Debates of May 6th, 2004
House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was workers.
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Gilles-A. Perron Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC
Mr. Speaker, this is one of the best comedies I have ever seen performed in this place. This is a farce.
My colleague opposite who just spoke tried to entertain us with his humour. Luckily, few people watch the proceedings of the House at this time of day and I am very happy about that, because there is more entertainment value for those at home in watching cartoons than listening to this person talk rubbish. That is the best way to describe his remarks.
It takes some gall, some nerve, to suggest that we should take our time to settle the problem properly. Since May 2001, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development has heard testimony, conducted investigations as committees do, and presented 17 recommendations, 17 unanimous recommendations that is. As the hon. member aptly said, we should all work together. If these 17 unanimous recommendations are not the result of a team effort, I wonder what is.
Are members opposite waiting for the election to be called to repeat the 2000 election stunt, when the current Prime Minister worked himself into a state in Baie Comeau and said that the seasonal workers' issue would be resolved? We are in 2004, and there is still no solution forthcoming to this problem.
Will the proposal forthcoming from this government in the next few days or weeks just be smoke and mirrors, just one more campaign promise? We are almost back to the days of Duplessis. Will employment insurance be used for vote-getting purposes for the next 10 elections? Duplessis could promise the same bridge election after election. We are heading that way ourselves now.
I would like to have my colleague's comments on the 17 unanimous recommendations tabled by the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development in May of 2001. Were they shelved or pitched out altogether, or was this a serious effort by members of all the parties?
May 6th, 2004 / 3:50 p.m.
Paul Bonwick Simcoe—Grey, ON
Mr. Speaker, it is unfortunate that I have to respond to the rhetoric from someone who I would like to say is an hon. member but who I will just refer to as a member.
By insulting me, compromising or challenging my motive, calling what I say a joke, what kind of parliamentary decorum is that? Does he not think that Liberal members are every bit as concerned about addressing the needs of Canadians as he is?
He keeps referring to an election. Clearly, the hon. member is very nervous about one. I am saying that he should not be talking about an election. He should be talking about working in a collegial manner to resolve the issues of the day. This is not a joke. Working as a separatist in that kind of environment does nobody any good, especially his constituents. The member should be ashamed of himself for making those kinds of statements.
I did not come to the House to be called a joke. I do not dedicate my time and my energies trying to resolve some of the challenges of the day just to have somebody sitting across laugh at me. I did not support the extension of parental benefits through EI so that mothers and fathers could spend time with their children just to have somebody across the way insult me.
No wonder people sometimes have a bad feeling about the House when we see those kinds of shenanigans coming from the Bloc. I can tell you, Mr. Speaker, that there are more people watching than he thinks and they see how he conducts himself. Shame on him for it. I am as much concerned about families in Quebec as I am in my own riding. I will stand here and speak as passionately as I possibly can to address those things.
It is clear that there is a timely need for change. All I can say is that I believe the minister and the Prime Minister take the problem as seriously as any facing the government right now. As a result of that, I believe there will be action.
I have sat in on numerous meetings. It has not just been the HRSD committee. Members of Parliament have been fully engaged in this. Members from the private sector are fully engaged this. Unions are making recommendations. We receive enormous numbers of recommendations.
What is happening with the HRSD report? The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has stood in the House no less than a dozen times and has said that he appreciates the work the committee did and takes its report very seriously. Clearly it will have an impact but it is one part of a larger piece of pie that he is looking at.
He will take that report very seriously knowing that it came from parliamentarians wanting to make sure that the necessary changes to help Canadian families are put into place. However he also takes seriously the recommendations that come from unions and from the private sector. I know the Quebec members of Parliament, through me and to the Speaker, have been as passionate as anybody could be on making sure that the right changes are being made. They have recommendations.
The key to success in this whole thing is making sure that we wade through them, that we understand the impact and that we make the changes necessary to address families, whether they be in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island or in Angus, which happens to be in my riding. For those kinds of changes we have to understand the impact, both positive and negative. That is what is being done.
