House of Commons Hansard #107 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was ei.

Topics

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

11:05 a.m.

Some hon. member

Agreed.

(Motion agreed to)

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

Supply
Government Orders

June 2nd, 2005 / 11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak today on the important subject of employment insurance. The motion that has been put forward by the New Democratic Party deals with some of the challenges facing people in areas where seasonal unemployment is a major issue in areas of high unemployment. It is worth noting that the motion put forward does represent a dramatic change in the position of the New Democratic Party. Its previous position was one of best 12 weeks everywhere in Canada, whether the unemployment rate was high or low. We had great concerns with that kind of approach.

I should advise you that I will be splitting my time with the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl.

The problem of course is that a best 12 weeks approach does invite some abuse. In areas of low unemployment, for example, in the construction sector in Alberta or Ontario and places where we do not have the same kind of challenges, one can easily see people using the system and working the system to rack up their hours and use other weeks where there were very few hours, in order to maximize benefits when there was not a real and legitimate change.

There is no doubt that the existing system does not work. That is why this issue is being raised. The existing system does not work for seasonal workers. In fact, it invites people to work the system. It invites people to engage in abuses. It invites people, unbelievably, to say no to work, and to say no to taking on hours. We do not want to have a system that does that. Clearly, the approach that has been put in place by the government is flawed to that extent.

However, does the suggestion on the table solve that problem? That is not entirely clear. Certainly, by focusing it on areas of higher unemployment is a positive development and that is something which addresses some of the problems. However, is there a basis by which we say 10% is the right number? Should 9% be the right number, or 8% or perhaps 11% or 12%? We do not see the basis why that is the number that has been chosen.

There is some arbitrariness there and there are also very real inequities that may result where, for example, houses next door to one another by virtue of being in a different postal code have entirely different rules by which they operate. Some of those issues need to be examined to see if this is the fairest and best way to resolve the problems that exist in the proposal that is in front of us.

In addition, we have to look at the bigger question. Why do people not have jobs and why is there no work? That is where the Liberal government has more dramatically failed Canadians. By far and away the best social policy, the best form of employment insurance, is an ongoing job, a job people can count on, rely on and go to every day. That is certainly the kind of policy we wish to see in place, one that encourages people to work, that encourages people to have jobs, and that creates an environment where those jobs get created.

One reason why there are no jobs is because the Liberal government has for the past decade consistently put a tax on jobs. Liberals have taken $46 billion from workers and employers over the past 10 years, more of it from employers because the ratio is 1.4 to 1. They have taken this from employers and workers and taken it out of the money that was paid into the employment insurance system. Those individuals and businesses thought that they were paying those premiums, so that people could rely on the safety net. If they ran into trouble, they would rely on the support and the training that would come from employment insurance.

In fact, the Liberal government over 10 years took $46 billion of that insurance money, and diverted it to other purposes and spent it on other things. It became nothing more than a tax. It was a theft of those dollars from hardworking Canadians, and hardworking entrepreneurs and workers who had in good faith put forward that money, not to be taken by the government for its priorities. We have seen with the sponsorship program and other things what those priorities really were. Liberals have spent it there instead of focusing it on helping those workers and helping to create jobs.

The Liberals have suppressed job creation. They have reduced the number of opportunities. They have increased the need for people to have to turn to employment insurance as their safety net and their reliance.

We have to put an end to this kind of job tax. We have to look at whatever opportunities we have to reduce the premiums on employers and employees. One of the things we in the Conservative Party have recommended very strongly is that there be fairness between the businesses creating the jobs and the workers.

For example, if workers have paid in excessive employment insurance premiums on an individual basis they would get a rebate, yet the matching funds that businesses paid in would not be rebated. We put forward a very reasonable suggestion across the board, which was supported by the major stakeholders on the business side and which would allow those overpayments to be returned in as fair a way as possible and was efficient by averaging out.

That was better than nothing. Employers were willing to live with that. They did not want to look at a big bureaucracy. They just wanted some fairness. This government has turned its back on the people who create those jobs. This government is not interested in job creation. This government is really interested in simply taxing small businesses, the entrepreneurs, the people who, through their sweat, toil and effort, create jobs. It is taxing those jobs out of existence. It will not respond on that front. That is simply unfair.

We have seen the government consistently use the employment insurance system for things that it was not designed for. For example, the government uses it for compassionate care. We all think that it is a positive thing to provide for compassionate care leave. It is something that is important.

