House of Commons Hansard #105 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was budget.

Topics

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey
Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I will start by underscoring our government's commitment to improving the well-being of seniors and our continued efforts to address their needs now and into the future. For this reason, I welcome the opportunity to speak to Bill C-326, an act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act (biweekly payment of benefits).

I am certain the notion of paying Canada pension plan and old age security benefits to seniors on a biweekly rather than a monthly basis was proposed with the best of intentions. However, our government's priority is reducing administrative costs to ensure the maximum amount of seniors benefits.

The government recently undertook a significant exercise, the deficit reduction action plan, to reduce duplication, overlap and redundant processes across government to ensure the greatest value for taxpayer dollars. We recently implemented a one-for-one rule to reduce government red tape. Not only will this transformative measure reduce the bureaucratic administration of government, but it will reduce the cost of businesses and create jobs and growth.

Clearly, members can tell that we are passionate about reducing the size of government and reducing redundancy within government. As a result, the government cannot support a bill that would increase the administrative costs of government by tens of millions of dollars in this time of fiscal restraint.

The old age security program and Canada pension plan are the first two pillars of Canada's retirement system. As such, they provide significant income security to Canadians in their senior years. Indeed, our public pension system is projected to provide Canadians with close to $72 billion this year alone. When month-to-month circumstances do not change, as is the case with retirement benefits, the practice of paying all benefits at the end of the month is the most efficient. This practice is also consistent with other income support methods both in Canada and internationally.

For the sake of contrast, I would point out that the employment insurance system is different. The EI system is meant to support individuals in a time of transition and, as such, is highly reactive to changing circumstances of those individuals. As a result, EI is paid in two week increments.

This is quite different from retirement programs that are largely set out once an individual applies initially and rarely have the benefit rates re-evaluated.

Changing the frequency of benefit payments may seem like a simple administrative task, Mr. Speaker, but it is fraught with consequences. The current system works well, allowing for efficient administration, as well as an efficient use of tax dollars. A bi-monthly payment schedule would put this efficiency at risk.

Consider the number of players involved in the delivery of all benefit payments. Service Canada works in partnership with Public Works and Government Services Canada and Canada Post and the banks coordinate the financial transfer of benefit payments. Each organization has its own work plan around the payment dates that take place on the third last banking day of each month. This is not to say nothing of the provincial and territorial governments that provide top-ups, tax credits and other benefits that are tied to monthly calculations for these payments.

Apart from the system costs of amending two acts of Parliament, changing the frequency of benefit payments would demand additional resources of all the players involved. Frankly, it would be difficult to justify the significant costs.

However, there are deeper issues at stake here. The changes proposed by the bill fly in the face of profound socio-economic changes effecting the country.

Like many countries, Canada is in the midst of a major demographic shift. Our population is aging. On the one hand, Canadians are living longer and on the other, we are having fewer children. These significant changes are making the total costs of OAS benefits increasingly difficult to sustain and afford for tomorrow's workers and taxpayers.

The chief actuary forecasts that the number of OAS recipients will nearly double from 2010 to 2030, from 4.8 million to 9.3 million individuals. Today, there are four Canadians working for every retired person. In 2030 the ratio will be two to one. In essence, about the same number of workers as today will be supporting twice as many seniors by 2030.

In this light, it is our view that the benefits to seniors of an increased flexibility in budgeting are outweighed by the extra cost shouldered by the taxpayers. Simply put, the changes proposed in Bill C-326 are not good value for money, not in light of our need to ensure the very sustainability of OAS for future generations. This is why our government plans to increase the age of OAS eligibility from 65 to 67, to ensure the sustainability of the OAS program.

Our government has the best interests of seniors at heart, both the seniors who receive public pensions today and those who will count on them in years ahead.

However, should any doubt remain, I would like to remind the House of the government's actions on behalf of current generations of seniors.

Since 2006, this government has provided $2.3 billion in annual tax relief to seniors and pensioners. We have introduced pension income splitting and doubled the pension income credit. We have also invested significantly in affordable housing. These changes were introduced in spite of the opposition's attempt to vote them down.

What is more, we have targeted the needs of low-income seniors through a variety of measures related to the guaranteed income supplement, or GIS.

First, seniors no longer have to apply to GIS every year. Automatic renewals exist, linked to their income tax return each year.

Second, in addition to raising the GIS twice above indexation, we introduced a top-up benefit to help the most vulnerable seniors. This represents a $1.5 billion investment over five years, the largest increase of the GIS for our most vulnerable seniors in a quarter century.