I want to see change. This is a living, breathing program. There has been change, there will be change again and there will be change after that. I am as dedicated as anybody in the House to ensuring that the changes we make are appropriate and balanced.
However, to have somebody stand in the House and suggest that what I am saying is a joke, to insult the people in my riding who have qualified for and received benefit from the employment insurance fund or, for that matter, people right across this country, it is shameless politics and nothing more.
Canadians rightly expect and deserve the Liberal government to approach things in a rational fashion and in such a manner so as to understand the needs of Canadians and responding.
I go back to my earlier statement on the OECD. Let us look around the world. This is a program that clearly needs change but it also does wonderfully good work and we should recognize that. We do not want Canadians thinking the employment insurance program is an obsolete tool and that it does no good because that would not be true.
There are families in my riding and families in British Columbia, Quebec and Saskatchewan that are dependent on this program. It is doing what it is supposed to do for those families. Of course there are families, unfortunately, that have not qualified at this point in time, but that is not to say that we have not made changes in qualifying hours for seasonal workers.
The Liberal members of Parliament from Quebec, for that matter the Liberal members of Parliament from all across the country have been very vocal in making sure we recognize what the needs are and making sure we move forward with some of the changes necessary.
That is what we are doing. I certainly hope that over the period of the next few days and weeks the minister will be able to make some of the appropriate changes that might help in these unfortunate situations.
I have to say that when the Bloc members shamelessly voted against the changes that we have made in the past, when we respond to the needs of Canadians in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, they should be supporting them not voting against them.
The Bloc members will have an opportunity in the not too distant future to right their wrong. They can stand up when the necessary changes come forward and they can say, “Mr. Minister, good job. You recognized the problem and you dealt with it in a balanced fashion. Quebec members of Parliament, good job in your fight for Quebecers. New Brunswick members of Parliament, you fought for New Brunswickers. Ontarians, we did it collectively”. That is how Canada works and the House works.
I will be extremely pleased to see the proper changes come forward and know that the Liberal government made them happen.
The Deputy Speaker
Before proceeding with the debate, the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle wishes to raise a question of privilege, to which he gave written notice an hour ago.
Lorne Nystrom Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK
Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege. Earlier today it appeared in the newspapers that the justice committee report on the appointment of Supreme Court justices may have been leaked to the press. I am a member of that committee and I feel my privileges have been infringed upon.
I was called by three journalists yesterday and made a point of not talking about the contents of the committee report or minority reports that will be attached to that particular report of the justice committee.
Mr. Speaker, for your thought and study, I would refer you to an article that appeared today in the National General News . The headline reads:
Feds won't let provinces nominate Supreme Court candidates, say sources.
I would also refer you to an article in the Victoria Times Colonist . The headline reads “Report says PM should pick justices”.
Finally, I will read an article from Montreal's La Presse . The headline reads: “Liberals refuse provincial input into Supreme Court appointments”.
The article contained more alleged details from the committee report that has not yet been tabled in the House of Commons. I think that is an infringement upon the rights of any member of Parliament who sits on a parliamentary committee.
This is a report that was drafted in camera and details of the report appear to have been leaked to the press. That is a serious infringement upon the rights and privileges of all members of the committee and all members of the House of Commons, whether or not we sit on that particular committee.
The Deputy Speaker
I thank the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle for raising a question that is very substantive and of a very important nature with regard to a possible leak of information from the Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
The member for Regina--Qu'Appelle would be aware that that particular report has not been tabled and is not yet before the House. However, when it is tabled, I would expect early next week, the Chair will entertain submissions from other parties interested in the matter.
Until such time, the Chair will take the question raised by the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle under advisement, as he has already suggested.
The hon. member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel.
The House resumed consideration of the motion.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, it is obviously a pleasure for me to speak on this Bloc Quebecois motion which reads—and I shall take the time to read it so that everyone in Quebec and everyone in Canada listening to us, even the Liberal members and members of the other parties in this House, understands the meaning of the words:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should propose, before the dissolution of the House, an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities entitled “Beyond Bill C-2: A Review of Other Proposals to Reform Employment Insurance”.
