House of Commons Hansard #2 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was opposition.

Topics

Precincts of the House of Commons
Speech from the Throne

6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Precincts of the House of Commons
Speech from the Throne

6:30 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie

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

Precincts of the House of Commons
Speech from the Throne

6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Precincts of the House of Commons
Speech from the Throne

6:30 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie

(Motion agreed to)

Business of the House
Speech from the Throne

6:35 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie

Before we begin private members' business today, I would like to remind the House that yesterday the Speaker made a statement in which he reminded the House that all items of private members' business originating in the House of Commons that were listed on the order paper during the previous session are reinstated to the order paper and shall be deemed to have been considered and approved at all stages completed at the time of prorogation of the first session. This also means that those items on the order of precedence remain on the order of precedence or, as the case may be, are referred to committee or sent to the Senate.

Just as individual items of private members' business continue their legislative progress from session to session, the Chair's rulings on these same items likewise survive prorogation. Specifically, there are six bills on which the Chair either ruled or commented with regard to the issue of the royal recommendation. The purpose of this statement is to remind the House of those rulings or statements.

Members will recall that on May 4 the Speaker made a statement expressing concern regarding the spending provisions contemplated by two bills, namely: Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Account and premium rate setting) and another Act in consequence, standing in the name of the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine and Bill C-362, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (residency requirement), standing in the name of the member for Brampton West.

Just as was done last May, the Chair invites members who would like to make arguments regarding the need for a royal recommendation for these two bills or any of the other bills on the order of precedence to do so at an early opportunity.

Members will also recall that during the last session some private members' bills were found by the Speaker to require a royal recommendation. At the time of prorogation, there were four such bills on the order of precedence or in committee. Let us review briefly the situation in each of these four cases.

Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits),standing in the name of the member for Acadie—Bathurst, was before the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of persons with disabilities. The Chair ruled, on March 23, 2007, that the bill, in its present form, needed to be accompanied by a royal recommendation.

Bill C-284, An Act to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act (Canada access grants), standing in the name of the member for Halifax West, was awaiting debate at report stage. On November 9, 2006, the Chair had ruled that the bill, in its form at second reading, needed to be accompanied by a royal recommendation. In committee all clauses of the bill were deleted. In its present eviscerated form, Bill C-284 need no longer be accompanied by a royal recommendation.

Bill C-303, an act for early learning and child care, standing in the name of the member for Victoria, was awaiting debate at report stage in the House. The Chair ruled on November 6, 2006, that the bill, in its form at second reading, needed to be accompanied by a royal recommendation. The Chair finds that the amendments reported back from committee do not remove the requirement that the bill be accompanied by a royal recommendation.

Finally, Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), standing in the name of the member for Laurentides—Labelle, was at third reading in the House. The Chair ruled, also on November 6, 2006, that the bill, in its form at second reading, needed to be accompanied by a royal recommendation and reminded members, on April 18, 2007, that the amendments reported back from committee did not remove this requirement.

Consistent with past practice, although today's debate on Bill C-269 may proceed, the Chair wishes to remind members that the question on third reading of the bill in its present form will not be put unless a royal recommendation is received.

I thank hon. members for their attention.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

moved that Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), be read the third time and passed.

Mr. Speaker, I am speaking again today and, this time, it is in the name of groups and associations who stand up for the rights of the unemployed, as well as in the name of everyone who does not qualify for employment insurance benefits as the insurance program stands, since it does not fit anymore the reality of workers in Quebec.

Bill C-269, which aims at improving the employment insurance program, is a message of hope for workers in the various regions of Quebec, who are being hit especially hard by the crisis in the forest industry and by massive closures of plants and mills.

Although there is not much time remaining, it is not too late for the government to finally grand the royal recommendation to this bill, which—I believe I should recall—is supported by all parties represented in the House, except the Conservative Party.

This bill aims particularly at reducing nationally each qualifying period by 70 hours. It also aims at increasing the benefit period from 45 to 50 weeks. This would end the “black hole” effect, where unemployed workers find themselves in distress for periods of up to 10 weeks.

This bill would increase weekly benefits from the current 55% of insurable earnings to 60%—unstable jobs are generally the least well paid, and these changes would provide claimants with the bare minimum.

This bill would also eliminate the waiting period between the time when people lose their jobs and apply for benefits and the time when they receive their first cheques—workers should not be penalized for losing their jobs, and they still have financial obligations even if the money is a long time coming.

