Evidence of meeting #8 for Finance in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was budget.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Pierre Céré  Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses
Richard Alvarez  President and Chief Executive Officer, Canada Health Infoway
Ken Georgetti  President, Canadian Labour Congress
Barb Byers  Vice-President, Canadian Labour Congress
Bernard D'Amours  Director, Public Affairs, Canadian Urban Transit Association
James Knight  President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of Canadian Community Colleges
Pedro Antunes  Director of National and Provincial Forecast, Conference Board of Canada

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Rajotte

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. McCallum.

We'll go to Monsieur Laforest.

February 23rd, 2009 / 5:15 p.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Bloc Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good day and welcome to all of the witnesses.

After listening to several witnesses, including yourselves and a number of others this morning, I was surprised to hear Mr. McCallum, a Liberal colleague, acknowledge that this budget wasn't perfect, that quite often, it did nothing to correct some of the problems that have been identified today. He mentioned that although the government was refusing to consider any amendments, his party was still planning to support the budget. Deciding to support the budget is one thing, but the fact that the government is rejecting any amendments makes their support even harder to swallow.

I was also surprised to hear him tell us that in his opinion, the budget does provide significant amounts of money for employment insurance. I jumped when I heard that. It is as if he hadn't heard Mr. Céré tell us earlier that the EI measures announced in the budget were inadequate and that the EI benefit period should be extended. Well, the benefit period is being extended temporarily by five weeks, but very few people will qualify for that. Neither problem, that is the accessibility problem and the benefit rate, has been corrected.

I'd like to hear your response to Mr. McCallum's comments. As a spokesperson for unemployed men and women, do you feel that EI funding levels are adequate?

5:15 p.m.

Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Pierre Céré

There is no question that the situation is quite dire. Economists, editorialist and commentators everywhere are becoming more vocal. Across all orders of government in Canada, from the provincial level down to the municipal level, people are publicly speaking out and saying that access to employment insurance must be opened up and that steps must be taken to facilitate access to EI. The Premier of Quebec and his Employment Minister have said as much. People everywhere are demanding action because the situation has reached crisis proportions.

The figures quoted to us last January revealed a net loss of 129,000 jobs. Analysts have told us that the sectors hardest hit by these job losses were the most precarious and softest sectors of the economy. Toronto has been especially hard hit. For instance, in many cases, part-time workers will not have access to employment insurance.

I listened to Mr. McCallum say that money needed to find its way into taxpayers' pockets. I don't disagree with you, Mr. McCallum. EI is designed for that very purpose. Access to employment insurance must be opened up. I will not get into a debate over whether or not it the program should be overhauled. However, what I hope to hear soon are some clear commitments from the Liberal Party of Canada. We need clear commitments like the ones made 70 years ago. In 1936, the Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to establish an unemployment insurance program. Today, you have a responsibility to help repair the damage done in 1996. That is what we are calling on you to do. That is why we built some bridges and why were are talking to you today. The situation is dire. We are also calling on the government which has a responsibility to consider the welfare of its citizens and to take corrective action, specifically in terms of access to employment insurance.

In closing, I'd like to talk about the figure quoted. The reality is that 82% of contributors do not have access to EI and that only 67% of wage earners who pay EI premiums will eventually have access to EI. Fully one third of all contributors do not qualify for benefits. Even the Minister quoted the numbers incorrectly when she appeared last February 10 before the Standing Committee on Human Resources. Some very specific questions were put to her, notably by Mr. Savage, by Mr. Lessard and by an NDP Member from Ontario. She stated that 82% of contributors do have access to EI, but that wasn't a truthful statement. The ratio of claimants to unemployed, a formula that has been used for eons to assess coverage, stands today at 46%,which means that only 46% of unemployed persons have access to benefits. Prior to 1996, the ratio was 85%. Mr. Chair, we have a problem, one that the government must set out to correct.

5:20 p.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Bloc Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Céré, you made no mention of the two-week waiting period.

Ever since I was elected to office three years ago, many unemployed persons have told me that this is one of the biggest problems they encounter. The two-week waiting period hurts them a lot, and this is especially true for seasonal workers who collect EI year after year. They never manager to overcome the financial hardship caused by this two-week waiting period.

This is also an important consideration. What is your view on this matter?

5:20 p.m.

Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Pierre Céré

It is indeed an important consideration. It creates a hole in people's budgets.

