
The Conservative Party believes that parents should have the tools and the choices to care for their children. Good child care is important to the Conservative Party. We know parents will choose what is best for their children, and we believe parental choice is imperative because different families have different needs. Child care needs in our rural communities are vastly different from those in the centre of our urban centres. One size will not fit all.
I must admit that it is difficult to comment on this program as the government has yet to table legislation or even lay out a proposal. I guess a decade was not enough time to prepare.
In one form or the other it has been promised before, but the Liberals have failed to deliver. We will have to take a wait and see approach until this government determines if it actually intends to deliver on its promise this time. It is quite a record of broken red book and throne speech promises.
Child care is a provincial responsibility. There are serious logistical, jurisdictional and economic issues that must be better explained by the federal government before we can move ahead. Universal daycare is something that will require the cooperation of the provinces and the federal government. How would such a program be implemented and, more important, audited for cost and performance?
We have seen programs, such as the national gun registry, stray far from its original mandate, goals and budget. There are only so many boondoggles that one government can afford.
The government does not have a good track record of dealing with the provinces on jurisdictional issues. Given that the Romanow report came out several years ago and it took until this fall for the deal to be hammered out, we cannot realistically expect anything for a long time.
Child care is very different. In each corner of the country, local and provincial governments have already realized this. By the time regional, cultural and economic adjustments are made for each party of the country, we end up with anything but a national program.
In addition, we are interested to know what side deals will be negotiated with various provinces, as we saw in the recent health agreement. How much control will the federal government have over its funding and how much control does the federal government want over its funding?
As members can see, this is a complex matter that will require a lot more information from the government before we can get an accurate picture of where the government intends to go on this issue. We believe all professional child care providers should be properly qualified and certified. This is also a provincial responsibility, but the federal government can encourage a minimum national standard. Provincial jurisdictions must be respected.
I do want to stress that whatever plan the government proposes, it must not limit the options available to parents. Parents must have fair options to choose how to raise their own children. Parents choose their child care arrangements based on many things other than just budget constrictions. Child care can be based on cultural preferences, language preferences, educational options, location of service, family needs, medical needs and many other priorities. These are important criteria that must be incorporated into any proposal.
Another area I wish to touch upon is the lack of attention in the throne speech to the plight of our rural agricultural communities. These communities have been devastated by years of unexpected, unprecedented challenges that have pushed farm families to the brink of ruin. Many have left the land and many others are running out of options to stay on the land.
The CAIS program and CFIP are a joke. They have failed to deliver the help when and where needed. The frustration that farmers have experienced with these programs have only added to the stress and the strain of the situation. The government needs to listen to our farm families to better meet their unique needs. So far that has not been the case.
Unfortunately, the throne speech offers little as far as hope and solutions go. While I am not surprised, I am very disappointed. In fact this is part of a disturbing pattern of growing indifference from the Liberals to agriculture.
In the throne speech agriculture received no more than a single word of reference in passing. The throne speech before contained just two sentences of attention to farm families, a significant drop from the speech before when they received 14 seconds of discussion in the speech. Sadly, I would not be surprised if the next speech contained nothing for Canada's suffering farm families and the agricultural industry.
This situation is unacceptable and the Prime Minister should be ashamed for turning his back on his election promises. He promised to make agriculture a priority and he has failed. So much for dealing with major issues facing those in agricultural communities and agricultural industries in the agricultural sector.
The finance minister should also be ashamed of his participation and lack of influence in this situation. The people of Saskatchewan not only expected better, but he promised better. I expected more from a man who has been chasing the job of prime minister for so long. I also expected better from a government that needs to earn the respect and the support of Canadians.
Before I sit down, Madam Speaker, I want to congratulate you on your position.