Mrs. Pauline Picard (Drummond, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak again to the bill before us today, Bill C-28.
There are a number of things wrong with this bill. There are the measures that supposedly demonstrate the government's concern with respect to social programs and the deterioration of health care, which it brought about itself by cutting provincial transfer payments in the health, social services and education sectors over the last three years.
This bill is an attempt to make us think the government has invested in social programs, especially health. The reality is that the government has put no new money into transfers, particularly not for health. The $48 billion in unilateral cuts announced have now dropped to $42 billion. We are told that the government is investing the $6 billion difference, but in reality no new money is being invested; the government is cutting $6 billion less.
We are told that health is a priority. We feel it is arrogant of the government to try to persuade the public that it is investing heavily in social programs.
As things stand now, the provinces have been cut so many times by the federal government, particularly in the health sector, that they are running out of steam and are having a great deal of trouble maintaining the existing level of health care and keeping the whole system from falling apart. And the federal government remains indifferent to what the provinces are going through.
Worse yet, on top of cutting transfers to the provinces, the government is set to interfere in health, which is a provincial jurisdiction. We are told that, instead of rushing into restructuring, the government is investing; it is investing, however, by cutting less than originally forecast and dropping a little money into new programs that really fall under provincial jurisdiction.
The government wants to enhance its visibility by giving everyone the impression that it is good to the people; it comes up with programs like medicare and home care, when such programs already exist in several provinces, including Quebec.
Once again, after vowing to avoid duplication and overlap, the federal government projects an image of itself as saviour while it interferes in jurisdictions that are none of its business.
Management of health, social programs, education and social assistance comes under provincial jurisdiction. Normally, the government should transfer their share back to the provinces instead of interfering in an area that is not under its jurisdiction.
The government does not seem to realize that no one has waited for it to take action. What the provinces need today is not more talks but the financial means to implement solutions designed to meet their needs.
In this respect, I would like to quote from the Quebec finance minister's last budget speech, which sums up well the mess the federal government has left the provinces, and Quebec in particular:
Since we took power in 1994, the federal government has unilaterally deprived us of $7 billion for health care, $3 billion for education, and $1 billion for asocial assistance. This adds up to $11 billion. The figure does not include the $2 billion that Ottawa has refused to pay for the harmonization of the QST and the GST, although the three Atlantic Provinces were granted $1 billion.
Were it not for these depredations, we would already have achieved a zero deficit and avoided many of the painful, sweeping spending cutbacks that some observers are trying to ascribe to our wishes alone. The health and education departments are not located in Ottawa, but it is there and without our input that the cutbacks have in the main been decided. That is how absurd the system has become... The latest budget confirms the federal government's complete insensitivity to a number of our needs, notably in the health sector. Ottawa prefers to distribute cheques to the population, emblazoned with the maple leaf. Lacking vision, Ottawa is investing in visibility.
That is what we have to live with in Quebec and how we view the situation.
I would also like to share another concern regarding Bill C-28. There is an apparent conflict of interest. Through Bill C-28, the Minister of Finance is trying to have legislation passed that is likely to give his shipping company, Canada Steamship Lines Inc., of which he is the sole owner, certain tax advantages.
Clause 241 of Bill C-28 would amend section 250 of the Income Tax Act. In this 464-page omnibus bill, clause 241 is only two paragraphs long and deals exclusively with international shipping; moreover, the Minister of Finance himself is the bill's sponsor.
How can the Minister of Finance sponsor a bill which includes tax provisions that could benefit his own company, while continuing to suggest that these measures will not apply to him and to his shipping holding company? There is indeed an apparent conflict of interest and, given the importance of the minister's position and the integrity he must show while managing the country's finances, there should not be any suspicions whatsoever about him. However, with Bill C-28, his personal name as a shipowner and that of his holding are directly linked to the legislation.
Even though the minister is defending himself by saying that his company has been held in a blind trust since he assumed his current position, he will not be a minister all his life and he will eventually benefit from that tax amendment.
The very first day that we questioned the Minister of Finance about this issue, he advised us to talk to Len Farber, director general of tax legislation at the Department of Finance. We did meet Mr. Farber, but he could neither confirm nor deny whether the minister might benefit from these changes, thus raising serious doubts in our minds.
Our next step was to table five motions before the Standing Committee on Finance, asking that various witnesses appear to shed light on the issue. The only witness authorized to appear before the committee was Mr. Wilson, the government's ethics counsellor, who is paid by the government and who is accountable only to the government. Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson's appearance before the committee strengthened our position, since he himself put the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance in an embarrassing position.
After candidly admitting that he was not an expert on international taxation and that he could not adequately answer a number of our questions, Mr. Wilson also recognized that, indeed, there could be an apparent conflict of interest in this case, adding that had he been informed at the very beginning of the details relating to clause 241 and its impact, things would have been done differently.
He recognized, as we do, that there were serious problems with the way the finance minister was doing things and that the code of ethics the government had adopted in 1994 was not observed. Indeed, the code of ethics clearly states that public office holders must, as soon as they take up their duties, take necessary steps to avoid real, potential or apparent conflict of interest. Obviously, the code of ethics was not adhered to and the finance minister is at fault.
After the Liberal majority on the finance committee refused to agree to our request, the four opposition parties called a press conference to demand that the Prime Minister order a special committee to be struck to shed light on clause 241 of Bill C-28. As yet our request has remained unanswered.
The government's ethic counsellor, who answers to the Prime Minister, claims it is irrelevant to know whether or not CSL, owned by the finance minister, may benefit from provisions in Bill C-28. If so, why did Mr. Wilson get in touch with CSL management, the very first day this became an issue, and ask if it was making use or was planning to make use of these provisions?
Moreover, Mr. Wilson admitted he was no financial planning expert. And yet he seems to accept without questioning or seeking an outside second opinion CSL's statement that it does not intend to make use of Bill C-28's provisions.
For weeks now the government has been denying the finance minister is at the very least in an apparent conflict of interest because he is not the one who was in charge of the shipping provisions.
However, the ethics counsellor contradicted the government when he admitted that the finance minister's sponsoring of Bill C-28 gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Mr. Wilson stated in this regard that procedural problems within the finance department had put the finance minister in an awkward situation, and that things would have been done differently had he been contacted, as he should have been, before Bill C-28 was introduced.
Since the ethics counsellor admits the finance minister is in an apparent conflict of interest, how should the June 1994 federal government code of ethics apply in this particular case?
Mr. Wilson also suggests that the finance minister was not aware of the contents of Bill C-28 before the Bloc Quebecois raised these issues in the House a few weeks ago. On the one hand, can the minister responsible for the Income Tax Act so easily avoid his responsibilities toward a bill that he is sponsoring and, on the other hand, what must the people be thinking about a finance minister who does not know the contents of his own bills? Is ministerial accountability not a fundamental principle of our parliamentary system?
In conclusion, there are many issues and these issues are serious enough that we should take the time to address them. So long as the government continues to ignore the requests of all opposition parties regarding Bill C-28, we will continue to put pressure in all possible and imaginable ways until finally, in the interest of transparency, someone answers our questions.
Subtopic: Income Tax Amendments Act, 1997