When the program was developed in 1940, one of the underlying principles was that no benefits would be paid out to unemployed workers for the first two weeks. In other words, it was the equivalent of a penalty. An added problem is the many administrative delays associated with the EI Commission. Often, people receive their first cheque covering their first week of unemployment 7 or 8 weeks after losing their job. There is no question that persons earning barely enough to scrape by and who cannot save enough to cover the two-week waiting period experience some hardship.

In our offices and in our groups, we hear countless horror stories. I won't get into the details at this time, because that is not why I'm here. In any event, the two-week waiting period and administrative delays are the cause of some serious hardship. The situation is unacceptable.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Rajotte

Merci.

We'll go to Mr. Wallace, please.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to thank the panellists for coming this afternoon. I know it was short notice, and it's late on a Monday afternoon. We appreciate your being here and providing your information.

I'm going to talk to just a few issues. I've met with CUTA numerous times and have talked with them about transit. I'm a big transit supporter and don't necessarily disagree with CUTA's position that national transit legislation is something we should be looking at in the future. I've been promoting it since coming here. I appreciate what you provided for the committee.

What has your organization done with these communities to have an understanding of what is shovel-ready? Have they indicated how quickly they could move on some of these items?

5:20 p.m.

Director, Public Affairs, Canadian Urban Transit Association

Bernard D'Amours

Yes. We represent 120 transit systems across Canada. We sent them an e-mail and we had some discussions. We had an indication that the government was going to make some announcements and we asked them to provide us with a list of projects that would be shovel-ready and could be done within the timeframe of around 2010. Usually transit projects are long-term; they can be four years, eight years. There is planning, there is all the environmental assessment, and all these things, and it's a process that has to happen.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

That's certainly part of my concern, following up on the question from Mr. McCallum.

Last week the Prime Minister and the Premier of Ontario made an announcement with GO Transit on improvement to the GO system involving rail in Hamilton and rail along other parts of the system. I think they finally woke up to the fact that people actually drive to the parking facilities at these GO train stations.

I don't see an organization like GO mentioned in your brief. Are they part of your organization, or are they separate?

5:25 p.m.

Director, Public Affairs, Canadian Urban Transit Association

Bernard D'Amours

They're part of our organization, but sometimes some of our transit members will have different priorities; they will not always share with us. Perhaps it was a project they were interested in.

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

From an expectation point of view, would your members expect to be dealing directly with the federal government to make some of these things happen, or through their municipalities acting directly with the federal government, or do they believe these projects have three-way requirements, involving the municipality, the federal government, and the provincial government?

5:25 p.m.

Director, Public Affairs, Canadian Urban Transit Association

Bernard D'Amours

We feel that we should start with the federal government: that's where the funds are. Once the federal government has accepted funding the projects, then we can start discussing with the provinces and the municipalities.

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

I have a question for the Conference Board. In your final paragraph you say, “The Conference Board’s own forecast is more optimistic than what is contained in the 2009 federal budget.” We on this side of the table would use a small “c” and say that it's a “conservative estimate” of where we're going.

My frustration, and you may wish to comment, is that we've heard from a variety of folks over the last little while here at this committee—from the head of the Bank of Canada, or in the announcement from the Bank of Nova Scotia, for example—that things aren't as gloomy as some of the press headlines like to be. As an economist, or in looking at this as modelling—I know this is basically a question of numbers—to me the frustration is that we're hearing things such as “Let's be positive about what's happening; let's get started; let's get this economic plan in place and start moving and spending, and things hopefully will come to be....” What role does the psyche of the public play in your estimating where we could be?

5:25 p.m.

Director of National and Provincial Forecast, Conference Board of Canada

Pedro Antunes

That's a very good question, and part of the reason there's so much contradiction in terms of the forecasts is that role. It's very hard to measure what the role of confidence is. And confidence has been very much at play, in terms of this cycle, starting with the U.S. economy, obviously, but the U.S. economy has been in contraction for quite a while. As we know, the recession there started at the beginning of 2008, and what happened between September 15 and October 15 of last year was really a situation where confidence unravelled. So that's a very good question and that's part of the problem and part of the difference in the forecasts, as we look out especially to when recovery will come around.