The bill would also eliminate the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. It is not up to workers to prove their good faith when they lose their jobs; it is up to the system to investigate if there is any doubt.

This bill would also increase the maximum yearly insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500 and introduce an indexing formula. The current contribution formula is actually a regressive tax that affects low-income earners the most. It is worth noting that the maximum was once $43,000.

This bill would calculate benefits based on the 12 best weeks so as not to penalize seasonal workers who sometimes work small weeks.

Finally, this bill would extend program coverage to the growing number of self-employed workers in the labour market who have no coverage should they become unemployed.

Today I would like to tell everyone I met in Quebec over the past year that the Bloc Québécois has fought long and hard to provide them with an employment insurance program that recognizes their realities as workers and that is there to provide insurance paid for solely by workers and employers.

As we all know, Bill C-269 requires a royal recommendation from the government. Without it, the House cannot pass this bill, and workers will never be able to benefit from this insurance fairly because of the program's current criteria.

What will happen to the multi-billion dollar surplus in the employment insurance coffers?

Why not give that money to workers by improving the program as set out in Bill C-269?

Why is this government not giving Quebec workers their due instead of sending its Minister of Foreign Affairs to hand out Jos. Louis cakes to the soldiers in Kandahar to boost troop morale?

Has he ever wondered about the morale of those losing their jobs in Roberval, Maniwaki, Saint-Raymond-de-Portneuf or Mont-Laurier, who do not qualify under the current system?

Has he ever wondered about their morale and the economic uncertainty of the families of these workers who cannot benefit from the employment insurance system because of the Conservatives' obsession with ideology?

The Conservative government has treated the unemployed with contempt and it did so again in yesterday's Throne Speech. The Bloc Québécois was looking for special measures to help workers in areas affected by the forestry crisis. What was the government's response? It had none. There was no plan and not even a hint of an assistance program for older workers.

The Bloc Québécois will make sure that it reminds Quebec workers, in the next election, that they have to make do with such a mediocre employment insurance system that does not at all meet their needs because of this Conservative government.

I would like to use the forum provided today to reveal the Conservative vision of the unemployed and the employment insurance system. At second reading of Bill C-269, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Minister of Veterans Affairs stated, and I quote:

It might be useful to take a moment to remind the House what those basic objectives are. The first, of course, is that EI is to provide financial assistance by replacing a portion of employment income lost in times of temporary unemployment. It is an insurance program. Premiums are paid and coverage is provided.

The second is that the program seeks to promote a positive attachment to the labour market. We do not want to create a culture of dependency on EI. Employment is the ultimate objective and our new government's priority continues to be to help Canadians participate in the labour market.

The third is that EI must be run on a financially responsible and sustainable basis. Any proposals for change must be looked at in the context of these three principles.

Using these three objectives, I want therefore to shed light on the perception of the Conservatives towards the unemployed workers and the employment insurance program.

First, the Conservatives say that this is an insurance program to which workers subscribe to receive guaranteed coverage. But in fact, the coverage is far from being guaranteed since, in the latest Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report, the beneficiaries/unemployed ratio was 44.8%. If more than half of the unemployed workers do not have access to this employment insurance program, how can the Conservatives talk about guaranteed coverage? While all workers subscribe to this insurance, only four out of ten qualify for benefits, and the situation is even more disastrous for women, since only three out of ten qualify.

The second objective, according to the Conservatives, is to promote active participation in the labour market by avoiding the creation of a culture of dependency on employment insurance.

This statement contradicts the first one by saying that employment insurance is to be used to work. While we are in favour of people returning to the labour market as quickly as possible, the program is quite hardly accessible as it stands. It provides only 55% of insured earnings, which is quite insufficient in creating a culture of dependency. You and I will agree that nobody wishes to be unemployed.

According to the Conservatives, there are workers who prefer to be unemployed even under favourable labour market conditions. I would like the Conservatives to come and say this to the people in my riding, especially these days. The whole northern part of the Laurentides—Labelle riding is being hit hard by the crisis in the forest industry, and the Conservatives are certainly not doing anything to help these people.

I am talking about 35,000 people who live in the Antoine-Labelle RCM, a one-industry municipality where more than 80% of the local economy depends on the forestry industry.

Currently, more than 80% of the plants and sawmills are closed—either indefinitely or permanently—and the ones that are still open have considerably reduced their operations, for an indefinite time.