I took the trouble to read the motion aloud because many of the Liberal members in this House, and others, have made speeches that tried to make us believe—especially those from the government side—that this good government is making or has made all necessary efforts to find a solution to the problems of people who have trouble collecting employment insurance benefits, particularly seasonal and other workers.
This is quite difficult. Once again, we are having this debate just before an election. It was right after the election in 2000 that a committee studied the whole issue, and it reported in May 2001. In 2000, all those elected and all the candidates of all parties—especially the Liberal Party—who travelled throughout Canada could obviously feel how disgruntled Canadians were with the employment insurance plan.
People were very unhappy because since 1996, when the then finance minister and present Prime Minister decided to change the plan, the federal government has not put any money into the EI fund. Only employers and workers are contributing. This should be an independent fund.
All those who contribute think that, if they are the ones who pay, they should manage the plan. But with the EI plan, it is just the opposite. Employee contributions are deducted from the paycheque, and employers also make their contribution at the same time. The federal government does not put in any money, but it is managing the fund and, to make things even worse, it takes the surplus, puts it in the consolidated revenue fund and uses that money.
During the 2000 electoral campaign, the Bloc Quebecois candidates across Quebec decided to fight a merciless war against the Liberal Party and said “Look at the astronomical surplus that you have built up with the EI fund. You have not given the money back to the workers who needed it, especially the seasonal workers, and to the self-employed workers”. There was an important debate on that issue.
The public then realized that the figures given have never been challenged. Since 1996, the government helped itself to $42.5 billion from the EI fund surplus. The government took $42.5 billion from the money that the employees and the employers had paid into that fund.
Many terms have been used to describe what the government did. Many come to mind, but there is only one reality. This is why the Liberals insisted, after the 2000 election, that the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities study this issue, and it produced a unanimous report.
I am amazed today—because I was only elected in 2000—to see members of the Liberal Party give speeches in this House and tell us, “You know that the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities was one report among many”.
Members of the Bloc Quebecois who are chosen to sit on a committee are experts; they are the best. Theoretically, if I use the same reasoning, the Liberal Party should have sent to this Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities its best people, the men and women who are the most able to find a solution.
All of us, in the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the Alliance, the NDP, everyone made 17 unanimous recommendations. Once again, three years later, we are debating these recommendations, which should have been approved immediately after May 2001. We should not be discussing this today in the House. Why? Simply because the Liberal Party, which accumulates billions and billions of dollars, is not in a rush to deliver the goods or to increase its expenditures in the employment insurance program.
People are again upset across Canada and across Quebec. Everyone is upset. It is not the employee's fault if he works in a seasonal industry. There are many in my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel. Tourism, agriculture and forestry are all industries that, because of the weather, have many seasonal jobs.
If, tomorrow morning, it was decided that there would no longer be any seasonal work, imagine the impact on the economy of the regions of Canada and Quebec. This is more or less the message that the Liberals have been sending over the past three years. That message is “If some are not happy, then they should change jobs”. Quebeckers are proud people. They want to continue to work in their regions. We would like to be able to occupy the whole territory and to continue to have regions that develop and that are economically strong. This is why employers and employees have an employment insurance fund, pay premiums and expect to be able to negotiate the content.
The hon. members who sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities made those 17 recommendations after hearing all the stakeholders, including employers and employees from all types of industries.
The reason the Bloc Quebecois is tabling this motion today is because these 17 recommendations were not accepted by the Liberal government.
What we find difficult and hard in the Liberal discourse is to be told “We will make proposals”. First, it will not be those 17 recommendations. Everyone realizes that. It is clear to those who have been listening to us today that the Liberal government will not propose these 17 recommendations. Otherwise, what would the Liberals have done? We asked that our motion be a votable item. Therefore, they would have voted and they would have supported our motion today. But this is not what they have decided to do.
There will be some changes before the election. We will be happy to see some things done. But we want the EI problem fixed. We in the Bloc Quebecois are here, in this House, to fix problems, not to fix them partially or put the whole thing off.