Third, our government is committed to Canada's economic action plan 2012 to proactively enrol seniors in OAS and to ensure that they receive the benefits to which they are entitled. This measure further enhances the financial security and well-being of more than 680,000 seniors across the country. As of last July, single seniors entitled to the GIS will receive an additional $600 of annual benefits and couples will receive $840.

Finally, through budget 2008, we introduced the GIS exemptions earning, from $500 to $3,500. This enables working GIS recipients to keep up to another $1,500 of their benefits each year.

Our government is committed to improving the quality of life of seniors, and continues to seek ways to address their needs now and in the future.

To that end, we take our role as custodian of the OAS and CPP very seriously. Any changes to these programs, no matter how minor, are examined carefully to assess their potential impact, not just on seniors but on all Canadians.

We have reviewed the changes proposed in Bill C-326 and believe they cannot be justified in our current fiscal reality. Nor can we justify the risk of changes posed to the efficiency of service delivery that would be imposed at this government level, on the provinces and the other service providers.

For these reasons, our government cannot support the bill in this time of fiscal restraint, and I urge the hon. members in the House to join me in opposing it.

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this place to speak to Bill C-326, An Act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act (biweekly payment of benefits).

The bill seeks to amend these acts to allow for CPP and OAS benefits to be paid biweekly. It is worthy noting that this change would apply only at the request of persons receiving the benefits. In other words, it would be a matter of choice for the seniors and retirees.

Members will no doubt know this is actually the third time the bill has been brought before the House, the first time being in 2008.

Although the bill's intent is laudable, the NDP has not seen a call for such action from Canadians for such a change. Having said that, because it is voluntary, the NDP will support it.

Regarding changes to CPP, OAS and GIS, I and my fellow New Democrats have been campaigning since 2009 for much stronger action than what is contained in Bill C-326. Members will know, from reports to the House, following my appointment as pensions critic for the NDP in 2009, that I hosted two round tables of pension experts that February. These experts concluded at the time that the CPP was fine, fully funded for 75 years. As of late, the government has actually agreed with that statement. Their additional conclusion was that OAS likewise was sustainable for the long term. These panellists reached these conclusions even after considering the impact of retiring baby boomers and what that impact would be on OAS.

Following the advice that was given us from these round tables, my staff and I turned our attention to the broader question of retirement security for all Canadians.

In June of 2009, my opposition day motion on pensions raised in the House of Commons for the first time the urgent need for an increase to GIS to raise some 300,000 seniors out of poverty.

The motion also highlighted the NDP plan for a phased-in increase of the core assets of the CPP until it reached the capacity to double its benefits that it provided to Canadians.

The motion also included a proposal for a national pension insurance fund paid for by plan holders to protect workers when companies went out of business.

Finally included in the motion was a proposal to change the ability for workers to use the legislation governing CCAA protection and actual bankruptcy proceedings under the provisions of the BIA whenever a company went into bankruptcy. This would have given workers and retirees status as creditors in order to access the company's final assets.

I am pleased to remind the House that our opposition day motion at that time was passed unanimously, with all parties in agreement, including the Conservatives.

The fact that the Conservatives so heartily supported our road map for changing Canada's retirement security program gave us hope that we would see these changes in short order. Sadly, that has not been the case. In spite of taking such an enlightened decision to support the NDP motion and in effect endorsing our plan, the Conservative government has not delivered on that promise.

During last May's election campaign, Jack Layton, our leader at the time, was clear that the NDP would follow through on our promise to raise the GIS significantly. In fact, it was the very first proposal in our platform, as was increasing the CPP. New Democrats had done a cost analysis of our plan and were prepared to move forward delivering for Canadians.

While New Democrats were being very clear on our plan, and were clear during the election campaign with respect to seniors, pensioners and those people who were planning their retirements, what did the Conservatives and the Prime Minister have to say on the retirement security of seniors during that election campaign? Did the Prime Minister or his party once raise the fact that they were planning an increase to the eligibility of OAS and GIS from 65 to 67? Of course they did not. They knew their own base of voters would oppose this unneeded attack on the poorest of the poor.

What will our next steps be? Although Bill C-326 offers a very modest change for Canadian citizens and seniors, we will not stand in the way of this particular bill. We also want to emphatically reiterate to Canadians that the NDP, after forming the next majority government in 2015, will rescind any motion or law that has changed the eligibility for OAS or GIS from age 65 to 67.

In the meantime, all New Democrats in this House will continue to press the Conservative government to honour its 2009 vote on our opposition day motion. We will call on the Conservatives and all members of this House to work with the NDP, in consultation with the provinces and territories, to bring forward the measures that are necessary to establish a phased-in doubling of Canada pension plan benefits.

