Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to Bill C-28, An Act to amend the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada Act, which would create the position of financial literacy leader to strengthen Canadians' financial literacy. This initiative was inspired by a report from the task force created by the Conservative government and chaired by bankers, including Donald Stewart of Sun Life Financial and Jacques Ménard of BMO Nesbitt Burns.
I went through the literacy report that was released in February 2011. To my great surprise, it contained not a word about credit card companies' quasi-usurious interest rates, not a word about financial institutions' lack of transparency concerning their fees, not a word about the questionable practices of banks that demand exorbitant fees when people try to pay off their mortgages early. Do not expect to find a mea culpa in this report from bankers who have sold highly speculative toxic financial products for years and continue to do so. Honestly, I was very disappointed.
The Conservatives keep telling us that consumers get themselves into debt because they do not know how to read a credit contract. But the government is ignoring the fact that annual interest rates on credit cards are often around 20%.
I would like to quote from the evidence given by a few individuals who expressed concern about this bill. First of all, Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress said, “Canadians need better government policy rather than lectures on how to save money.... This report heaps blame on 'uninformed' individuals, and completely ignores the predatory behaviour of financial institutions.”
Jim Stanford of the CAW said,“Many financial literacy programs devolve into admonishments for individuals to save more. This is misplaced....”
Lauren Willis, a professor at Loyola Law School in the United States, also denounced the government's approach. She said, “When consumers find themselves in dire financial straits, the regulation through education model blames them for their plight, shaming them and deflecting calls for effective market regulation.”
The ministers of this government like to rise here in the House of Commons and tell us that it is up to Canadians to save and plan for their futures. Those same ministers then turn around and slash social programs like the ones designed to ensure a decent retirement for our seniors.
For instance, instead of strengthening the public pension system, they created a pooled registered pension plan, which will only encourage investors further to choose risky private funds and stock markets.
We also know that the Prime Minister told the bankers in Davos that he was going to make cuts to the old age security program and that one way he was going to do so was by increasing the eligibility age from 65 to 67.
Last week, I held a public consultation in the town of Boisbriand in my riding. I can tell you that people are very worried about the fact that the government refuses to take responsibility where the financial security of our seniors is concerned.
It is not up to the public to pay for the Conservatives' F-35s. It is not up to the public to pay for the tax credits that are given to corporations.
With the creation of pooled registered pension plans, the dismantling of old age security and the reinforcement of tools for small investor autonomy, the Conservatives' message is very clear: the government, as they see it, does not need to look after the financial security of seniors and retirees. That approach makes no sense.
For Barrie McKenna of the Globe and Mail, “Looking to financial literacy to fill the void is like asking ordinary Canadians to be their own brain surgeons and airline pilots. The dizzying array of financial products, mixed with chaotic and increasingly irrational financial markets, makes the job of do-it-yourself financial planning almost impossible—no matter how literate you are”.
The other problem is that households with a high debt load often do not have the means to use these individual retirement planning mechanisms. Some 30% of Canadian families do not have any retirement savings outside the Canada pension plan.
As Jim Stanford of the CAW clearly observed, personal savings will never be a significant source of financial security for most Canadians since they are unable to save as a result of their low incomes.
It is all well and good to encourage personal saving, but it is this government that caused Canadians to lose well-paid jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, and replaced them with unstable jobs. It is under this government that Canadians' quality of life has declined. Single mothers who struggle to put something away for retirement are not to blame. Students in debt who cannot count on secure employment when they graduate are not to blame. And the seniors whom the government is asking to work two more years even though it knows that many of them not capable of doing so are certainly not to blame.
The New Democrats have a better plan for financial security at retirement. We are proposing that the government strengthen the guaranteed pension plans in Canada and Quebec and gradually double benefits in an affordable manner, thereby giving Canadians an acceptable level of guaranteed income during retirement. These are the general circumstances surrounding Bill C-28.
In the time I have remaining, I would like to address two other issues: the bill adds a useless bureaucratic institution and it does not require the candidate to be bilingual.
Given that Canada's current consumer protection regime is extremely fragile, I fail to see how adding a new layer of bureaucracy will help consumers. Without any real political direction, guidance on how to increase financial literacy or accountability mechanism, there is no reason to believe that the financial literacy leader will have the tools needed to carry out his mission. As the hon. member mentioned, this bill does not even include a definition of financial literacy.
At a time when the Conservatives are preparing to cut government programs by 10%, it does not make any sense to create another bureaucratic structure responsible for protecting consumers. If the government really wants to invest in protecting consumers, why does it not simply support the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Option consommateurs or the Réseau de protection du consommateur du Québec?
I am thinking of an organization in my riding, the Lower Laurentians ACEF, which does an excellent job of teaching budgeting on a low income. This organization really helps the people in my riding. As an aside, I cannot help but criticize the fact that the bill does not explicitly state that the financial literacy leader must be bilingual. The past actions of this government betray its insensitivity towards French. Members will recall that this government did not hesitate to appoint judges and an auditor general who do not know French.
In the circumstances, it is understandable that the official opposition will try to amend the bill to ensure that bilingualism is one of the job requirements. Yes, financial literacy is very important, but this is not the type of debate that we should be having right now in the House of Commons. Furthermore, creating the position of financial literacy leader is a false solution. This new bureaucratic creature does nothing to allay the growing financial concerns of small investors.
We believe that the best way to support consumers is to create a department or agency that would be a one-stop shop for all consumer protection issues. This organization would cut down on bureaucracy because it would consist of structures that already exist, but are scattered throughout government.
I will now take questions from my hon. colleagues.