Since 2004, the most significant job losses in Quebec in the forestry industry occurred in the north of my riding. The people in my riding want to work, but the Conservatives have done nothing to help relaunch the forestry industry and they are doing nothing to give the people at home a decent income to weather this crisis.

Having a system that better suits the needs of Quebec workers would not encourage the unemployed to live on the public purse; it would simply give back a bit of dignity to the workers. That is what Bill C-269 is all about.

The third objective expressed by the Conservatives is simply scandalous. Again, I will quote the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs: “EI must be run on a financially responsible and sustainable basis”.

Since the mid 1990s, the fund has generated over $50 billion in surplus. Last year alone, $2 billion of it went toward the debt, while over half the unemployed were denied access to insurance and had to turn to social assistance. We all know that the fund will accumulate billions more in surplus this year. The measures in Bill C-269 are sustainable and financially responsible.

In light of these three principles expressed by the Conservatives, they must support Bill C-269.

I am putting the Conservatives on notice. If they do not give the workers in Quebec the employment insurance they deserve, the Conservatives will pay for it in the next election. I will make it my duty to remind the electors of Laurentides—Labelle of how their Conservative government took care of the morale of Quebec's unemployed during its mandate.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Parliamentary Secretary for Health

Mr. Speaker, I understand this is the third bill that has proposed changes to the EI program and that it would cost the system over $6 billion. Moreover, it may have disincentives to encourage people to return to work. Given that our unemployment rate is at a historic low and that there seems to be a strong demand for skilled workers, it seems that at this time the bill may be redundant and may actually lead to unintended consequences.

I wonder if the member could explain or justify the billions of dollars that this would cost. Particularly I am surprised that this comes from a Bloc member, a party that generally does not like national programs like the EI in the first place.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, if we were to again introduce a bill like this one, perhaps it would be more useful to the Bloc Québécois to ask that the employment insurance account be transferred to all the provinces, so that each one would manage it. This could be included in a future bill that would be introduced in the House. I think the Bloc Québécois would be more favourable to such an initiative.

I also find it awful to hear the hon. member say that the bill, with the changes that we want to bring to the current system, would tend to discourage people from rejoining the labour force. Since the forestry crisis, in 2004, a total of 1,500 jobs have been lost in my RCM, which accounts for one third of my riding.

I spent the summer with the 35,000 people who live in my RCM. I would like hon. members to come and spend some time there, just to feel the sullenness that prevails right now.

The benefit period has now ended and people no longer have any option other than welfare. People who worked in the forestry industry have assets, including homes, equipment, trucks, etc. In order to get welfare benefits, they must first dispose of all their assets. It is like asking a family that has worked for 30 years in the forestry industry to now do without all its belongings and rely on society, on welfare. Despite the measures taken by the Conservative government, out of the 1,500 workers who have been laid off since January 2007, only two were able to get training to return to work.

These people were confident and hopeful that the Conservative government would support Bill C-269. Whether in my riding, or during the tour that I and my colleague, the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas, did in Quebec, there is not a single day that I did not meet someone who wished me luck with Bill C-269, because they needed this legislation in their area.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, would the hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle agree with me when I say that there is very little difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals when it comes to employment insurance?

A Conservative member just asked her if she was not worried about workers relying on employment insurance and refusing to go to work. Does she not agree with me that it is actually the Conservatives, just like the Liberal government before them, who really depend on employment insurance?

That is why they like to call it the employment insurance program. In reality, it is an unemployment insurance program. It is the governments in power that are dependent on unemployment insurance, not the workers. If the workers have a job to go to, they will go to work. It is the governments that depend on employment insurance, because they dipped into the employment insurance fund, taking $54 billion on the backs of the workers.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I agree entirely with my hon. colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. Under the Liberal government, the employment insurance fund was used to balance the budget. When the Conservatives voted in favour of an independent fund, the surpluses generated remained in the consolidated fund and were used for other purposes.

Whether under the Liberals or, now, under the Conservatives, this fund has been very useful. They probably also need it to finance, among other things, national defence, equipment and putting—

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie

I apologize for interrupting the hon. member, but her time has expired.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

Blackstrap
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-269, a bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act, as put forward by my colleague from the Bloc, is a flawed bill and one that we cannot support.

As I followed the remarks of previous speakers, I have to say that I found it a little surprising to hear the Bloc asking us to support the bill. The evidence just does not support such a broadly expanded program.