We are looking forward as well to working constructively with the government, using my Bill C-331, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (pension plans), as a template for changing the CCAA and the BIA to protect retirees' pensions during CCAA or bankruptcy proceedings. I do believe that this would bring a significant change to employers' understanding regarding pension assets. They do not realize at this point in time that these are deferred wages and that they should belong solely to the workers. That change in view or ideology, however we want to propose it, is a hurdle that we have to get over as Canadians in dealing with the assets of companies that happen to have the misfortune of going under.

To the member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, I want to say that the New Democrats will be supporting Bill C-326 as it moves forward through the House. We are also looking forward to all of the advances that we can make together to better the lives of Canadian seniors and retirees.

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, along with my colleagues in the NDP, I am very pleased as the critic for seniors to be able to stand here in support of Bill C-326 brought forward by my colleague, the member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor. There I would note that we do indeed have long names for some of the wonderful, beautiful parts of our country.

I find it ironic that we are dealing with Bill C-326 now, after seeing the budget few days ago and knowing that the government is going to change the age of retirement for future seniors and baby boomers in Canada. I think it is a real step backwards from where we want to be as a country.

Given that the government has announced its plan to slash seniors' benefits, I am especially keen to discuss this measure, as it would actually help low income seniors rather than hurt them. It is a simple thing to do and not a complicated issue. It is not going to cost a lot of money. All it is going to do is to help some of the people out there who truly need help.

Let me be clear on Bill C-326. It is not suggesting that we pay seniors half as much, but rather that we pay seniors in shorter intervals. I think we all know the difficulties when a cheque cannot be stretched until the end of the month. My colleague outlined many good examples, including one of his constituents.

It is very sad to think that seniors in this country today, in this rich country of ours called Canada, have to try to manage to get through the month in order to be able to buy medication. It is absolutely outrageous that anyone is living like that, especially seniors.

I understand that many of my colleagues on the other side of the House like the idea of finding ways to reduce what we provide to baby boomers and seniors, but the document that attacks seniors is the Conservative budget. In contrast, Bill C-326 actually helps seniors by adding some flexibility to how they set up their household finances. It is not complicated; it sounds pretty normal.

The OAS is currently delivered by a monthly cheque of approximately $540.12 to those who get the maximum OAS benefit, which most people actually do not get. Then if they qualify, which many of the seniors we are talking about do, they would get the maximum GIS of $732, albeit which many people do not get. The total would be $1,272 a month. We are talking about giving it to them on a bi-weekly basis, the way lots of us pay lots of our bills.

To stretch that $1,272 over a whole month would be tough, I would suggest, for any one of us, never mind talking about a senior citizen who quite possibly has health issues to deal with, and who knows what else. Most financial planners tell us that people struggle to set up and maintain an effective monthly household budget. With less than $293 per week, this task gets even harder for those over the age of 65.

Paying seniors twice per month would help seniors to budget and plan more effectively and to have a little more comfort in their homes. More money would help, and we all understand that.

We have talked about all of the other countries that are changing their pension systems, but many of them have very rich pensions. Seniors living in Norway get 66% of their income replaced. In Canada, we give people 25%, and now we want to make them wait an extra two years to even get that. Some think we have an over-generous system of looking after our seniors, but we clearly do not.

Canadian seniors and baby boomers have worked and contributed to this nation for generations, so we should do whatever we can to ensure that they get to live with some dignity in retirement. This is why I have written a white paper on pension reform and a pension income bill of rights, and it is why I oppose this 2012 budget.

In contrast to Bill C-326, budget 2012 is an outright betrayal of seniors and baby boomers. It is a betrayal for many reasons, one of them being that this Prime Minister campaigned on a promise to protect seniors' pensions. With his most recent budget, the Prime Minister has jammed his hands deep into the pockets of tomorrow's seniors and baby boomers. Even more, budget 2012 is a betrayal because it is a step closer to throwing seniors to the wolves.

The minister said it is about choices. On that we are in agreement: governing is all about choices. We make our choices, the government makes its choices but it is the government. Clearly its choices are jets and jails in contrast to helping seniors. The government chose to limit the choices seniors and baby boomers have and Bill C-326 is about increasing choices for seniors. Of course, the government will oppose any effort to help low income seniors, because it has already charted its course and that, obviously, does not include a serious role for government and helping the most vulnerable in society.

Unfortunately, this is typical Conservative dishonesty, saying one thing at election time and 11 months later making major changes to this country when it comes to retirement planning. Even worse, it is doing it at a time when it has been discovered that the Prime Minister himself is preparing to cash in on a very special deal that only the PM gets, which is a taxpayer-funded annual retirement bonus worth nine times the OAS. That is $100,000 per year over and above his investments and the MP pension plan. I do not think that any prime minister should be getting this, never mind one who has tabled an austerity budget that is chopping seniors' benefits and making them wait an extra two years.

