The Conservative government, I mean, has ignored the appeals for assistance from farmers and forestry workers who have been the victims of an unprecedented income crisis.
Another one of the Bloc's demands that comes up often has to do with employment insurance. The Bloc Québécois was calling for the creation of an independent employment insurance fund and for significant improvements to the plan. In particular, we were calling on the government to implement a minimum eligibility threshold of 360 hours for all regions and all claimants. Under this minimum eligibility threshold, however, claimants would be eligible for a varying number of weeks of benefits, based on the unemployment rate in their region. We also called on the government to lengthen the benefit period by five weeks for all regions, regardless of the number of hours required to qualify. The maximum number of weeks of benefits would go from 45 to 50 weeks. Furthermore, we wanted the rate of benefits to be increased from 55% to 60%.
What do we have in the Conservative budget? The budget provides for a new crown corporation, the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, which will report to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development.
This board will be responsible for managing a separate bank account. Each year, any employment insurance fund surplus will be saved and invested until it is needed to cover the program costs.
Moreover, as of 2009, a new rate-setting mechanism will be put in place. It will take into account any surpluses or deficits so that income and expenses balance out over the years. The rates set by the board cannot fluctuate more than 15% in a given year, in order to ensure a stable rate.
In addition, the government plans on maintaining a balance of $2 billion in the bank account of the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board.
As we can see, the Conservatives have finally bowed to one Bloc demand and will stop pillaging the employment insurance fund. The Bloc Québécois believes that instead of creating a new crown corporation, the mandate of the employment insurance commission could have been amended. The Bloc Québécois believes that creating an independent fund should improve the plan and not just reduce contributions.
In addition, the Conservative government is ignoring the $54 billion debt to those who contributed to the plan and to all Quebeckers. It is paradoxical that the Conservatives say they hope to “ensure that EI premiums are dedicated exclusively to the EI program” but that in a few weeks time they will take the 2007-08 surplus and pay down the debt.
They seem to be going against their own philosophy. The Bloc Québécois asked that a $1.5 billion fund be established to ensure that this year's surplus be used strictly for the employment insurance fund. The Conservative budget fails to enhance in any way the employment insurance fund and, once again, there is a lack of consideration by this government for the unemployed. Nevertheless, we must consider the creation of this fund to be an immense victory for the Bloc Québécois.
With regard to aboriginal peoples, the Bloc Québécois had demanded that the federal government respect the agreements between the former government and aboriginal peoples and make provision for the required funding. The Bloc Québécois also expects the federal government to meet the urgent need for housing on reserves.
The 2008 budget sets aside an additional $660 million over two years for economic development and the improvement of academic performance, health, and the well-being of children and families, as well as the improvement of water quality and management. Unfortunately, although the $660 million investment may seem to be a large amount at first glance, the funds come primarily from monies set aside in the 2006 budget.
The budget does not meet the needs of aboriginal Canadians, since the money should have been announced in 2006. This funding comes too late and is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the defunct Kelowna accord. Expectations were high when the Kelowna accord was signed, and now there is major disappointment. No significant money was provided for social housing on reserves. Despite the need for more than 10,000 homes in Quebec alone, there is not enough allocated to improving the socio-economic conditions in first nations communities. Although there was a surplus in the last fiscal year, no money was set aside to fight poverty among aboriginals.
I would now like to talk about the Bloc's demand concerning the status of women. The Bloc Québécois wanted a series of measures to foster equality between men and women, in particular, the reinstatement of the court challenges program, the reinstatement of funding for Status of Women Canada and the improvement of the employment insurance plan, which is currently not advantageous for women. The Conservative budget does nothing for women. In fact, the word appears only six times in the budget, including the note in the French text regarding the use of the masculine gender to cover both men and women.
The budget includes the following paragraph entitled, “Advancing Equality of Women”. It reads, “Budget 2007 increased the women's program budget to $20 million. Over the next year, the government will build on this achievement through the development of an action plan that will advance the equality of women across Canada through the improvement of their economic and social conditions and their participation in democratic life.”
Members will recall that women's rights groups saw their funding disappear, since they were excluded from the new women's program, and will also recall that the women's program was funded through cuts to Status of Women.
The Conservative budget ignores women's concerns such as pay equity and the fight for equality. The Bloc Québécois is eagerly awaiting the Conservative action plan, but is expecting the same reactionary and backward-looking vision we are used to on this issue. And I will not even begin to speak about Bill C-484, introduced by a Conservative member, which is an embarrassment to all women.
The Bloc Québécois had even more expectations in terms of international cooperation, including achieving the goal of 0.7% of the GDP by 2015, as set out by the UN. We could reach that by increasing ODA budgets by 12% per year over the next three years and then by 15% per year until 2015.
In the 2008 budget, the government is committing to double international aid based on 2001-02 numbers, to bring it up to $5 billion by 2010-11. The budget also includes an additional $100 million for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, which would bring the projected value of Canada's aid program in Afghanistan up to $280 million in 2008-09. As well, aid to Africa would be doubled by 2008-09.
There is $450 million, for the next three years, for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As well there is $50 million over two years for an innovation fund. However, the federal budget still does not present a credible plan for achieving the goal of 0.7% of the GDP by 2015 so that Canada can reach the UN's millennium goals.
All of the Bloc's demands were ignored. There is nothing for workers. There is no POWA, no regional development, no reinvestment in culture and nothing for social housing. It is equally bleak for women. For these reasons, the Bloc Québécois will vote against this bill.