Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this stage of the budget.
To say that I support the budget would be a bit of a stretch, but we have decided we will let the budget pass. We believe there are some measures in the budget that are of benefit to Canadians and we have to let the it pass. However, we also have very serious concerns, which have been outlined in our amendment, and we want to ensure that the government is kept on a tight leash. It is about time, too.
We have heard in the last few days about how the $3 billion of infrastructure spending has to be rushed out the door, that there is a special need to get it out there and it is urgent. It is about time the government took action. When the economic storm clouds were gathering in late summer, rather than do something about it, the government called an election.
When President Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in the November election, he was already talking about a massive stimulus package. People in Canada were also talking about the need for the same kind of thing. Instead of doing something then, the government came forward with an economic update that had nothing in it in the form of stimulus.
In December when Barack Obama's plan was already working its way through the United States system and people were getting excited about some of the things they were hearing, Canadians were talking about what we could do in the form of stimulus. Instead of bringing something in then, the government decided prorogue Parliament.
Finally at the end of January, the government decided to do something about it and put something together. I must admit some parts of the budget are better than what we saw in November, but some serious concerns remain. Personally the most serious of those concerns relates to the protection of those who are most vulnerable, so I will address that first.
We have literacy organizations across the country, and we do not hear as much about literacy in the House as we should. Literacy organizations, like Literacy Nova Scotia in my province, were among the first victims of the meanness of the government back in the fall of 2006 when it cut $17.7 million cut from literacy as part of the famous $2 billion cuts that it came out with.
Literacy organizations do not know where the money is. If we talk to the minister, we get one story. If we talk to officials, we get a different story. However, literacy organizations across the country need help so we can be a more productive nation, so we can educate our citizens and so we can provide support for people.
One of the saddest stories I have heard as a member of Parliament is about a person who was offered a promotion. He came to my office. He was employed and doing okay. By some people's standards, he was not doing that well, but he had a job and he was productive. He then was offered a promotion. The problem was he had to take a literacy test. He knew he could not pass it so he had to turn the promotion down. That person is asking for help.
We have literacy organizations across Canada, like the Dartmouth Literacy Network or the literacy organizations in the Annapolis Valley, that do such good work. When we talk to a learner, somebody whose life has been changed by having access to that kind of education, it is amazing we do not do more to support them.
I want to talk about employment insurance, which I have spoken to at other stages of the bill. Five weeks at the end of EI is helpful, but it is a very small measure. There is some money for training, and I give the government credit for that. However, when we think of what the government could have done for EI, it is a shame. There are all kinds of measures. The government could eliminate the waiting period. It could make EI benefits a bit higher percentage of previous earnings. It could equalize access, both regionally and across income groups.
One of the real weaknesses of our EI system is that a lot of low-income part-time workers, who tend to be women, cannot access EI. This is the perfect time to speed that up.
EI is a very positive way to provide stimulus into the economy. In fact, some studies note there is payback on EI. Ian Lee from the Sprott School of Business indicates that EI has a multiplier effect of 1.61%. For every dollar we spend on EI, it goes out and multiplies in the economy, which is higher than infrastructure and dramatically higher than tax cuts.
The tax cuts in the budget are unfair. The tax cuts help me, but in my view I am not the kind of person, nor are any other members of the House, who should be a priority for the government.
The government should have increased the GST rebate. It should have increased the child tax benefit. It should have put money into the pockets of people who most need it. It helps us all because they spend it, not because they want to spend it, but because they have to spend it. That is where the stimulus should be.
I want to talk about another issue that we have started to hear about in the last few days. This week The Chronicle Herald had an editorial with the headline, “Laid-off workers stuck in EI limbo”, and stated, “Thousands of recently laid-off Atlantic Canadian workers are paying the price”, and that is the EI wait lists.
On the weekend I was delighted to see that the Leader of the Opposition, when he was in Nova Scotia for the annual general meeting along with the next premier of Nova Scotia, Steve McNeil, the leader of the Liberal Party spoke about EI very strongly. The headline in the paper the next night was, “Late EI payments to Atlantic Canadians unacceptable”--the Leader of the Opposition--“says”.
