House of Commons Hansard #152 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was liberal.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

September 25th, 2012 / 10:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

moved:

That the House call on the government to take several simple and immediate actions to reduce the growing income inequality in Canada including: (a) a roll back of its recent Employment Insurance Premium hikes which inflict a higher relative burden on low to modest income workers; (b) ending the punitive new claw back of Employment Insurance benefits that are discouraging many Canadians from working while on claim; (c) making tax credits, such as the Family Caregiver Tax Credit, refundable so that low income Canadians are not excluded; (d) making the Registered Disability Savings Plan available to sufferers of chronic diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis; and (e)removing interest charges from the federal component of student loans.

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate very much the chance to address this issue in the House today. We all recognize, or at least most of us recognize, that income inequality is a growing issue. Whereas in the years between about 1945 and the mid-1990s, the growing economy created greater equality not only because of the well-paying jobs that were created but also because of a range of government programs that sustained people who were in difficulty.

Since the governments came to grips with the impact of deficits in the early 1990s, right up until today and most emphatically in the last five years, we have a seen a decline in income equality and we have seen a growth of inequality. Those are the undeniable facts.

If I could quote someone who is not a radical figure but a very responsible one, the Governor of the Bank of Canada said this recently in a speech in Halifax, on the subject of income inequality.“The people who say it's not an issue are wrong, and the people who say it is an issue and who then want to create class warfare are wrong. The focus needs to be on ensuring equality of opportunity.... It's a massive issue; fundamental to society. It's not right if big swaths of society become discouraged and marginalized.”

What we have proposed today in the motion is quite practical. It is saying to the government and to the House that there is a series of very discrete and practical steps that we can take to reduce what is an undeniable trend that certainly has accelerated over the last five years because of the impact of two things.

First is the impact of the financial crisis, which has affected the entire world and has naturally had an impact on Canada in terms of rates of growth, the increase in joblessness, the increase in youth unemployment and the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, a trend we had seen over the last 30 years and we have seen it accelerate most recently. Second is because governments sometimes have taken steps that have in fact accelerated inequality rather than moving things in the other direction.

What we are asking the government to do is to, first of all, recognize that this is a problem, not to dismiss it. We had to work very hard to convince a number of Conservative members of Parliament to allow the finance committee to study this question, and I am delighted that my colleague, the finance critic for the Liberal Party, has been able to persuade people that this is something that the committee needs to study.

However, we need to go even further in looking at these practical measures. We want the government to roll back the increase in employment insurance premiums, a tax that is regressive, that has a greater impact on lower and middle income people than it does on those who are better off. We want to end the clawback because, again, the clawback is going to have a negative effect on people on lower incomes and not help them in the least.

We want to make sure that tax credits, such as the family caregiver tax credit, can actually be taken up by people who have no taxable income. We want to make it refundable. It does not make sense to say that this is not going to be available to low-income people who are in fact going forward and taking care of their mother, father or someone else in their family who is disabled, that it is going to be available to people who have a taxable income but not available to people who do not.

Also, we want to make sure we make the registered disability savings plan available to sufferers of chronic diseases, because that is what it was intended to do.

Finally, we want to remove interest charges from the federal portion of student loans, because right now the federal government is actually making money on student loans, and we know that student debt is in fact an ever-increasing issue.

Before I proceed further, I just want to make it clear that I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Cape Breton—Canso, who has been sitting here with a great deal of anxiety and concern that I might take up the full 20 minutes rather than just the time I agreed to as my share.

This is an important issue as it concerns our current economy. Globalization has created extraordinary possibilities for Canada. Our country is rich in natural resources. Our education system compares favourably with that of other countries. Our country has great advantages, but, at the same time, we must recognize that inequality has continued to grow over the past five years, and the past five years have been just as difficult as the 1990s.

I do not believe that this is really a partisan issue. The government could say that we had problems in the 1990s and that the Liberals have nothing to say about that. But we have to admit that during recessions and periods of government cutbacks, the government has the complex task of ensuring that inequality does not get worse. Quite frankly, this government does not want to take on that responsibility. It does not want to deal with this problem and even denies that there is a problem.

However, there is no doubt that it is a problem because we see that well-paid jobs continue to disappear and are being replaced by jobs that are lower paying, short-term and part-time, and do not have the same benefits.

Mr. Speaker, this is my first opportunity to congratulate you on your elevation as the Deputy Speaker of the House. You and I both remember the days in Windsor when we saw the transformation of an economy, which had powerful trade unions, which had good well-paying jobs, which performed important work in manufacturing, where members had pensions that they were assured would be there for them when they retired. Yes, frankly, they were good times. People were well off, people were able to buy cottages and take care of their kids. Those years are definitely not with us any more.