I know my pleas tonight are going to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the front bench, but is there no one on the back bench who really cares about seniors? If so, he or she should stand and support this bill. It is a good bill that will be helpful. It will make life a little easier and is not going to cost the government any money, if that is what those members are worried about. Bill C-326 is one way of mitigating the damage being done by the budget. Conservatives are asking seniors to do more with less, so we should at least give them the tools they need to manage.

Bill C-326 is a step toward helping seniors manage their households more effectively. That is all it is. It is very important for those on the other end getting the cheques. It is not a $100,000 stipend like the Prime Minister is going to get, but it will be a helping hand for many seniors. In an era when the government is determined to slash what is available for the lowest income seniors, Bill C-326 deserves a look by all of us in the House.

I want to congratulate the member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor for his ongoing work for seniors. He is constantly raising seniors issues with me, and constantly talks about how his constituents are struggling and how much they are looking to him for leadership to make a difference. I am pleased to lend my support to Bill C-326 and would say to all members in the House that if we are doing nothing good for seniors this whole year, let us at least do this. Let us make it a little easier for them. I hope we will all vote to pass this bill.

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

April 3rd, 2012 / 6:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, our government cannot support Bill C-326. It is not in the best interests of Canadians nor in the best interests of seniors or taxpayers.

I know the bill itself proposes that, rather than having the payments monthly, they would be made biweekly. The member for Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor would say it is a small thing, in terms of the change. However, it is a big thing, in terms of the costs that would be involved and what would be passed on to taxpayers. The member for York West, who was for a short time minister of human resources, would know that these matters administratively cost a lot of money. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved. These proposed changes would needlessly increase expenses and add to the bureaucratic administration of the government at a time when we are looking at ways to reduce spending and ensure more efficient operation of government.

Let me assure members in the House that as a government, we are committed to ensuring Canadians receive the benefits to which they are eligible. There is no question about that. That is why we brought in automatic renewal of the OAS and GIS for seniors who file a tax return.

We also announced in our economic action plan 2012 that we would be proactively enrolling Canadians for their old age security benefits to ensure that every senior receives their full entitlement. We are acting to ensure that government services are streamlined, efficient and take less effort for Canadians to receive the services they deserve.

The current system of monthly payments is the most efficient way to administer old age security and Canada pension plan programs. While we can never be sure exactly how many seniors would take advantage of a biweekly payment schedule, it would not be unrealistic to expect we would almost double the number of transactions for CPP and OAS benefits. Service Canada and Public Works and Government Services Canada estimate that the total cost would increase by $40 million to $50 million per year. It is a small change maybe, but potentially quite costly. We certainly have to take that into account when we are considering streamlining government and reducing expenses.

In this time of fiscal restraint, our government is committed to delivering the highest quality service in a way that is efficient, effective and focused on the needs of Canadians. As we recently highlighted in Canada's economic action plan 2012, the government has recently completed significant reviews aimed at reducing government bureaucracy.

The most immediate exercise was the government's deficit reduction action plan. This exercise examined government spending to reduce overlap redundancy in administrative costs and ensure value for taxpayer dollars. This review demonstrated our resolve as a government to put taxpayers first, while making strategic choices to ensure efficient government spending well into the future.

The second exercise was the red tape panel that led to a one-to-one rule. The principle is quite simple. Every time the government creates a regulation, the department has to eliminate a regulation. This would make interaction with government much more efficient, while also simplifying the administration of government.

I do not understand why the member opposite would like to add to the bureaucratic processes of government. We recognize that today's seniors have played, and continue to play, a vital role in Canadian society. There is no doubt about that. By working hard throughout their lives and paying taxes, they have contributed to Canada's strong fiscal foundation. They continue to contribute by offering their wisdom, their talent and their time in their communities. They are role models for all of us.

Our government is committed to improving the well-being of Canadian seniors. We are certainly open to exploring ways to better assist these respected and valued members of our communities now and into the future. We have made provision for the retirement benefits to be more convenient for seniors.

However, we must question whether the measures proposed in Bill C-326 would address the real problem.

Does the monthly payment system really need fixing? Would a biweekly system really give value for money? If not, it would be irresponsible for us to impose yet another layer of process and drive up unnecessary spending at a time when taxpayers expect us to be prudent in handling their hard-earned money.

Canadians gave our government a strong mandate to complete Canada's economic recovery and return to balanced budgets. This is exactly what we are doing.