It is a positive social program advancement, but there is a very real problem in that many Canadians, even those who pay into employment insurance, are not eligible, and of course those who are self-employed by definition are not eligible for that kind of compassionate care leave. Yet that is the way the program is delivered. The result is an inequity and an unfairness between different Canadians. Effectively, the Government of Canada has created a two tier compassionate care system.

When we realize that compassionate care is really a way of encouraging and inviting individual Canadians to contribute to the health care of their families, to supporting their health care and providing them with quality health care, this is in fact a form of two tier health care that the Liberal Party has introduced.

Beyond that, we find that the way compassionate care leave has been operated by the government is very unfair. It produces all kinds of inequities. I know the House will hear from some other members of the Conservative Party later today about those flaws.

When we look to solve some of the problems in the employment insurance system, these are some of the things that we think we should see solved. We think there are all kinds of problems that need to be resolved.

Employment insurance is not working for people. It is not working for workers in regional areas that are facing high rates of unemployment, but it is not working even for people in areas where business is strong, where jobs are strong and where the economy is strong, because of the unfairnesses within. The biggest unfairness of all is the fact that the Liberal government continues to overtax workers and businesses through high premiums and to take away their opportunity to create jobs and contribute to their own well-being. That includes seasonal workers. They, too, are being overtaxed by a system that makes it tougher for them to get ahead and stand on their own two feet.

In summary, we think that while there is a need for changes to the program and some constructive suggestions have been made here, there are still many questions that remain unanswered.

For example, we want to know how much a change like this would cost. How much would it cost the system? How much it would cost employers and workers? Unbelievably, we do not know the answer to that question. When we put that question forward at committee the Bloc, the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party all voted against a resolution to indicate what the cost of changes like this would be.

Thus, members of the House, the decision makers in this country, are compelled through the collusion of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc to make these decisions with our eyes closed, with no awareness of cost, with no awareness of what this will cost workers and businesses in Canada. That is asking us to do a lot. It is asking us to buy a pig in a poke, to make a change when we have no idea what the cost will be. For me, that seems to be a risky jump to ask us to make.

We want to see real help. We want to see real improvements to a system that does not work. We have on the table a suggestion for some changes that may do that. There are some real problems with these changes. Would it be better than the system we have now or not? It is very difficult for us to make that decision right now without the information from the government because of the NDP's refusal to allow that information to come forward.

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Government Orders

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Madam Speaker, as we talk about this question before the House today, I am sure my colleague would agree that when the department of human resources representatives came to the parliamentary committee on human resources when we were doing the report and we spoke about the best 12 out of 52 weeks, the number we received was that it would cost $320 million. He will receive a letter from me this week and all members will get a letter from research telling us that it will be a $320 million cost for the best 12 weeks.

Now, with the change that the government has proposed, the best 14 weeks, plus the 910 hours to qualify going down to 840 hours, plus the $75, it is a cost of $300 million. We do not even have to use a calculator. If the other plan of the best 12 weeks would cost $320 million and the best 14 weeks would be $300 million, that means a difference of $20 million, and even less because we are not talking about the number of hours. It is even less. That information comes from the research department and the department that reported to our committee when we were speaking about this particular clause itself.

The numbers are there. At the same time, the member is saying that people quit their jobs just to abuse the system. I disagree with that. I have more respect for the people. After that member, I would like to hear from his Conservative colleague from Newfoundland and Labrador on whether he accepts that the people just abuse the system. The problem is that the government does not understand seasonal work. We have to help those people.

Is the member going to support the motion? Is the Conservative Party going to support the motion or say no to the Atlantic region?

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Government Orders

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON

Madam Speaker, I am amused at the comment made by the member for Acadie—Bathurst that he respects the workers. It is the member for Acadie—Bathurst who told me that people turn down work because it does not allow them to maximize their claims and that is why this needs to be changed. I am very puzzled by the fact that he told me it is why we should support this. I repeated that here in the House and now he says it is a disrespectful thing to do. I will be more cautious in the future about repeating what the member for Acadie—Bathurst says.

As for the cost, while the member for Acadie—Bathurst may have his opinion, we asked for the Department of Finance to provide those numbers and a detailed analysis of what every change would cost. At committee, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, together with the Liberals and members of the New Democratic Party, voted to keep that from happening. To now rely on hearsay and news releases elsewhere and doing one's own math based on that to me is not the analysis from the Department of Finance which we asked for and which was turned down.

We have to make decisions in an informed fashion. Sadly, we do not have that information.

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Government Orders

11:15 a.m.