We are now in a time when workers are being asked to take further cuts and further drops in benefits, when a defined benefit is becoming very much the exception rather than the case, where we understand that there are greater and greater inequalities in how we are able to face life together.

There are a couple of false routes, as the Governor of the Bank of Canada said. Class warfare is a false exit. Trying to pretend we can stop the world and get off is a false exit. Pretending that we can somehow hold back all the forces of globalization is a false exit. However so is denial, pretending that if we continue to prosper as a country then obviously everyone will be able to share automatically in this prosperity.

President Kennedy said in the 1960s at the very height of the period I was describing, when things seemed to be all in balance, that the rising tide will lift all boats. Now we are in a situation where the rising tide lifts some yachts, some very big boats, but it does not lift a lot of other boats. That means that government policy has to take the steps that are necessary to increase equality, to increase real opportunity and to understand that prosperity, social justice and sustainability are not necessarily enemies, are not necessarily at war with one another, but need to be brought together.

However, in order for that to happen, it will take deliberate, thoughtful, intelligent government policy. Some might say the steps we are proposing today are not radical enough. I would say they are very practical. They involve saying that we want the employment insurance premiums hike to stop at a time when we are in recession, at a time when people are hurting. We are saying that tax credits should be refundable. That is to say that if people have no taxable income, they should still be able to get the credits. We are saying that for students—particularly when we see youth unemployment on the rise the way it is today, up to 15%—it is really unconscionable that the Government of Canada would be making money off the loans we are giving to students in order to allow them to go to college and university.

This is why this is in fact the issue of our time. We cannot assume that prosperity will be fairly shared and we cannot take prosperity itself for granted. We have to avoid the mistakes of the extreme right and the extreme left, and we have to come up with practical proposals that will make a difference to ordinary people and ensure that our prosperity is truly, fairly, deeply and widely shared.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:25 a.m.

Conservative

Michael Chong Wellington—Halton Hills, ON

Mr. Speaker, this is my first opportunity to congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker of the House.

My question for the member for Toronto Centre is quite simple. The Liberal Party is proposing five new initiatives: the rollback of EI premium increases, the rollback of the EI clawback, making the family caregiver tax credit refundable, making the RDSP available to a broader group of people and removing interest costs for the federal portion of student loans.

Could the member tell the House how much each of these five items would cost the federal treasury?

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:25 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, a broader question is this. What is the cost of not doing it? The member will say it would increase government debt. I would say to the hon. member that refusing or failing to do these things simply passes that debt on to consumers who are not in a position to bear that debt.

Consumer debt, personal debt, the debt of ordinary families is higher today than it has ever been in the entire history of Canada. People are only able to afford this debt because of very low interest rates. It is not right that this debt be passed on to each individual. It is better that we share the responsibility we have to make sure that economic prosperity does not come at the expense of ordinary people.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:25 a.m.

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for an excellent speech that set out some of the fundamentals that underlie this motion. The five specific asks in the motion were well underpinned by a philosophy of why inequality is a problem.

I would simply like to ask the hon. leader of the Liberal Party how he thinks about income and equality and its relationship to the health of our democracy at the moment. Would he agree that the further we see income inequality building up in this country, the less engagement of citizens there is with our political system and the more we will see democracy itself suffering from this fact?

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:25 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member makes an excellent point. I am sure he will not be surprised to hear me say that.

I was very encouraged by the words of the Governor of the Bank of Canada, because Mr. Carney is a very thoughtful individual, an exceptional public servant of Canada. He has had a chance to see the impact that this issue is having, not only in our country but in the United States and every industrialized country.

I do not think we can possibly explain the declining rates of participation in elections, the sense of cynicism and the sense of frustration that many citizens are expressing about our democratic life, precisely because they feel they are working harder, they are getting less for it, they are doing a little less well than they would like to be able to do, and they are very concerned about what will happen to them and what will happen to their families as they see their debt levels growing. They have this preoccupation now with how they are going to do and how they are going to survive in this very difficult situation.

Yes, it has a corrosive impact on our democratic life. I do not think there is any question about that.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Bourassa, QC

Mr. Speaker, I too would like to congratulate our leader on his excellent speech. Much greater emphasis needs to be put on the consequences of these inequities.

He spoke about the weakening of our institutions and the cynicism toward our democratic system. There are people who do not believe in anything anymore because of these inequities. I would like our colleague to explain in his own words why it is important to address these inequities.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, let us look at this issue from both a personal and a historical point of view. It is important to recognize that our country—like the United States, Europe and other countries—is being confronted with a major challenge. There was an agreement made in the years following the Second World War: if people worked hard and made an effort, then they would get a pension and could avoid certain problems if they became ill, and life would be good for everyone. This was not complete equality because it was recognized that everyone's circumstances were different, but there was still a spirit of solidarity.