Payment processing already involves several departments acting in conjunction. There is more involved than most would think. The processing cost of a single cheque or direct deposit may not seem like much when looked at in isolation, but when the government is issuing millions of cheques and deposits each month, it becomes a whole different matter.

The changes could actually have unintended consequences for seniors that are not desirable. The proposed changes would also increase the burden on the system, just as we are facing increased financial pressures from a growing population of seniors. As members of the House are well aware, the first of Canada's baby boomer generation started to turn 65 in 2011. Within less than two decades, almost one in four Canadians will be over 65. Looking at these numbers alone, the coming challenges are evident. It is important to understand that distributing benefits to seniors requires a lot of organization and coordination.

To ensure the efficient delivery of all benefit payments, Service Canada works in partnership with Public Works and Government Services Canada, Canada Post and the banking sector to coordinate the financial transfers of benefits payments. Each organization has developed work plans around a payment date that is the third last banking day of each month.

This practice of paying all benefits at the end of the month was adopted to provide the best service possible in a cost-effective way. Monthly payments are the commonly accepted standard for government benefits. I want to point out that most federal benefits are paid out on a monthly basis: benefits paid by Veterans Affairs Canada, the universal child care benefit and the child tax benefit, among others. Monthly payments are also typical in programs for seniors in the majority of countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Payments made monthly are also the norm for most seniors benefits in Canada at the provincial and territorial level. Let me expand on this last point quickly. There are several provincial and territorial programs that base their benefit level on an individual's OAS and GIS payments. If we changed things at the federal level, it would mean that the systems at the provincial level would also need to be changed to reflect this fact. In the highly automated environment governments operate in today, something that may seem like a small change can have a considerable ripple effect.

In a time of spending restraints it would be difficult to justify the costs involved in changing the system, based on an argument of convenience in changing it from monthly to biweekly.

We fully understand the importance of a secure and dignified retirement for hard-working Canadians. OAS and CPP are the first two pillars of Canada's retirement income system and play a significant role in providing income security to Canadians in their senior years. There can be no question of our commitment to ensure that Canadians receive the benefits for which they are eligible and entitled. However, the change proposed in Bill C-326 would further complicate the system without addressing any pressing need.

The additional cost involved would only draw funding away to underwrite the administrative process. These funds could be better spent on measures that would truly help seniors and other Canadians.

For these reasons our government is in favour of keeping the legislated monthly payment schedule of CPP and OAS. My colleagues and I cannot support Bill C-326. It would be an irresponsible use of taxpayers' dollars.

I would urge members opposite to reconsider their position, to look at the ramifications of what they are suggesting, to look at the millions of cheques and deposits that have to be made, the numbers of departments that would be involved and the bureaucracy that it would take to get there. I urge them to reconsider whether they want to spend those kinds of dollars, those kinds of efforts and that kind of energy to achieve merely the advanced payment from monthly to biweekly when the system we have now is working. It is timely, it has developed, it is something people have come to expect and something that has been a common practice in other areas as well. Other services use that model. It has been something Canadians have accepted over the years and it is something that the opposition should look at. That money could be better spent doing other things for seniors or other members of the Canadian public.

I would ask them to reconsider their position and not proceed with this unnecessary amendment at this time.

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Before I recognize the hon. member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, I must inform him that I will have to interrupt him at 7:08pm at the conclusion of time provided for private members’ business.

The hon. member for Mr. Alain Giguère has the floor.

Canada Pension Plan
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened to my colleague who spoke before me, and I am extremely disappointed. He is talking about a little detail that may be important in future: an administrative expense.

By pushing back the age of retirement, the government decided this week to cut the funds allocated to the guaranteed income supplement, old age security and the Canada pension plan by $10.8 billion. Ten billion, eight hundred million dollars. It did not ask itself a lot of questions about the administrative problems this might cause for the people who would not be receiving that money.

Last year, the government refused to help the Nortel and AbitibiBowater employees and the employees of several other companies who lost their pension funds. That is another little administrative problem. It is called being able to make ends meet at the end of the month. Unfortunately, those people cannot do that, because this government decided again that this little administrative problem was too important for them.

Bill C-326 is merely a small gesture, a little administrative reform, one that is technical, if not cosmetic. It is simply a matter of arranging for benefits to be paid every two weeks. We are not asking for a miracle. We simply want Canada pension plan payments to be made twice a month. This is simply to give recipients some financial flexibility in their day-to-day budgeting.

This request has been made by numerous retirees. It is a matter of replying to a very simple request. People do not want to find themselves constantly in busy pharmacies all at the same time and tripping over one another at the bank. They want there to be a little rotation. There is nothing difficult or extraordinarily costly about this.