However, when you go back to the basics and you look at an economic stimulus package like President Obama's putting in in the U.S., you have a sense that the U.S. economy is hitting bottom. It's certainly not rosy there, but a number of indicators are telling us it's dredging bottom. And when you look at the same kind of stimulus for Canada, this is a big spending budget, and we know the kind of impact this has.

My only question here is can we get the money out there fast enough, or will it be delayed?

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Right.

We don't disagree with you, and that's why we're hoping, with the support of our colleagues, we can move this through quickly.

One last question for the Canada Health Infoway folks who are here. As federal members, we often hear from our constituents, in Burlington for example, what are you doing for our hospital? And the answer is it's provincial. We give a health transfer, which is going up 6% this year in this budget.

What could you tell me that I could tell my constituents why this health network you've put together is important, this info highway, and what this money will actually do for them?

5:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canada Health Infoway

Richard Alvarez

Let me start off with what the money will do for them.

To date, the federal government has given $2.1 billion through Infoway. That money has typically leveraged another $2.1 billion of jurisdictional funding, when all is said and done. Had the first ministers not come together in 2001 and created this national organization, we would be in a stall situation, and a stall situation in health care is not good.

Today there is empirical evidence to show that anywhere between 9,000 and 24,000 Canadians die every year because doctors don't know what medications they're on and some of the adverse events that are caused. A lot of these patients are injured and land up in very expensive acute care beds. So as we see where we've got issues around access because patients really shouldn't be there, if you give clinicians the information to tell them what drugs individuals are on and tell them the next prescription they're going to make, how it's going to react with their medication history, and whether they should be prescribing something else....

And then the whole issue around productivity gains--today what we've invested, we're showing productivity gains—

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Rajotte

Mr. Alvarez, I'm sorry, we are over time here for this session. We might come back to that in a later question.

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Thank you, Chair.

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative James Rajotte

Monsieur Mulcair.

5:30 p.m.

NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDP Outremont, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I will direct my comments first to Mr. Céré. Since he was asking the Liberals earlier for some commitments, I would just like to briefly remind him of what has happened over the past two or three months.

In late November, the government tabled an economic statement that constituted an attack on union rights and on the rights of women. It cancelled political party financing provisions brought in in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, the bigest political scandal in this country's history. Furthermore, this economic statement did not contain any measures whatsoever to help the unemployed.

Well now, February is upon us and we are dealing with a budget that continues to assault the rights of unionized workers and of women and that offers nothing for the unemployed. The only thing that has changed is that the Liberals have come out ahead, since their party depends the most heavily on public contributions. So now, the Liberals are prepared to support this budget.

I have the greatest amount of respect for you and I am familiar with the work that your organization does. Many people count on you.

The Liberals were prepared to bring down this government in November over a number of other issues. The only thing that has changed, sad to say, is that the Liberals got what they wanted.

I will give you an opportunity to answer the question clearly. The fact is that there will not be any changes, because the Liberals are spineless and the Conservatives are against any changes. Together, the three opposition parties are in a position to do something for the unemployed and to defeat the budget.

Mr. Céré, do you think we should vote against this budget, yes or no?

5:30 p.m.

Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Pierre Céré

May I be clear about something and voice my opinion on how the Liberal Party of Canada should address this budget?

5:30 p.m.

NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDP Outremont, QC

I'm hoping that's what you will do.

5:30 p.m.

Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Pierre Céré

All I know that is that the Liberal Party of Canada must participate clearly and directly in the process of repairing the damage to the employment insurance program and to worker protection schemes.

Since 1996, this program has been greatly compromised. The closest we got to resolving these problems was in 2007 when a parliamentary coalition was formed with the support of Quebec and Canadian unions.

5:30 p.m.

NDP

Thomas Mulcair NDP Outremont, QC

What you have said is very important, Mr. Céré, but I would like an answer to my question. The three opposition parties must join forces and defeat this budget. So, let me put my question to you again.

The budget represents an assault on the rights of women and unions and on the environment. Of course, it does restore funding to political parties, an initiative brought in in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, but it offers nothing concrete in the way of assistance to unemployed persons, except for a few added weeks of benefits which, as you noted, is useless in most cases.

In light of all of this, should the opposition parties vote against this budget, yes or no?

5:30 p.m.

Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Pierre Céré

I'm not sure how to answer that question, Mr. Mulcair. You're asking me if the Liberal Party should vote against the budget.