This is a very important issue. People are waiting. I have letters from people from across the country who have been waiting for EI. The government says that 80% of EI claims are processed within 28 days. That is not the case and it is not just in the last few days. In December I wrote a letter to the Minister of Human Resources saying that people are waiting for EI. People told me that they are being told that they have to wait the standard 40 days. That is not the worst case scenario; that is the standard processing time. The standard processing time has gone from 28 days to 40 days.
I wrote a letter to the Minister of Human Resources in the middle of December. The mail must be pretty slow, because I have not had a response yet.
I received an email from somebody in my riding on January 27 which states:
Tomorrow, on day 50, I'm supposed to call back and get another update as to what is going on with my claim. When it finally does get processed, I'll drop you a line just to let you know how long it finally took.
I got an email from the same lady a few days later saying:
Thank you so much!! I did get a phone call late this afternoon actually saying my claim had been processed and approved which was a surprise because I got a voicemail when I got home last night saying there may be more delays.
She went on to say:
I just thought you might like to know that it may have been [the member for Dartmouth--Cole Harbour], not Conservative promises, who helped this first nations person get their cheque.
We have received emails in my office from across the country. We have one from the riding of the member for Halifax West, saying:
I am a resident of your riding and wanted to be sure that you were aware of the current situation in obtaining EI benefits. It is virtually impossible to reach an agent on the phone.... On several instances I waited on hold over two hours only to be cut off without reaching an agent.
I want to be very clear. I do not blame the people at Service Canada. They are working very hard. They have had to take on more responsibilities in the last few years. I do not have any problem with the people who work at Service Canada. I do have a problem with the political masters who are not recognizing that more and more people are being laid off, and if they are among the lucky ones who actually manage to qualify for EI even though they have paid into it, they have the right to get EI when they need it.
A person from Vancouver wrote:
Ceased to work at the end of November. Applied for EI January 8, 2009. It has now been 54 days. Still no final decision.”
Here is one from Prince Edward Island:
I have applied for EI sick benefits and have been told it will be eight to ten weeks to process my application and receive benefits.
I have one here from the city of St. Johns in Newfoundland and Labrador saying that our riding office has been helping many constituents who have been waiting six weeks or more in the processing of EI claims. Across the country people are waiting for their EI cheques. Even though they are entitled to get their EI, they are having a very difficult time getting it.
My colleague from Don Valley East asked a question on this in the House, if I am not mistaken. I think my colleague from Cape Breton—Canso asked a question in the House on this, about a constituent of his whose name I cannot recall, but I think it might have been Norma Peck, who was waiting and waiting.
Thank heavens that people have members of Parliament like the member for Don Valley East and my colleague from Cape Breton—Canso, who stand up. My colleague from Madawaska—Restigouche spoke in this House on behalf of somebody who was waiting, I think it was 47 days. Thank heavens there are some members providing leadership for those who actually need help the most.
On employment insurance, there is a great deal more the government could be doing to help people. I expect we will talk about that tomorrow.
I want to talk about child care. Canada is, and I want to be generous, a laggard on child care. In the last few years we have gotten worse. A survey was released in December by the United Nations and of the OECD nations, Canada ranked last out of 25 countries on 10 benchmarks dealing with early learning and child care. We were last.
I would expect that some of the Scandinavian nations that are very progressive in this area would be ahead of us, but many other nations were as well. I believe we only went halfway on one benchmark. The province of Quebec had six out of the ten benchmarks because it has an early learning and child care plan, and I commend that province for that. We need to do more.
The Leader of the Opposition came to a meeting in Halifax on Saturday. We met with about 20 child care advocates. Somebody said that child care does not stop at six either, referring to the measly $100 a month. And education does not start at six. Education has to start at age zero. Education needs to be accessible to all. If any one of us knew of somebody with a child who was six or seven years old and that child was denied access to elementary school, there would be an outcry, and rightly so. Yet every single day in every community in Canada children are being denied access to early learning and child care. That is a shame. That affects our productivity in a huge way.