I would have liked these people who are quick to make budget cuts to think at least once, just once, about the people who need a favour.

It is not so extraordinary to ask for this gesture after everything the government has taken away from them. After everything it has taken away, the least it could have done would have been to agree to this little reform. It adds nothing to the cheques. Poor people will still be just as poor, but they could manage their grocery and drug purchases better. This is not an extraordinary request, but the government has refused it.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Élaine Michaud Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago, I asked the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities what he intended to do in order to preserve one of the most important port facilities in my riding, the Portneuf wharf. Today, I hope to obtain a clearer answer to the questions I asked some weeks ago.

This wharf, which was built in the 1950s, is today in desperate need of repairs in order to keep it safe for the public. It has raised a number of concerns: the structure requires major repairs in certain places, and work must commence as quickly as possible.

The water in which the wharf's structure sits must also be decontaminated because the creosote wood used during the wharf’s construction contaminated the surrounding water.

The wharf is particularly important for the Portneuf region and the entire population. In addition to being the longest deep water wharf in Canada, it is important to the tourism industry and to businesses in the City of Portneuf. The wharf provides the public with access to the river, and anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Portneuf—and I hope that there are many of you here today—will attest to the fact that the view from the wharf of the Saint Lawrence River is uninterrupted.

The wharf is an object of pride for the residents of Portneuf and an integral part of my region's heritage. This infrastructure must be conserved at all costs.

The City of Portneuf has been trying to buy the wharf back from the federal government since 2009. The negotiations between the municipality and Transport Canada were part of the port divestiture program, which ended only a couple of days ago. The program would have enabled the city to become the owner of the port facilities once the federal government carried out the necessary repairs. The repairs were a prerequisite to divesting the wharf to the municipality.

As I mentioned, the negotiations started in September 2009, and discussions were advancing quite well. A pre-transfer agreement was even reached between the municipality and the federal government. However, in July 2010, Transport Canada decided to put an end to the negotiations because of the huge costs involved in decontaminating and repairing the site in order to make it safer. These costs were discovered after a report was commissioned by the municipality to determine the future of the Portneuf wharf.

Since July 2010, the municipality of Portneuf has been trying to resume negotiations with Transport Canada, but with no success. The mayor of Portneuf is trying to get answers, but it is impossible for him to speak with anyone at Transport Canada. And so, because it is apparently not possible to speak directly to the minister, I put a question on the order paper several weeks ago, asking the minister whether the department wanted to divest itself of the wharf or keep it, and what would become of the repairs needed in order for the wharf to last and of responsibility for environmental liability issues if it kept the wharf or divested it. In writing, I learned that the department wanted to divest itself of the wharf, and I was referred to the criteria for the port divestiture program. When I asked the question orally, the minister replied that the program was already over, although I had asked him the question at the beginning of March. He tells me that all of the funds have already been committed.

At this point, there has got to be a clear answer, because the two answers are completely inconsistent, and the people in my riding need an answer. If the department intends to transfer the wharf to the municipality, the minister has to act, and quickly. However, if it wants to keep the wharf, the municipality will not oppose that; quite the contrary, it would like a commitment to preserving the wharf. I would like to get some slightly clearer answers on this.

7:10 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey
Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, the Portneuf wharf is a regional and local port that Transport Canada has been trying to transfer into the port divestiture program since the program was established in 1995. Over the past 15 years, this matter has undergone a series of examinations.

The various options respecting the wharf's future have been the subject of numerous discussions with the municipality of Portneuf, the regional municipality for the county, the Government of Quebec, experts, developers and the wharf's main user, which is now operating out of the port of Quebec.

It should be noted that Transport Canada carried out repairs to the wharf at a cost of around $500,000 in 2007-08 so that this user could come back and resume its operations at Portneuf wharf.

Future commercial transportation at the wharf faces major obstacles. The residents of Portneuf have been concerned about the impact of substantial quantities of bulk products being transported by water, which could have resulted in heavy truck traffic in the municipality, with considerable impacts for residents. In addition, the proximity of the port's operations alongside the recreational marina adjacent to the wharf raised other concerns.

After analyzing the number of possible solutions over a number of years, including the feasibility of putting a conveyor system in place to reduce the impact of bulk transshipments, stakeholders proposed demolishing the wharf completely and building a new, smaller berth for use by tourist vessels each year. This would cost approximately $15 million.

I recognize the considerable efforts that local stakeholders have made to find a solution for the wharf's future and would like to assure the member that Transport Canada's regional office lent its support throughout each stage of this process, which has a 15 year history.

When there are conclusive economic advantages, Transport Canada can participate in the implementation of solutions that have economic benefits and demonstrate the sound management of public funds.

