Hon. Clément Gignac: Honourable senators, I rise today at third reading to speak to Bill C-31, An Act respecting cost of living relief measures related to dental care and rental housing, which was passed by the House of Commons on October 27, 2022. I would like to acknowledge all of my colleagues who have spoken so far and thank them for their thoughts. In particular, I would like to recognize the work of Senator Hassan Yussuff who so ably sponsored this bill in the Senate.
As a member of the National Finance Committee, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study this bill. While some have pointed out to me that this bill, with over 35 pages, had been approved in clause-by-clause consideration at the National Finance Committee in just 15 minutes, without any amendments or observations, I would like to point out that this does not reflect all of the upstream work they had done on this bill under the leadership of our chair, Senator Mockler.
Indeed, we had five special meetings dedicated to this bill and heard from nearly 25 witnesses, including 3 federal ministers who were present at the same time before the Senate committee, probably a first in our recent history.
As stated previously, the purpose of Bill C-31 is to relieve the pressure that low-income individuals and families in Canada are experiencing. Unfortunately, they are the ones hit hardest by rising inflation. To be precise, where household income is below a set limit, this bill will provide up to $650 per year for two years to help pay for dental care for children under the age of 12 and up to $500 in a single lump-sum housing benefit for Canadians in need. Although the housing and dental benefits in Bill C-31 are temporary, they will still help those in greatest need.
I will now get into detail about each of the two measures in the bill.
Regarding the temporary dental benefit, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the program will cost approximately $700 million until a permanent Canadian dental plan is established in 2025. During meetings of the Senate Committee on National Finance, I raised three concerns, which I would like to share with you.
As our colleague Senator Seidman demonstrated during the second reading of the bill, all the provinces have already implemented dental care programs, even if the coverage of these programs is very different from one province to another.
In Quebec, there is already a universal dental care program for young children under 10 years of age. This is partly why the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or PBO, estimates that Quebec would represent only 13% of the total cost of this new temporary federal program, despite representing a quarter of the Canadian population.
Given the federal government’s intention to extend this plan on an ongoing basis over the coming years to young people 18 and under, seniors and persons with disabilities, in a provincial jurisdiction no less, it is incumbent on the government to be flexible and consider that the provinces may use provisions to opt out with financial compensation, which is obviously conditional on meeting certain conditions.
At the same time, this pragmatic approach would be more respectful of a decentralized federalism, especially since the dental and dental hygiene professions are regulated by the provinces. What is more, the recommended fee structure for dental care delivery varies from one province to the next. In short, while supporting the federal objective to ensure universal dental care coverage from coast to coast to coast, in particular for young people, I hope the federal government — a bit like Senator Mockler was saying — is receptive to the demands of the provinces — including Quebec — that may want to administer their own dental care system with full compensation, if the conditions are met, obviously.
As I previously said in committee, there is already tension in federal-provincial relations in the area of health, as we saw in Vancouver, and there is no need to add another layer of tension by establishing a national dental care plan without consulting the provinces.
My second concern relates to the ability of dental clinics and all associated practitioners to suddenly accept all these new clients without imposing generalized fee hikes or increased wait times for current clients, who often find it difficult to get appointments.
We learned at committee hearings that there is a shortage of dental hygienists in Canada and that people have trouble accessing a qualified dentist across the country, especially in our more remote areas.
Let’s hope that the Canadian Dental Association and the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association will be able to work with educational institutions across Canada to address this challenge and provide these necessary services to all eligible young Canadians.
Let’s also hope that dental clinics will strictly abide by the fee schedule proposed by their professional association and will not take advantage by imposing a small surcharge, given the immediate increase in demand that may occur.
My third concern is the total annual amount that Canadian taxpayers will have to shoulder when the dental care plan is implemented in 2025. For now, the government expects that the annual recurring cost of the future dental insurance plan would reach $1.7 billion effective in 2025.
That does not take into account the fact that some employers might take advantage and decrease the dental coverage in their own dental insurance plan in order to save money. On that point I have the same concern as my colleague, the Honourable Senator Loffreda. What monitoring mechanism will be in place to prevent a considerable increase in the bill to Canadian taxpayers and to ensure that employers do not opt out to leave the government on the hook instead?
So far, no one has really been able to give us any answers. With rising inflation and the uncertainty surrounding the behaviour of employers toward this national dental plan, you will allow me, dear colleagues, to express some concern and a bit of skepticism about the estimated cost of $1.7 billion a year for this future plan, starting in 2025.
As we say in English, “Stay tuned.”
My next comments will focus on the second component of Bill C-31, the creation of a $500 one-time benefit for low-income Canadian renters. If this bill is passed, this benefit would be available to those who spend at least 30% of their income on rent in 2022, and whose income is less than $20,000 for a single person or less than $35,000 for a family. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the cost of this one-time measure will be close to $1 billion.
Just as we did during the study of Bill C-30, in committee we raised the fact that, on average, 10% of Canadians, especially the poorest, do not file income tax returns for a variety of reasons. That percentage is even higher in Nunavut, as Senator Patterson has already mentioned. Consequently, these people will not receive the $500 one-time benefit unless they finally file their previous year’s return. The Minister of Revenue, in her testimony before the committee, tried to reassure us that she was doing everything in her power to encourage low-income Canadians to file their tax returns so they could access this program.
In conclusion, honourable senators, these targeted programs provided in Bill C-31, and contained in the recent Bill C-30, to help low-income Canadians are great initiatives that deserve our support.
However, as pointed out by Senator Cotter, the federal government needs to, and should, consult the provinces to find out — in good faith — which level of government is best placed to provide those dental services, given the fact that this is regulated by the provinces.
For now, the federal government has been able to launch many new initiatives over the last 12 months while significantly reducing deficits at the same time — thanks to inflation because inflation helps the government in terms of revenue.
One day, and, perhaps, not far away, the source of federal revenue will be less prolific and dry up due to a potential recession or geopolitical risk. We should avoid repeating the experience of the 1990s when it was the provinces that took the hit from the consolidation of federal finances, with massive cuts made to transfer payments to the provinces from Ottawa, due to the spending spree that had been put in place in the previous years.
In closing, I would like to thank all of my colleagues on the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance for their analyses and their commitment. I am already looking forward to examining the next bill with them, Bill C-32, which concerns the November 3 economic statement and promises to be rather substantial, since it is 172 pages long. At that time, I will have a lot of things to say about the various federal government initiatives in the wake of this pandemic and especially about the threat that the potential deterioration of the economy could pose to our public finances.
In the meantime, honourable senators, I will support Bill C-31.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!