Bloc

Guy André Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Madam Speaker, I want to respond to the comments made by my Conservative colleague. Naturally, we do not oppose the NDP motion, although we find it falls short compared with the 28 recommendations recently proposed by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

It falls short because, as we know, the Liberals have taken a little over $45 billion from the EI fund in recent years, partially destroying it. In our regions, unemployment has been rampant for over a decade now, and the program has created numerous exclusions.

I come from a rural region. There are many seasonal workers in Berthier—Maskinongé; they work on wildlife preserves, in the hotel industry, forestry and other sectors. By destroying the EI program, the Liberals have prevented many of them from accumulating enough weeks to qualify for EI benefits on an annual basis, thereby forcing them to apply for social assistance.

Since the federal EI program is inadequate, Quebec has to meet the needs of these workers with a social assistance program intended for income security recipients. This reduces people to poverty. So, clearly, this motion is inadequate.

To respond in part to the comments of our Conservative colleague, I believe that the program needs to be improved. Our constituents want to work. It is not true that they are not looking for work, but, at present, there are not enough jobs in our communities. There are many seasonal jobs, and we need a EI program. As the House knows, the EI fund has money in it; it just needs to become an independent EI fund.

I want to ask my Conservative colleague a question. How can he say that people do not want to work? In our regions, in Quebec, people want to work and they are entitled to an improved EI program.

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Government Orders

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON

Madam Speaker, the concerns raised by my friend from the Bloc and Mr. Godin are concerns raised by their colleagues at committee, where they said--

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11:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Hon. Jean Augustine)

Order, please. I am sure you meant to say the member for Acadie--Bathurst.

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Government Orders

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON

Yes, Madam Speaker, it is the member for Acadie--Bathurst.

The concerns they raised at the committee were that the structure is such that people are discouraged from taking those short weeks and short days of work because it minimizes their return on the averaging basis. That is why they wanted a change to the 12 best weeks. Those are the concerns they explained to justify this change. That is where that comes from, so if there is a concern it is a concern they must raise with their colleagues.

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Karen Redman Kitchener Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, discussions have taken place and I believe you would find unanimous consent for the following motion:

That, notwithstanding the Order made March 11, 2005, in relation to its study on Canadian feature film industry, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage be authorized to travel (a) to Vancouver from June 8 to 10, 2005; and (b) to Halifax from June 5 to 6, 2005, and that the necessary staff do accompany the committee.

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

11:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Hon. Jean Augustine)

The House has heard the terms of the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

11:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(Motion agreed to)

The House resumed consideration of the motion

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Government Orders

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Loyola Hearn St. John's South, NL

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate this morning, not because it is a motion put forth by the NDP or by any party, but because it is an issue that should be debated here in the House, but not necessarily by this narrowly focused motion. I do not say that to demean the motion, which is a very important one, but perhaps a good wide debate on the whole issue of employment insurance would lead to more understanding.

One of the things I have learned since I came here is that in order to get anything done, we have to build supports. We have a huge country. There are areas that are extremely rich where people do very well and where unemployment is unknown. There are other areas where because of history, because of geography, because of the resources that have been destroyed over the years, people are eking out a living, as did the people who came here five centuries ago.

We cannot make blanket rules for people across the country. People who are used to living in a certain area have tunnel vision to a certain extent because that is all they see. It is difficult sometimes for people to understand what it is like in areas where conditions are different. By having these discussions, by talking within our own groups, within our caucuses and here in the House, we get a better understanding of the concerns and needs of people across the country.

One of the most misunderstood issues in this whole country is employment insurance. On one side there are people who, without some form of insurance payments, would not be able to exist. In other areas there are people who work all the time and contribute to a program from which they have never drawn.

The first year I worked, I was 16 years of age. I am slightly older than that now, as members know. I have been fortunate in that I have never had to draw employment insurance, but that is not true of many people around me, friends, family, people in my province and people across the country. We live in this diverse country where people's needs change dramatically from area to area.

Over the years I have had discussions with the member who moved the motion. We share many common concerns. He represents an area where people are hurting. I did, although most of it has been taken away now. We should not generalize. Just because we represent an urban area, and the unemployment rate in our region as given out by Statistics Canada is 2% or 5%, it does not mean that within that geographic area people are not having trouble finding employment. People in the areas of highest employment in this country cannot find jobs for a number of reasons, lack of training, lack of skills, lack of opportunity in their field of training, or whatever. It is a problem everyone experiences, but more so in areas where there is seasonal employment at best.