This spirit of solidarity is disappearing in our economy. That is the big problem that we have. The current lack of solidarity means that people are not seeing a place for justice or opportunity in our economy.

The government, whether at the provincial or federal level, has a shared responsibility to use every means possible to make the economy fairer. That is the government's job. We believe that this is a common, fundamental task, and we are going to continue to work to ensure that this is what happens in the future.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Toronto Centre for being so generous in sharing his time with me on this particular issue. I will speak specifically about the changes to the EI provisions for those working while on claim.

In his comments, our leader alluded to the over-arching campaign by the Conservative government to misinform, misdirect and mislead Canadians on a variety of issues. Pick a topic and we can see the misinformation coming from the government. We certainly saw it during the opening week in the House of Commons. The Conservatives continue to talk about their record on the economy and set themselves up as great stewards of the economy. Let us look at that alone.

Since 2006, the Conservative government has added $100 billion to the national debt. I cannot see any reason to take a bow for that. When the government came into office, just over a million Canadians were unemployed. Right now, there are just shy of 1.5 million Canadians unemployed. There is no reason to take a bow on that. The unemployment rate went from just about 6.5% to just shy of 7.5%.

The Conservatives inherited a $14 billion surplus from the Liberal government and they turned it into a $55 billion deficit. That is a record in the history of this country, and it is the kind of stewardship that we have seen from the Conservatives, yet they continue to say they are great stewards of the economy. That is false and leads to what am going to say today.

The media is exposing the government for its misdirection and misinformation in misleading Canadians. We had the opportunity to read Allan Gregg's piece from last week. There were also comments by John Ibbitson, Andrew Coyne and Lawrence Martin. In particular, Andrew Coyne was very strong in his column last weekend when he said, “Conservatives did not invent dumb, dishonest, attack dog politics—though they may have perfected it”. He talked about lies and personal attacks, saying that “[t]he Conservatives are better at it: more disciplined, more relentless, less daunted by shame”.

That is where the problem lies with the working while on claim provision. We have heard the misinformation on that by the minister and the Prime Minister has simply rehashed the talking points.

Let us talk about the history of the working while on claim provision. In 2005 the Liberal government put forward a measure to take a disincentive out of the working while on claim program. People were allowed to make 40% of their EI benefit. The math is simple. If someone's EI benefit was $200, that person was able to earn $80 and keep that $80. That is how basic it is: 40% of earnings were retained. Under the new provision, a clawback begins on the first dollar. The $80 that the person made would be clawed back and he or she would clear $240 rather than $280. If that person is counting on $280 for their household income for that week, that is an attack on the most vulnerable and poorest in this country. That is what the Conservative government is doing.

The minister has shown no understanding and no appreciation for the files. If the government were going to make this change, the minister had every opportunity to let it be known to members of the House and Canadians. There was not a word in the budget document about cancelling allowable earnings. There was not a word about changing the provision on how to determine the benefit rate and the clawback.

The minister made a big announcement on May 24 about the change in the pilot project. She said nothing about cancelling the provision. She made another speech on August 2 and sent a letter to EI recipients in July where she underlined that “you [the claimant] will always benefit from accepting work”. That is not the truth.

The examples that Service Canada has on its website now are unbelievable. The department puts the high end in, and this is another inequality. Here are two examples from its website.

Mario finds a part-time job making $500 a week, about $30,000 a year, which is not a bad part-time job. Or there is Anna, who is very lucky to find a part-time job and make $790 a week, which is almost $40,000 a year. In my riding, that is a career.

Service Canada has two groups: the haves and the have-mores. The Conservative government does not care about those Canadians out there who are having trouble finding work, the 7.5% of the population who are unemployed.

Anyone making under $300 a week over and above their EI benefits is going to feel the impact of these changes and clawbacks. What really drives it home is that according to Statistics Canada, the median weekly income of part-time wage earners is $226. Therefore, anyone under that income is going to feel a harsh negative impact from the changes, and certainly quite a few over that median amount will also be impacted.

In the agricultural sector, for which we have a lot of western members here, the median income for part-time work is $160 a week. Food and accommodation is about $180 a week. These people are being hard pressed by the actions of the Conservative government.

I am sure that all members have received correspondence on this issue. I have a letter from a lady who has allowed me to discuss it.