The government is getting richer and in the meantime it is dragging its feet and putting it off for another two or three years once again. The government keeps on getting richer on the backs of workers and the unemployed. Once again, it is going to try to drag things out because, in the meantime, it can use the money for something else. We have heard all kinds of comments in the House today. Some Liberal members told us “We put that money into health care”.
But that is not what workers wanted when they allowed part of their paycheque to go to the EI fund. It does not say “medicare premium”, or “pharmacare premium”. It says “EI premium”. That is the reality. That is why workers pay into the fund. Employers pay the premium to get a service they do not get.
The reality behind the Canadian Labour Congress figures is that, since the Liberals came to power, fewer people have been getting benefits and their overall income has been dropping. In 1993, 57% of people without a job received EI premiums. In 2001, it was only 39%.
So, since 1993, 22% fewer men and women have been eligible for EI. Moreover, for women the change is even more significant as the percentage has dropped to only 33%. The average is 39% and only 33% of women receive EI benefits.
The government tried to give us all kinds of explanations, telling us that when the Canadian Labour Congress carried out its study, it calculated that among the unemployed, there were some who did not contribute. One of the recommendations is to allow self-employed workers to pay into the EI fund and be able to receive benefits since they are contributing and paying taxes in Quebec and Canada. They would like to contribute to the EI fund also.
The Liberal government is opposed to that, once again, because those additional expenses would lower the $42.5 billion surplus it has been accumulating in the fund over the years. Sadly, the scheme we have currently has created gaps in various regions, especially in the spring.
That means that for seasonal workers, families go for 8 to 12 weeks without any revenue according to where they live.
Some will say that each province has its income security scheme. However, that is not real income security because when someone applies to the income security program, there are further delays. Households can be another month and a half without any money coming in.
That does not bother Liberal members in this House. That is the problem. We are creating poverty, when the Chrétien government had declared in 2000 that it would reduce child poverty. What is being created right now are families in need. The government is creating poverty by leaving families without any revenue for 8 to 12 weeks.
Creating poverty in Quebec will never be acceptable to a Bloc member, be it the member for Laurentides, the member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques or myself. All Bloc members will fight to the end to avoid the creation of pockets of poverty in Quebec and in Canada, and we are proud to do so.
Bloc members do not fight only for Quebeckers. We also fight for Canadians who pay their EI premiums and do not receive what they are entitled to in return but are caught in the gaps if they work in seasonal sectors like tourism, resorts, forestry or agriculture. It is the same thing for self-employed workers, whose number is always increasing.
That is what Canadians and Quebeckers expect from us when we come to this place to represent them. They want us to work on changing the legislation, and that is what the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development did in 2001. All political parties adopted a unanimous report. I repeat that I personally consider that the most competent of Bloc members on the issue sat at the committee and I assume that all parties sent their best people.
They came up with 17 unanimous and very important recommendations, the precise purpose of which was to use funding to establish a little more social justice in Quebec and in Canada. As I said, since 1996, since the Prime Minister, then Finance Minister, cut off the federal share, this program has been financed solely by employers and workers. Not one cent comes from the federal government any more.
The only problem for workers and for the unemployed is that the government is administering the fund as if it were the owner. It has helped itself to the contents and spent them on other things than solving the problems of the unemployed.
What the committee wanted to do with its 17 recommendations was to improve a harsh reality. That is also what the Bloc Quebecois wants to do, and the reason behind our motion today. We do not want piece-meal reform. That is true. What we want, before the election, is to solve, for once and for all, the problems raised by the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development.
We cannot be accused of partisan politics because, once the problem is solved, the Liberals will be able to go about claiming that they are the ones who did it. That is what they will do: claim they have partially solved the problem. The Liberal members have already started saying that not everyone will be satisfied, that this is not what people want, that the government cannot afford it, while it is squirrelling away billions of dollars in surplus funds.
Next year's surplus is estimated at $5 billion. We are already estimating for next year, because an $8 billion surplus was accumulated this past year. Once again, close to one-third of the federal government's surplus comes from the employment insurance fund. It is a kind of tax in disguise taken from the paycheques of workers, and from the revenues of their employers, in the form of EI contributions, but not returned to the men and women who need it so badly.