There is one thing that concerns me about the issue. The member makes it sound as if it is so important, and I agree it is, but I have not heard him explain why, when his leader did a deal with the Prime Minister to support the government and keep it in power, this issue was not one of the ones listed. They talked about money for the environment, training programs, affordable housing and foreign aid, but there was no mention at all of the employment insurance program. I think the member has a little bit of explaining to do. If this issue is so important to the member and his party, why was it not a priority in the discussions? Having said that, it is a very important issue.

I am going to concentrate on the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador. I see the member for Random—Burin—St. George's. He knows full well from where I am coming as he is in the same type of situation. Our areas depended on the fishery. In many small fishing communities some people fished and others worked in fish plants.

We had the richest resource in the world. It has been practically wiped out. In many parts of the member's riding there were plants that worked 52 weeks of the year. People had problems getting Christmas and New Year's off because of the amount of product that was being landed and needed to be processed.

Today many of these areas have no processing facilities. They have been closed. Some people have gone to Alberta or Ontario but there are always those who have been left behind, who cannot leave for all kinds of reasons, because of their age, their lack of training, or they have invested everything at home. They have to stay and depend upon a few weeks of work each year.

Right now if we took the crab out of Newfoundland there would be very little work in the fishing industry. That resource is caught in a few short weeks. This means that the thousands and thousands of people who work in the fishing industry year round are now limited to a very few weeks of work.

Other species are caught intermittently and there are five or six, or eight to ten weeks of peak employment. Then there are a couple of days here, a day there and a few hours somewhere else. The way the old system worked is that the last 12 or 14 weeks were averaged out to determine how much employment insurance a person received. The partial weeks, days and hours cut into the amount. A few years ago the system was changed to put on a limit of $225 or something like that, and anything below that was not counted.

Many of these people work for very low wages, $8 to $10 an hour, especially at the non-unionized plants. Some work for even less. Some work for minimum wage.

We have to realize that the unemployment rate generally has not changed in years. The minimum wage keeps going up but the unemployment rate has not changed. People are earning the same as they earned years ago and they only get 55% of their income. If people make $400 a week and unemployment insurance is averaged out at their top wage, that means they get a little over $200 a week. If partial weeks and days are thrown into that, they are down to less than $200, probably $100 a week. Can someone tell me, in this day and age how can anybody feed a family and keep a household going on $150 to $200 a week?

That is why the member has brought forward this motion. I notice the government just responded to a report and is basically saying it is going to do a pilot project for three years in areas of high unemployment, 10% or above, which is exactly what the member is saying. It is going to pick the best 14 weeks and see how it works. I think that is laudable. The government came out recently with this three year pilot project for the best 14 weeks. I am not sure why the member is pushing for a change immediately to drop it to 12.

I know that going from 14 weeks to 12 weeks is going to make some difference. However, one of the things we also have to be very careful about is that a lot of people who pay into the program and never take out benefits look upon those who draw in areas such as mine as always taking. We fought that battle here in relation to our resources. We do not want people to get turned off completely about supporting programs for those in need. We have to walk before we run.

The whole issue of unemployment insurance has to be revisited certainly in areas where our resources are diminished, mainly because government has given them away, destroyed them, or has not looked after them. We are sitting on $40 billion. Why are people not able to find work anyway when we have that kind of money to invest in training and infrastructure? Why is Harbour Breton closed and people are looking for help and there is $40 billion floating around?

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Can this motion solve them all? In light of what government is doing ties in. Is government willing to drop it another couple of weeks to make it a little better for people? I guess we will find out as we hear the speeches.

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Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse Windsor West, ON

Madam Speaker, since being here I have enjoyed debating with the hon. member, learning about his region. It has been very important to get an understanding not only about the complex array of issues he deals with but also the social environment that the hon. member represents.

He was a little critical of our party in terms of Bill C-48 and getting changes to the budget and not including this measure. I remind the hon. member that the Conservative Party did not even vote on the first budget. Had the Conservatives voted against the budget, there would have been an election. They chose not to vote at all. A couple of members may have broken from the party ranks. They did not vote at all. Their leader went outside this chamber and praised the budget as being a Conservative budget. However, it had no improvements of significance for workers. They are supporting that budget bill right now but not our amendments.

We admit that our amendments are not complete, but there are only 19 of us. We did our best to at least get a few issues resolved to make a better budget.

I would like to ask the hon. member right now if he is going to be supporting this very important motion. It is a modest motion that actually creates an opportunity. We do not have to go back in time and debate things. We could make a difference right here today by passing this motion. Could he convince his leader and other members of his party who are speaking against it here today to support it? Would he be able to convince them that we could effect the changes right now and not bicker about what happened in the past?