Rhoda is off on maternity leave. She has a nine-month-old daughter. When she went on maternity leave she was told that she would be able to make $143 a week to supplement her income, and so she did her yearly financial plan around that. Then the rule changes came, and she said that the only notice she received was a confusing letter in July. Now she grosses $143, but after deductions that is down to about $115, and then comes the $71 in clawback provisions. From $143, she ends up with $44. That is the real math of these changes and the impact they are having on Canadian households.

Again, I can cite the examples used by the minister and the Prime Minister. Yesterday in the House, when our leader asked what the government was doing for the less fortunate and low-income families, the Minister of Foreign Affairs got up and read off a whole list and mentioned, as part of that list, that the working-while-on-claim provisions were helping low-income families. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those provisions are actually hurting the most vulnerable.

This is what really gets my goat and gets me thinking: Where are the members from rural communities out there? Where are the members who represent ridings where seasonal work and seasonal industries generate regional economies? Why are they not speaking up? Where are the guys from Atlantic Canada? Why are they not speaking up on behalf of their constituents? Why are they not telling the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development that this is wrong, that it has to be changed and that these clawbacks have to be taken out?

The minister should do this now for the most vulnerable. Let us see them get off their duffs over there and do something for the people of this country.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:40 a.m.

Peterborough
Ontario

Conservative

Dean Del Mastro Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I am somewhat disappointed by the tone of the member's statement. I think all members of the House come to this place with the intent of helping people.

The member was part of a government that ran a massive EI surplus. That was a tax on workers and small business. In fact, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business consistently, in every single one of its publications, has pointed out how the government was siphoning money from EI and putting it into general revenues. The member cannot deny that fact.

Specifically with respect to the program he has mentioned, he is citing a specific example where the difference appears not to be working out in favour of the worker, but in many cases it does. What we need to understand is that people are always better off by participating in the workforce, whether in a part-time or full-time job. Part-time jobs can often lead to full-time jobs and full-time jobs can lead to better full-time jobs. This is a fact of the workforce. People are simply happier and feel more productive when they are working.

I looked at the incentives and the clawback that the member talks about. One thing the Liberals never did was to allow people to work while they were on EI. They had a 100% clawback. Perhaps the member would like to speak about that.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the advice on setting the tone in the House by the member. It is like leaving the dogs in charge of the meat.

However, this is the example. He stood there and said that every dollar was clawed back dollar for dollar. That is what I am talking about. The Conservatives cannot fix the problem because they either do not know there is a problem or they will not admit there is a problem. Under the old program, claimants were allowed to make 40% of their EI benefit. If they made $200 as an EI benefit and worked to make an additional $80, they were able to keep that $80. Under this new system, they lose 50% on the dollar right from the first dollar, so they only keep $40 of that $80.

I am asking someone over there on the front bench to hire a grade 10 math student to figure it out and walk them through it because Canadians are being hurt as his government will not stray from its stupid talking points.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for his great speech, not because he is a Liberal but because he is from Cape Breton. I have to give him some credit for having some smart family members.

The issue of inequality has to be looked at in a much larger perspective than the fact we are in a period of global economic crisis. However, within the crisis we see the Conservative Party using it to its advantage to go after its enemies. My colleague talked about Conservatives seeing only the haves and the have-mores, but it is really about their buddies and their enemies. Those people they see as not being their buddies, they have been systematically undermining, including for example unions and public sector workers, the backbone of the 20th century middle class. There has been a relentless attack on them. They have been called lazy and overpaid, and the government has talked about union bosses, and has been undermining their right to a pension. This was the infrastructure that created the middle class that allowed our grandparents' generation to move up and to get an education.

The Liberals say they are not into this class war, but it is clear that a war is being declared on working people and on the rights of people. What does my hon. colleague think we need to do about it in the House?

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, that is a fair question. I get a bit excited on some of these issues and it would be best to deal with the issues, but there is this overarching problem that we have seen in the House, in this Parliament, with the majority Conservative government that has handcuffed and shackled our ability as members of Parliament to deal with some of these important issues.

It would have been best if the human resources committee had been able to look at these changes and their impacts on all Canadians, but that is not going to happen under this government. I know that is a great disservice. It is regrettable, but it is a fact of life.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. From the last discussion, it is obvious that government members do not know how the current or old system worked. I have a paper here by the Library of Parliament that is called “Case studies for the new pilot project, working while on claim”, which explains that. I wonder if I could have unanimous consent to table that report done by independent and non-partisan researchers so that government members would have the benefit of seeing how the system really works.

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Joe Comartin

Does the hon. member have the unanimous consent of the House to table this document?

Opposition Motion—Income Inequality
Business of Supply
Government Orders

10:45 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.