Therefore, all other solutions brought forward by the municipality of Portneuf will have to demonstrate how the economic repercussions of such projects justify investment. The chosen solution will have to comply with environmental requirements, be sustainable and provide financial autonomy.

Since the port divestiture program contributes to Canada's economic action plan, the program has been refinanced until the end of March 2014. This gives the people of Portneuf an opportunity to reassess the options in order to find a solution that is compatible with the framework of the port divestiture program, the allocated budget and the March 2014 deadline.

We recognize the tremendous efforts made by local stakeholders to find a solution to the future of the wharf. The member can rest assured that Transport Canada's regional office has collaborated at all steps in this process made over the past 15 years and it will continue to fulfill its responsibilities with respect to ensuring the safety and environmental protection of Portneuf wharf, regardless of which solution is chosen for its future.

7:15 p.m.

NDP

Élaine Michaud Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the parliamentary secretary for her answer, which contained a great deal of misinformation.

If Transport Canada had really cooperated at every stage of the process with the municipality of Portneuf, the department would not have stopped negotiations in July 2010 on the basis of the environmental costs it was going to have to bear.

I do however have a question to ask her. Early in the week, divers were seen by representatives of the municipality at the Portneuf wharf. After looking into the matter, it turns out that these divers were sent by Public Works and Government Services Canada to carry out safety evaluations of the wharf. I would like a little more detail about this process. Are there new projects slated for the wharf in the near future? Does the government intend to carry out repairs? I would like some clarification on this.

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, the government is committed to demonstrate the good management of public funds, and with respect to the allocation of financial resources available under the port divestiture program, priority was given to the divesting port facilities owned by the federal government to interested stakeholders, including local municipalities or provincial governments.

After several years of analysis of a variety of options, the member must understand that Transport Canada, whose mission is to develop an efficient transport system, can hardly participate in the development of a solution adopted by the city of Portneuf valued at approximately $15 million since this option has no link with the commercial transportation of goods.

The port divestiture program has been extended for a period of two years until March 31, 2014. As a result, any potential solution proposed by the city of Portneuf must demonstrate that the economic benefits of such a project justify the magnitude of the sums to be invested. The solution chosen by the parties must comply with all requirements of environmental sustainability and financial independence.

Members can rest assured that Transport Canada will continue to fulfill its responsibilities with respect to ensuring the safety and environmental protection of the Portneuf wharf, regardless of which solution is chosen for its future.

7:15 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will begin with a comment about the accusation by the Minister of Justice that I or members of the New Democratic Party do not value or appreciate the work done by individuals sitting on the judicial advisory committees.

I do appreciate all the hard work by these men and women. All New Democrats know that the justice system would not function without the hard work of judicial advisory committees. Unfortunately, instead of answering my question, the minister decided to take an undignified pot shot and make unfounded allegations. I am hopeful that I will get an answer to my question today and not just more rhetoric.

I will refresh members' memories. My question was specifically about women on federal judiciary advisory committees and I asked why women were being overlooked as advisors to the government for appointments of federal judges. There are in fact only 6 women among the 52 people appointed. The ripple effect of this is staggering. It is mostly men on the committees and they are choosing our judges and, consequently, choosing mostly male federal judges.

I will give the House some numbers. In 2011, 8 women were chosen and 41 men. In 2010, 13 female judges were appointed and 37 male judges. As of the end of last year, 356 female were federal judges out of a total of over 1,100 judges, which is about 31%. The number of female judges appointed has actually dropped under the Conservative banner with only 19% in 2011. This is a drastic drop in comparison to previous governments where female appointments were up to about 40%.

These numbers cannot be shrugged off with a “Well, more men are in the profession.” Females are increasingly outnumbering the number of men graduating from law schools. The past president of the Canadian Bar Association, Rod Snow, recognizes the gender imbalance in Canadian judicial circles. He said specifically that the number of women on the bench still did not fully reflect the gender balance in the country or in the profession.

I want to emphasize the point that there are many women in the legal profession. In Ontario in 2010, 54% of lawyers under age 40 were women. Women make up 44% of lawyers in the 40 to 49 age category. The numbers do fall off a bit when we get to 50 to 65 but only to about 29%.

I do want to say that women's voices need to be heard, women's opinions add value and women need to be represented on judicial boards and appointed as judges.

I will repeat my question in the hope of getting an answer. Only 20% of judicial appointees are women. This problem will not be fixed until there is more diversity on the advisory committees. The troubling truth is that two provinces, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, do not have any women on federal judiciary advisory committees. Canadians expect their judiciary to be more diverse and to reflect Canada. More women than ever are pursuing careers in law.