It is interesting to see what this EI fund surplus can represent on an annual basis per riding. In my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, it represents $35.7 million annually.
It is a riding with about 100,000 inhabitants. For the riding as a whole, the unemployment rate is about 9.5%, but in certain areas, certain regional municipalities, it is over 10 or 12%. That means $35.7 million, after all.
For my colleague in Laurentides, it is $62.5 million that is not being returned to the working people each year. Imagine if each riding had an independent fund that managed this money for the well-being of the workers. Imagine what could be done, what kind of a system the workers could have, if they could manage that.
For the riding of Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, the amount is $48.2 million. That is the riding of my wise colleague taking the lead on this matter today, who has worked hard and prepared our arguments. In the Lower St. Lawrence region, there is not the kind of wealth found in downtown Toronto. The same is true of my riding. In the Laurentians, it is the same thing. We have a lot of seasonal workers in fisheries, agriculture, forestry and tourism.
Obviously, that is the picture for every area outside urban Quebec and urban Canada. That is what regional Quebec and Canada look like. That is most of the ridings in this House. The members here are affected by this reform.
Today, I was blown away to see the Liberals get up and ask us to agree that they are not insensitive. They are not insensitive; they are simply confident that they can take the money in the fund and do other things with it than what the people have paid for. It is as simple as that. They are not insensitive; they are profiteers. I would go that far. There are other words that cannot be used because they are unparliamentary. We will admit that you profit from the system; you profit from the workers and from the EI premiums deducted from their pay.
As I said earlier, I was blown away by remarks to the effect that the surplus was used to invest in health care. In theory, when this money is taken off the pay cheque, it is under employment insurance premiums. It should go to EI. Only the federal government can help itself like that. As individuals, we cannot collect money and not report it at the end of the year in our income tax return. We cannot establish funds in which to put this money and use it for purposes other than those for which it was collected. Only the federal government can do that.
I could take one riding after another. There are losses in every riding in Quebec. There is a deficit, a financial deficit, resulting in workers not getting full benefits when they are in need after losing their jobs. For seasonal workers, this gap usually occurs in the spring and lasts from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the region. During this gap, their families have no income, and they are forced onto the provinces' income security systems. That is terrible, of course.
There are self-employed workers, women who have decided to work from home, who created their own business in order to be able to take care of their children, who are unable to contribute. Even if they were willing, the government does not want them to contribute to the employment insurance fund. In fact, they do not want any more claimants. Currently, the system is so profitable they do not want to expand it. They are afraid of losing their cash cow. The Liberal position is as simple as that.
They take money from the fuel tax, but do not reinvest it in the highways. They invest only 25% in the highways. They take this fuel money and put it back in health. In the meantime, they create other infrastructure programs, but they do not want to use the fuel tax revenues because they have already said this tax would not be used for the highways and was allocated for something else.
From one mistake to another, we ended up taking $40.5 billion out of the workers' pockets. As I said, the federal government, since 1996, since this Prime Minister, when he was finance minister, decided that the federal government was no longer contributing to the EI fund, all workers and employers have been paying higher premiums. In the last ten years or so, $42.5 billion have been paid in excess to the federal government. This is the harsh reality we, as members of the Bloc Quebecois, have to live with.
The members on the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development were not only from the Bloc Quebecois. Most of the committee members were Liberals. In fact, for those who would not know, all committees of the House of Commons are controlled by a majority of government members. That is the way things are and we do not have anything against it.
Except that, in this case, even the Liberals who were in a majority voted unanimously with the opposition parties in favour of adopting those 17 recommendations; and today they refuse to adopt them. They will not dare tell us it is because they lack the funds. Forget that. It is not that there is not enough money. That fund generates a $2 to $3 billion surplus each year. So the reason is not a lack of money.