What evidence shows is that the EI system is currently meeting the demands of the vast majority of Canadians. Eighty-three per cent of unemployed Canadians who have paid into the program qualify for benefits and this rises to more than 90% in areas of high unemployment.

The evidence also shows that even claimants in high unemployment regions rarely use more than 70% of the benefits. Where exactly is the evidence to suggest that the changes in the bill are warranted? It is not just that the bill is not supported by the evidence. We see the opposition asking for support of flawed bills with routine frequency.

What is so surprising is that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are asking for support on a bill that the sponsor's own party and all opposition parties cared so little about that they refused to do their due diligence. They brought forth no accurate costing estimates, had no public hearings, had no consultation with major stakeholders and had no study on the bill's ramifications to Canadians or to the long term viability of the EI program itself.

Canadians sent this Conservative government to Ottawa to clean things up, to provide accountability, sound management and good public policy. The bill provides none of this but our government does.

We cannot support any bill that has been given so little oversight and so little consideration by Parliament, let alone a bill that proposes such drastic and costly changes to a program as important as this, especially when the changes are not backed by a shred of evidence.

Routine motions and decisions about what to have for lunch are given more serious analysis and debate than the one hour and fifteen minutes Bill C-269 was given by the opposition at committee stage. It is even more puzzling to be asked to support the bill when the Bloc and the opposition parties have been heaping one EI related bill after another onto the order paper asking for implementation of all but prioritizing on none.

The implementation of this bill would cost $3.7 billion, $1.1 billion for Bill C-278 and $1.4 billion for C-265. There are 16 more EI bills to come, 9 of which are too complicated to cost but it is fair to say that they will not be free. It would cost $4.7 billion for the remaining seven bills. The cost of these bills is astronomical and the opposition has supported them all without giving them any careful study.

These bills represent more than $11 billion in new annual spending for the EI account. This would put the program into a deficit within a year and bankrupt the program. Canadians are looking to the government to act responsibly and carefully. They want a government that will ensure the long term viability of the EI system and protect it from a patchwork of proposals made by the opposition, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Canadians expect that if the opposition is proposing to spend billions, it might also spend more than five minutes figuring out whether that much money is needed and where it will come from.

Listening to the public who are affected by these types of changes in policy seems so basic and yet Canadians have not been consulted. Employers who pay into the fund are concerned. Workers who see deductions on their paycheques are concerned and small business owners are concerned but the opposition did not want to hear from any of these groups.

Workers are left to wonder if Bill C-269 is better than the measures that this government introduced to extend compassionate care benefits. Is it better than our pilot projects extending benefits for best weeks and seasonal workers, which Canadians were looking for and this government provided?

The member talked about the forestry industry. We do care and that is why we improved and implemented targeted initiatives for older workers to help the vulnerable workers in certain industries that have been affected by layoff, such as the forestry industry.

All of those initiatives have been implemented since the previous Parliament, which was when the Bloc last proposed this bill and the Liberals last opposed it. Does the Bloc want to scrap all these initiatives in exchange for its bill?

Canadians appreciate that their new government is getting things done for them in a measured but meaningful way and they expect the same from all the parties in House. However, they are getting the same old, same old from the Bloc Québécois because the same old, same old is all it ever has to offer.

One does not have to look further than the recent byelection results in Quebec to know what Quebeckers think about the Bloc's proposals for this country. Canadians are shocked to see the Bloc propose the same types of changes it has been proposing for more than a decade. It is becoming increasingly clear to the people in Quebec that the Bloc has simply run out of things to say.

We know what Canadians have to say about the Liberal practice of spending public money with little or no oversight. One can imagine the reaction of all Canadians to find that the Bloc now wants to travel down that same road.

We are all tired of seeing public funds disappear into black holes, only to be explained as a mistake or worse, as the Auditor General described, “a rule-breaking sponsorship program, a scandal of major proportions”. Canadians want better oversight when it comes to their money and they want better long term planning. This bill goes against all of those principles.

We have all watched the cost of the Liberal programs balloon to billions of dollars. We must be very leery of the Bloc's untested assertion that Bill C-269 will cost just over $1 billion to implement when all outside estimates put the real cost at triple or even quadruple that amount.

Who is right in their figures? Is the sponsor of the bill correct when she says that it will cost $1.7 billion or is the Conseil du patronat du Québec and others right in pegging it at $3.7 billion? This would have been a prime question for the committee to have considered but unfortunately they did not bother seeking the input of witnesses like the Conseil du patronat, hard-working Canadians or even the Department of Human Resources and Social Development.