Why will the Conservative government not make gender equality a priority?

7:20 p.m.

Delta—Richmond East
B.C.

Conservative

Kerry-Lynne Findlay Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice

Mr. Speaker, allow me to revisit the figures and clarify the important facts.

The hon. member has her figures wrong, and I speak as someone who was called to the bar 32 years ago, was a past president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association and is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice.

In fact, of the 1,114 federally appointed judges active as of February 1, 2012, 32% are women, with one-third of our federal bench now composed of women. We have come a long way since the first federal appointment of a female judge in 1943. Indeed, the government has continued to make important strides in increasing gender diversity on our Superior Court benches.

Since February 1, 2006, the proportion of women on the bench rose from 29% to 32%, of full-time sitting judges that number increases to 36%, a clear indicator of the upward trend. In fact, all four of the full-time members of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories are women.

I would invite the hon. member to consider the situation at the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court reflects Canada's true diversity. Every region is represented at the Supreme Court by judges with diverse training backgrounds in both systems. The two official languages can be found there, as can a dialogue between these traditions.

The Supreme Court of Canada serves as a model of diversity and legal excellence throughout the world. The first appointment of a female judge to the Supreme Court of Canada, Bertha Wilson, occurred in 1982. Today, four of the nine judges of the Supreme Court, including our Chief Justice, are women, most recently, Madam Justice Karakatsanis from the Ontario Court of Appeal. No other high court in the Commonwealth, indeed in the common law world, can claim the benefit of such strong female representation.

These statistics underscore the government's firm commitment to achieving diversity, including gender representation, on our superior court benches. Canadians may be proud of the advances that have been made in increasing the representation of certain groups, particularly women, on the bench.

The hon. member for London—Fanshawe has made particular reference to the composition of certain judicial advisory committees which assess each lawyer's qualifications for the bench. She attributes her allegations of under-representation of women on our benches to the current committee composition particularly in two provinces. In saying this, the hon. member appears to suggest that only women are committed to gender equality and the goal of achieving a representative bench.

Such a suggestion does a real disservice to the committed members of these committees who give up a significant amount of their free time without compensation to make this important contribution. These committees are a key mechanism for achieving a representative bench. In making their assessments, committee members are asked to consider each candidate's awareness of racial and gender issues as well as their ability to remain neutral while hearing all sides of an argument.

It is important to recognize that the composition of these committees is designed to reflect factors appropriate to each jurisdiction, such as geography, language, multiculturalism and gender. As such, the composition is intended to provide an important balance of perspectives on what makes a good judge.

Representatives on these committees, of course, come from nominations from the judiciary, the legal community, such as the Canadian Bar Association, representatives of the provincial and territorial attorneys general, and also federally appointed members.They also include lay members from the community who provide a valuable broader perspective.

We are fortunate indeed to have so many committed judicial advisory committee members, men and women who are willing to undertake this important role in the public interest.

7:25 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I cannot say that I am surprised by the member's answer. The government's record speaks volumes. It has failed women time and time again.

With cuts to Status of Women Canada, dismantling of the gun registry, the elimination of funding for Sisters in Spirit, the cuts to funding for women's advocacy organizations and the elimination of the court challenges program, women's rights have repeatedly taken a back seat under the Conservative government's watch. This is a disservice and a mistake.

Women have come a long way, but full equality remains out of reach. A good step toward breaching the equality “glass ceiling” would be for the Conservative government to appoint qualified women to the judicial advisory committees and ensure that qualified female judges are appointed to federal courts.

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

Kerry-Lynne Findlay Delta—Richmond East, BC

Mr. Speaker, as I said, the federal judicial appointments process has incorporated several mechanisms designed to encourage greater diversity within the federal judiciary. First, efforts have been made to make the application process open and accessible to all. All law societies are regularly approached by the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs to publicize the procedures for application. The commissioner's office has been active in promoting the process among minority groups, both at meetings and in writing. In addition, members of the legal community and all other interested persons and organizations are encouraged to submit to the commissioner the names of persons they consider qualified for judicial office. The commissioner will then send application materials to the nominee.

I have already talked about the provincial and territorial advisory committees, which are expressly mandated to consider and promote diversity in their assessment of applications for the bench. The Minister of Justice also welcomes the advice of interested groups and informed individuals on particular appointments, especially in the furtherance of achieving a representative bench.

This is not an easy challenge, nor one that is isolated to judicial appointments. Canadian law societies, legal professional associations, such as the Canadian Bar Association, and all those committed to the excellence of our legal system are struggling with how to ensure that women not only continue to graduate from law school in record numbers but remain in practice to strengthen the profession and the administration of justice.