The reason is they simply put that money to other uses. That is what they should tell us right now. They should tell workers: “Yes, we are punishing you, we are not giving you the benefits you deserve; yes there are families without income for eight to twelve weeks because we have decided to use the money for other purposes”. That is the harsh reality. They should also tell the independent workers: “You will pay income tax at the end of the year but you will not be eligible to employment insurance benefits. If you lose your job, you will not have access to that income because we refuse to give you the money. We have other things to do with it”.
That is what most of the Liberal members should have done today. They did not. They will deny that fact of course, because the election is fast approaching.
I will repeat why the committee met in May 2001 to prepare its report. After the 2000 election, cries were heard from people in the regions all over Quebec and the rest of Canada; they wanted the government to stop taking money from workers because it did not fix the problems experienced by families when the wage earners lost their jobs. So this committee was created. Great things were expected from this committee.
I remember the pressure that was put on the committee. We produced a unanimous report, and the pressure fell on the Liberals who formed the majority and who adopted the report unanimously. However, today, some Liberals are opposed to this motion. Furthermore, when the motion was presented in the House, some Liberal members of the committee voted against it even if they had adopted and signed the report. Of course, these members will have to live with their conscience. It is as simple as that.
It has been a pleasure for me to take part in this debate. I hope that we will have succeeded in moving things forward, and, above all, in convincing Quebeckers that one must never stop applying pressure. Of course, the best way to do it is to vote for the Bloc Quebecois in the next election.
Stan Keyes Minister of National Revenue and Minister of State (Sport)
Mr. Speaker, maybe it would help serve all Canadians well if the Bloc member could give me an explanation. He mentioned the self-employed. He knows that when the government responded to the standing committee report back in October 2001, we said that there was no consensus among the self-employed to pay EI premiums.
The government asked the standing committee to find a consensus. He knows it is not going to be fair to let some individuals pay into the system and others not pay. So, given that all workers in insurable employment pay premiums, how does the opposition member suggest the government address this issue of coverage of self-employed workers?
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, first, I want to tell the minister that the Liberal members who sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities agreed with the recommendation.
I realize that independent programs can be created. However, in order for this to happen, a signal must be sent to the effect that there will be a program, but the Liberal government never sent such a signal.
One prefers to listen to those who think like him. Of course, even if a committee is unanimous, it has heard witnesses nevertheless. Some had reservations, as usual. However, there was still unanimity in the end, as evidenced by the unanimous report produced by all the political parties.
The problem when a government does not want to move forward is that it always looks for the person who has reservations. It takes the opinion of that person and says what the minister just told us, which is “Look, some were not pleased. An independent program would have been in order”.
We were prepared to support such a program. So was the industry. However, there was just one problem: the government should have sent a signal and said “We will set up a program. We will sit down with the stakeholders and we will find how we want this to work”. But of course the decision was never made, despite the unanimous report and despite the Liberal members who sat on the committee.
Again, the Bloc Quebecois members who sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities were the best in this area. I hope that the Liberal Party did the same and selected the women and men who were the best choices to work in this area.
I trust the report produced by my colleagues who sat on the committee. The recommendation was to establish a program for self-employed workers. If I had been the government, I would have created this program and I would then have sat at the table with all the stakeholders.
However, when one does not want to do something, one always find an excuse not to act. Meanwhile, the government is piling up billions of dollars which probably makes the minister and president of Treasury Board happy, since he knows what to do with those billions: the main thing is to keep the money out of reach of workers.
Stan Keyes Hamilton West, ON
Mr. Speaker, it was a serious and sincere question from this hon. member to that hon. member regarding those who are independent employers and employees. He did not give me an answer. He gave me a rationale and a political answer to the question.
It is a simple question. The government recognized that there was a problem in the result of the committee's report. It responded in kind. Therefore, it would be up to the hon. member to sit down with the committee and find a rational solution to this issue. Why has the member not pursued that or even put forward any suggestion on how we should handle this issue?
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I will try to be clear for the minister.
In order to establish a program, the government must send a signal. We the establishment of a program. If the government is ready to commit to that today in this House, we will all support it unanimously. There is no problem there.
The problem has to do with the decision to establish the program. The minister wants to solve all the problems before establishing the program. What we suggest is that he announces the program. He would see that all stakeholders would sit at the table and we would be able to come to an agreement on the program.