How can Canadians have confidence in this bill when they were completely cut out of the process by the opposition? A true and meaningful inquiry into Bill C-269 and the many unanswered questions around the bill would have gone a long way toward giving Canadians and this government confidence in a bill like this. Unfortunately, the opposition did not care enough to do its due diligence.

When the Canadian public went to the polls to choose a new government, they elected a Conservative government because they knew that we understood accountability. We know that accountability does not just mean explaining money that was spent last year. It means being able to plan expenditures before they go out of control.

We are asking the questions Canadians want asked because we know that the answers are important. However, without those answers and without the confidence of Canadians we cannot support this bill.

This government's record of measured improvements to the EI program proves that we have made EI a priority by our approach. However, our approach will not be piecemeal. We will look at the entirety of the EI program and not just one small aspect of it. Canadians expect more from this minister than that. They want him to properly manage a program that benefits the whole country.

Last night's Speech from the Throne outlined this government's priorities and reconfirmed our commitment to make the EI system responsive to Canadians' needs. We will continue to take measures to improve the governance and management of the employment insurance account and we will ensure that these changes are measured and responsible. I look forward to the minister's next steps in improving the EI program, which I am sure will be presented in the House in due course.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

October 17th, 2007 / 7:10 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the final hour of debate on Bill C-269, an act to make improvements to the Employment Insurance Act.

Members will recall that last May the entire Liberal caucus stood in the House to vote in support of Bill C-269 at report stage. This followed significant Liberal efforts at the human resources committee along with our colleagues in the Bloc and the NDP to make this legislation better.

During that period we worked cooperatively with other opposition parties on amendments that we thought would improve the main elements of this bill. We negotiated not only with colleagues in this House, but also with organizations and unions that have long sought changes to the employment insurance system. At committee all parties, except the Conservative Party, supported our efforts to improve the EI system.

I would like to mention some of the colleagues on my side of the House who have worked so hard to see improvements in EI. The member for Madawaska—Restigouche has been a champion of EI reform since he was elected in 2004. The members for Cape Breton—Canso, Sydney—Victoria, West Nova, our very quiet member for Labrador and the member for Beauséjour have championed changes as well.

We had hoped that the bill would go to third and final reading and then to the Senate for deliberations there, but unfortunately that was blocked when the government refused to give royal recommendation. It does not want to give any more money to improve employment insurance.

Many of us wonder why the government would reject outright the effort of all opposition parties to make improvements when there is a $14 billion surplus in Canada. If last night's throne speech is any indication, we should be concerned. In the throne speech, one sentence referenced employment insurance where it said:

Our Government will also take measures to improve the governance and management of the Employment Insurance Account.

Uh-oh, that is not good news. The knees we see shaking are those of Canadian workers, because most Canadians know that when Conservatives mention that they are looking to “improve” a social program such as EI, it is usually the opposite. In many cases the Conservatives tend to slash the program because of their ideological distaste to help those who need help the most.

What they said in the Speech from the Throne was a vague statement that is worrisome. It is certainly worrisome in my province of Nova Scotia and in New Brunswick, throughout rural Canada and Quebec and large parts of this nation where employment insurance has become a very important part of our social infrastructure. I would not be surprised to see this be the thin edge of the wedge, so to speak: maternity benefits, sick benefits and using EI as a tool to send more Canadians, Atlantic Canadians, out west.

We all know of the significant elements in the Conservative caucus who do not believe that the social programs we have built up are worthwhile. There are a lot of other examples of legislation brought forth by members who want to improve the lives of Canadians but which have been rejected by the government.

The parliamentary secretary who just spoke said that this bill was not based on a foundation, that it was not costed and not well thought out. This bill has a lot of merit, but let me talk about another bill on EI brought forward by the member for Sydney—Victoria.

Bill C-278 was meant to extend sick benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. That bill was fully costed. That bill was brought forward by the member for Sydney—Victoria with the full support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society and other organizations that realize there has been a changed dynamic in health care in this country. No longer are people dying as much from heart attacks and cancer. That is the good news. The bad news is that they have to live with them. They have to recover. Fifteen weeks is not enough.