I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that when the Liberals form the government, and I hope and expect that will be after the next election, he will bring back an early learning and child care plan similar to the one brought forward by my colleague from York Centre, the former goalie who was minister of human resources and skills development. It was a wonderful plan for child care. He actually implemented it but it was thrown out on the scrap heap to the consternation, dismay and the agony of people across this country to whom $100 does not mean anything. People at our session on Sunday said that the $100 does not help when child care costs $800 to $1,000 a month, but more important, they cannot find a child care space. Child care cannot be delivered in the mail.
I want to talk about a specific organization which does some great work in this country. It is called the Canadian Council on Learning, CCL. This organization is set up to measure how we are doing on education in relation to other countries and the standards that we should have in Canada. This organization has been operating for five years. It has some concerns. It is not a political organization at all. Dr. Paul Cappon heads it up. He is universally respected. He is not a Liberal, nor a New Democrat, nor a Conservative. He is just a guy who cares about education and helping us understand where we are in educating our citizens. This organization was told that its funding was not going to be renewed past the end of March or April of this year. That does not make any sense.
At committee a couple of weeks ago, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development was asked by the chair of our committee, a very good chair in spite of his Conservative label, if the funding for CCL would be extended and what the status of it was. The minister said, “The funding for that has been extended to the end of next year. There will be discussions about the future”.
Two days later her officials came to committee and I raised the issue of CCL. My question was, “I want to ask about the Canadian Council on Learning. On Tuesday the minister indicated that their funding would be extended for another year. My understanding was it was going to run out at the end of March. Our chair asked the question. Is that the fact, that they have another year of funding that will take them to 2010?”
The assistant deputy minister said, “That's correct”. I said, “It is not just that they are using the money they were given before for an extra year, but they have an extra year of funding”, which is what the minister said. The answer was “My understanding is their original funding was reprofiled to extend into 2010”. That is a quizzical thing. I pursued that and said, “Reprofiled under certain governments means different things. Does that mean stretched or does that mean added?” The answer was, “It means there was no increase in the funding they received”.
On Tuesday the minister told us the funding had been extended until the end of next year, yet two days later we found out that was not the case at all. This is an organization like the Centre for Social Development and many others that are doing great work but it seems they have to fight for their funding every year.
I work in the area of human resources, and there are a number of issues that are of great concern to me.
What is happening on the research side is scandalous. The CAUT, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, went to see the Secretary of State and its members were told to shut up. They were told that they have burned their bridges. I can see shock on the faces of members opposite that one of their own would say that to somebody.
As ministers or MPs, there is a certain tone and level of respect that we have for people who are advocating when they come to see us, whether we agree or disagree. I know the people who went to see the minister. I know Jim Turk. He is the head of CAUT. I know the two people who were in that meeting. These are reasonable people. They came to see me while I was on the government side and they have come to see me in opposition. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I disagree, but I would never question their motives or suggest that anybody would use that tone of language in dealing with people who are advocating for issues like education.
I have concerns about the budget and the tone of the government. I have an awful lot of concerns about the direction of the country. My colleagues from the NDP will say that since I have all these issues, maybe I should vote against this budget. I can say with great sincerity that I support the position our leader has taken. There are some measures in this budget, such as the five weeks of EI and some of the infrastructure money if it gets out the door, that could be very positive for Canadians.
We are not supporting this budget so much as we are letting it pass. We are going to keep a close eye on it. This country is headed into difficult times. We may be there now. I can recall two or three times in the last couple of months when I have talked to people who said that they did not think it would get this worse. We hear about further losses with each passing day and week. Yesterday, we heard about the job losses in Hamilton. In my own area, we have lost the Moirs plant, which employed over 500 people. We are all going to be hurt.
We are in this together. This is Canada. We are a rich nation, but we are hurting. However, the strength of this country is that we have a social infrastructure and we believe in it. We believe in national health service. We believe in employment insurance. We believe in social supports that provide assistance to those in need, like the GIS and the child tax benefit.
I think that in a difficult time it is important that we as Canadians focus on those people who are hurting the most. We need to provide support to people who need help. We need to invest in their health, education and the social supports that make their lives livable, whether it is EI, health care, or education for aboriginal Canadians, low-income families and persons with disabilities. These are the people who need our help. Those are the measures we are going to be watching as this budget unfolds. That is how we will be holding the government to account. For now, it is a pass, but it is pretty close.