Of course, without goodwill, they will try to predict every possibility and, meanwhile, they will not have to spend any money. This is the approach the government has chosen. I do not agree with it. If the government decides today to establish a program, we will support it. Later on, we would sit down with representatives of the industries and with the self-employed to try and find the best way of collecting premiums and paying benefits.
However, the government must first be interested in establishing a program, which has not been the case. The government has thus far shown no intention of doing so.
Paul Crête Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC
Mr. Speaker, I wish to congratulate the member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel for his speech and the clarity of his arguments.
I would like him to tell us why he thinks that the Liberal government refused to vote on this motion. A debate of the kind the minister spoke of earlier would have been relevant. If some government members had wished to say that they were not ready to support the entire report and wished to isolate some aspects of it, there could have been some negotiation or discussion with the government, but there was no such thing.
After the 2000 election, the government made a unanimous recommendation through a committee and they put that recommendation on a shelf somewhere. Three years later, they pull it out because the Prime Minister himself said that changes were needed for seasonal workers. This reminds us very much of a phrase in a song by Gilles Vigneault which goes: “Each election, the road gets closer.” In this case, at each election, the Liberals bring back, one way or the other, the employment insurance plan.
I would like to ask my colleague if he has an explanation for the fact that the Liberals refuse to vote on today's motion.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.
You will, of course, have understood the motion, but I will reread part of it:
—an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee—
The difference lies in the use of the term “along the lines of”. My colleague is right, there could have been negotiations. We were prepared to hold discussions with the government. The problem is that they were opposed to having a vote on this motion today.
Why were they? Purely and simply because we would of course have ended up with a thorough reform and not a piecemeal one like they want. They certainly cannot call an election without an EI “mini-reform”. That would be terrible for them in all the regions of Quebec. They would try to bring in a few piecemeal changes.
What we were proposing in this motion today was an in-depth reform and one that would have settled the employment insurance problem for once and for all. I repeat that the workers have paid an excess of $42.5 billion into the EI fund since 1996, and the government has been using that money for purposes other than providing them with the service they deserve.
Stan Keyes Minister of National Revenue and Minister of State (Sport)
Mr. Speaker, I cannot help but want to comment just one more time on the hon. member's dissertation following my question and his resolve that it is just up to the House of Commons committee to make a decision to pursue what it is the government has concerns about.
That is the way democracy works. The hon. member for the Bloc knows full well that there is a process by which we do things around here. He asked to be at the committee. It was the human resources and skills development committee. A committee is the master of its own destiny. He brings that idea forward to committee. Then the committee makes a decision on its priorities on the issues that it wants to deal with as a committee. It has nothing to do with this House or votes or the government's moving in on a committee.
The first thing the member would do if the government or the House of Commons started intruding on the business of independent committees would be to get on his feet in a second and say, “How dare they intrude on the business of the committee. The committee is the master of its own destiny and we shall choose whether or not we discuss this issue or that issue at committee”. The hon. member has to be completely open and honest with the House and his constituents back home.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to join in on the debate on the member's motion to review further proposals to reform employment insurance.
I would like to begin by saying that the government is committed to ensuring that EI is there for Canadians. It is our commitment to make changes to the EI program when the need for change is clearly demonstrated.
Ever since the new employment insurance program was introduced back in 1996, the government has shown a willingness to listen to Canadians. We have made adjustments to the system based on sound evidence in order to ensure that EI is there for Canadians when they need it and that the program continues to be responsive to changing circumstances in the labour market.
Moreover, the record shows that we are working diligently to make sure the EI system is responsive to the needs of all Canadians, including those living in Quebec.
When the government brought in a new employment insurance system in 1996, we were determined to ensure the long term viability of Canada's employment insurance system. We also committed to monitoring and assessing the program to see how individuals and communities were adjusting. Where evidence has shown that adjustments are needed, changes have been made. These objectives have guided our approach to EI reform in the past and they will continue to guide us today.