The member for Sydney—Victoria brought forward a bill, and that bill did not get the support of the government. That bill did not get royal recommendation. Even members on the human resources committee said it was a well thought out bill when the member appeared at committee. It is a thoroughly necessary piece of legislation.

When bills like Bill C-269 are rejected, it demoralizes Canadians. Employment insurance is set up to help people who need help. It is not the fault of people who are out of work. I suspect there may be government members who still believe that people who are not working are not working because they choose not to work. That is clearly not the case.

Those members on the other side of the House do not believe that government should actually help people. We see that all the time.

Why would they not support a bill that would extend sick benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks for people who have gone through cancer, who have put in the mental and the human resource effort to recover from cancer, but who cannot go back to work right away? They simply cannot do it. There is a gap in the system that has not been addressed.

We worked cooperatively with other opposition parties to make improvements in Bill C-269 as well. In November, Liberal members of the human resources committee began discussions with the Bloc and NDP members, as we are supposed to do in a minority Parliament to make legislation work, to make it more palatable, and to make it more reasonable so that it can come to this place and be defended.

The discussions were focused on making the proposals of Bill C-269 more reasonable. Significant changes were agreed to by the parties. The Bloc and the NDP adjusted their views. So did the labour unions that were part of those discussions.

The original proposal was to lower the qualifying period to 360 hours of work across the board. It was adjusted to a flat 70 hour reduction. For us, we also made a proposal to eliminate the distinction between new entrants and re-entrants. It was amended. We believe there should be some disincentive for people to enter the employment insurance system the first time. If they need it, they should have it, but if it is made too easy, people become dependent upon that system, so that distinction was eliminated.

Other proposed changes in the bill would eliminate the two week waiting period. People need employment insurance because they need it, not because they want it. Why aggravate the situation? Why insult people by saying they have to wait two weeks to get employment insurance?

The five week black hole at the end was also eliminated as part of the bill. I think that makes sense. I wrote down what the parliamentary secretary just said in referring to how people are tired of money disappearing down black holes. Is employment insurance a black hole? Are people who are out of work through no fault of their own a black hole in Canada? Or are they part of the social infrastructure that we are proud to have built up in this nation? I think it is the latter.

There have been a number of private members' bills on EI. Since the 1990s, EI has been put on a solid footing. There were many years in the 1970s and 1980s when income going to the EI fund was in fact less than was paid out. In other words, there was a deficit.

Now, deficit or surplus, it all goes into the consolidated revenue fund, but for many years we were paying out a lot more than we were paying in because of the economy. The Liberal government of the 1990s fixed the economy so more money was being paid in than paid out.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

James Bezan Selkirk—Interlake, MB

We planted the garden. You guys just picked the flowers.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

We now have some amount of money every year that is considered surplus. It does not get carried from year to year. It comes out of the consolidated revenue fund. In my view it is time to look at that system and say, “Now that we have made the system sustainable, we should be doing more to help the people who need help”.

In 2004 we started some pilot projects so that we extended benefits to people who actually needed them. Over the 10 years between mid-1990 and mid-2000, we drastically reduced premiums for those who pay premiums. The system is actuarially evaluated every year, but we still have a surplus. I think we should look at that surplus. It is an insurance system. To me, what we put in and what we pay out should balance.

There is an opportunity for us to do something. The bill is part of that. It is not the only thing. Part time workers, low income workers, and persons who are self-employed, including many in our artistic and cultural community, do not and cannot apply for employment insurance. We should look at doing more to increase the productivity of Canada.

We support the bill. It is not the only thing we should do, but in my view it is one of the things we should do to fully recognize that people who are receiving employment insurance are doing so not because they want to but because they have to.

In Canada we have built up a social infrastructure that makes us unique in some ways. I am proud of that social infrastructure. Large parts of Canada need that social infrastructure. In fact, at a time when the economy is doing well, having been turned around in the 1990s, it is now the time to reinvest in a lot of programs. We should be doing more on poverty and we should be doing more to help people get educated, but we should also be doing more to ensure that people who need help because they have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own have access to the money in the EI system.

Liberals supported Bill C-269 along the way. We worked with our colleagues in other parties and with labour unions and organizations throughout Canada to make this bill palatable and to make sure that it meets the needs of Canadians. I think it is an improvement.

We are proud to continue to support Bill C-269. We wish the government would give it a royal recommendation. We wish government members would open their eyes and look at bills like Bill C-278 as well, because it makes Canada stronger, not weaker, when we help those who actually need help the most.