By most accounts, this approach to EI is serving Canadians well. Today we have a program that is financially stable. Premiums have declined from their historic high levels of $3.07 in 1994 to a low of $1.98 this year. An estimated 88% of Canadian workers would be potentially eligible for EI if they lost their jobs today.
We also have a program that is evolving to respond to changing needs. The government recognizes that some regions and groups of workers, such as workers in certain seasonal industries, can face particular challenges as they seek to adapt to changing labour market realities and the new economy.
The EI system is responding to special circumstances like these in appropriate ways. Indeed, a look at the records shows how the government has already made program changes to reflect the changing needs of Canadians since 1996, including the needs of seasonal workers.
Bill C-2 that was passed by the House in 2001 is a good example. It included a number of significant changes that are relevant to today's debate. There is the elimination of the intensity rule so that frequent claimants would not be penalized; a better targeting of the clawback to ensure that first time claimants, claimants collecting special benefits, and claimants in lower and middle income families would no longer have to repay their benefits; an adjustment to ensure parents re-entering the labour market could qualify for benefits on the same basis as other workers.
Since Bill C-2 was passed, the government has also improved the EI system in other ways, such as through changes to the small weeks provisions. Originally introduced as a pilot program in 1998, the small weeks provisions are designed to help seasonal and part time workers maintain their attachment to the labour force and therefore their eligibility for EI by encouraging them to accept work with lower earnings without reducing potential EI benefits.
Now a permanent part of EI, the small weeks provisions have allowed over 185,000 individuals to earn both higher incomes while working and an average of $12 more in weekly EI benefits than would have been otherwise done.
Another good example relates to the economic regions set up under the EI program in the year 2000 to take into account the higher unemployment rates that exist in some parts of our great country. We know that some workers in some areas, particularly seasonal workers, need more time to adjust to the changes made in 2000 and we have shown flexibility in our response to regional concerns.
For example, in the Bas-St-Laurent-Côte Nord region in Quebec and the Madawaska-Charlotte region in western New Brunswick, a special transitional period has been put in place. This means claimants in these regions require fewer hours to qualify for EI benefits and can receive benefits for a longer period than they would have without the transitional period.
In addition, we have changed the way that undeclared earnings are calculated to make it easier for employers and fairer for claimants. Apprentices are now only required to serve one two-week waiting period during the duration of their training. Quality of service continues to be the focus of significant ongoing work and we have taken concrete steps to prevent and respond to fraud and abuse.
The government is continuing to work with local committees in the regions and others to monitor the situation. It is prepared to make other changes where evidence indicates that it is appropriate.
To sum up, a careful look at the government's record on EI illustrates that the government is listening and is willing to make changes that are in the best interests of Canadians and the long term sustainability of the EI program.
One of the strengths of our EI system is its adaptability. It means that we can adapt to the evolving needs of Canada's workers and changing labour market conditions, but it does not mean accepting every change that is proposed.
The government is clearly committed to ensuring EI remains financially viable for the long term. It is equally committed to ensuring that the system is responsive to legitimate needs that do arise.
The record shows we have done the right thing in the past with EI. I know that we will continue to do the right thing in the future.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, the minister's first speech was an erudite description of what committees can represent. He used to sit on the Standing Committee on Transport and we had the opportunity there to address the problems of air transportation. I agree with him, the government acknowledged not a single one of that committee's recommendations. That is the modus operandi of the Liberal government. That is the reality.
They use the services of the MPs most familiar with certain specific issues, but then they do not respect their recommendations. This is why we have doggedly tried in this House to achieve a unanimous motion so that at least once a committee might succeed where so many others have failed.
That was not the point of my question; it was just a comment on the minister's remark. Here is my question. I would like the minister to explain to us, and to the workers of Quebec and the rest of Canada, what the government has done with the employment insurance fund surplus. It is clear—even the government has not hidden it—that a very significant amount is collected, more than the fund pays out to employees who need it. We estimate it at $42.5 billion. This figure has been confirmed by the Canadian Labour Congress and other organizations. Therefore, what does the government do with the money it takes off employees' paycheques?