That this House take note of the progress made to date on the government's forthcoming reform of social security programs and of the views expressed by Canadians with regard to this reform.
Mr. Speaker, let me begin by expressing my appreciation to House leaders of all parties in the House for their agreement in helping to organize this first major debate where we have an opportunity to begin to express our views as parliamentarians.
I have been a parliamentarian for over 20 years. I have always had a deep abiding belief and faith that this is the place where people prevail, not the self-appointed experts and commentators and people who rush to the mikes before they read reports. This is the place where people gain their voice. This is the place where each of us has an opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents, who really are what makes this country work, to go beyond and around and through the smokescreens and static and noise that we often hear in terms of the immediate surrounding corridors of Parliament Hill and get back to where people really have an opportunity to decide.
The debate that we will engage in for the next day or two is really the first step in inviting Canadians to fully participate. After all, what we are debating are decisions that affect themselves, their families, their children, their training, their jobs, their hopes and their opportunities.
It is not a time to impose top-down decisions, to rush to the barricades with quick answers, but to really say let us give people a chance to become involved in a real way and to express their concerns and aspirations. That is why Parliament is so important. That is why the parliamentary committee will undertake this very monumental task. I extend my appreciation to the members of that committee for the work that they will undertake over the next several months in crossing this country and inviting Canadians to become part of the democratic process.
I hope what we can do today is start that dialogue with Canadians by reflecting for a moment or two on those moments that each of us finds as public servants where certain things happen to us, where we come across an experience, a certain happening, an event that defines for us what the issues are all about, that really begins to explain to us what is happening in our country.
I would like to begin this morning by giving members a brief account of my own sort of sense of epiphany of that happening on an early morning during the last campaign when I was knocking on doors on a very modest street in the Fort Rouge area of my district. When I came down the street I saw a woman leave a house with her briefcase and walk out. As I went up to the door I was greeted by a young man in his early twenties. Behind him was his wife and a young child maybe seven or eight months old.
Before I got to the normal introduction of who I am he said: "You don't have to say anything, Mr. Axworthy, I know why you are here. That woman who just left is my social worker. She comes to my house every two weeks to check up and make sure I am living up to all the rules so I will get my next cheque". He said: "I have been unemployed for 18 months and it is driving me crazy. I have a young family. I want to give them some hope and I need work to do that. I am going to vote for you this time because I am putting my hope in you, Mr. Chrétien and the party to make a difference for me. I know there are no guarantees. I know there are no easy solutions, but I am giving you a chance to show what you can do".
Today we are launching what we can do to begin to restore that sense of hope for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. We can make a difference. We can break away from the tired, old conventional wisdoms. We can begin to look at programs that have been in place for 30 or 40 years which served a valuable purpose but no longer work as well.
We can reach out and talk to those three million Canadians who presently exist on some form of assistance, be it unemployment insurance, social assistance, or some other benefit. They are the ones who really want the change. Forget all the academics with their foundation grants seen on television who have the best answers as to how the system works. Talk to the people who are there now. Ask them if they want change and you will get 100 per cent approval saying: "Let's make a change. It is essential. Let's do something for ourselves".
That young man in my riding did not want a cheque. He wanted a job. He wanted a chance to put his talents to work as an individual. If we write those individuals 100 times or 1,000 times in each community across this country it adds up to a much stronger nation and then we can say to the world: "We have the best trained workforce in the world". We will attract the needed investment, create the required new products, and will develop the innovation we have if we put our trust and faith in investing in the people of this country. That is what this reform and these proposals are all about: trusting and investing in people and giving them a chance.
I hope we will use the debate in the next day or two to draw upon those experiences of small businesses that want to hire people but because of a whole series of rules cannot get workers when they need them. We have a social assistance system that tells a disabled Canadian: "You declare yourself unemployable in order to get a benefit". We are wasting the incredible pool of talent of four million Canadians who want to work if they are given the chance.
Over the next day or two let us talk about the children in this country. Over a million of them live in poverty because there is not proper child care, because there are not proper work opportunities for their parents, because there is no child support system to make sure the custodial parent does not have to raise them by themselves.
Let us talk about those experiences we see every day in our constituencies. Let us break through the fog, the mist and the smokescreens that have been created by those who have a vested interest in the way things are. Let us talk to people who want to change things to make things better and improve our social security system.
I rise today in that spirit of reform, of change, of looking for ideas and inviting Canadians to participate. I call on my colleagues in the House to join in a crusade to attempt to make a difference. Let us give Canadians the chance to define once again who they are and what they can be in this country of the 1990s and into the next century.
We do not want things the way they used to be. We are not living in some nostalgia about the good old days because nostalgia will not help that young man get a job. Harking back to the good old days will not restore the opportunity for young children to get nurturing, proper nutrition and proper care. That is why we must take up this mission together.
Together we must find immediate solutions for all Canadians. Canadians are proud of their social security system, but it is clear that times have changed. Our system no longer meets requirements; the time has come to take action. Too many children live in poverty and this reality goes beyond all jurisdictions. To us, poor children are poor children whether they live in Gaspé or Medicine Hat.
The status quo is not an option. Changes are needed now. Some people do not want us to do, change or cut anything. Others ask us to spend more on social programs. We are also asked to eliminate the deficit. We always have to deal with contradictory requests.
I think that most Canadians would like us to make adjustments but to act carefully and intelligently. They want a new social pact for the coming decades, long-term jobs for them and their children. I think that our first responsibility as a government, as members of the House of Commons, is to look for ways to deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment.
We must do this carefully, deliberately, attentively. We must listen to the great wide voice of Canadians. Those who recommend we come in with an axe in our hands to chop, cut, slash and burn are not listening to Canadians. They are not listening to Canadians who say: "Reform, don't destroy, don't break down. Reform, do it with change, have a new blueprint". The reason is very clear. There are some sobering new facts in the Canada of today.
About 10 years ago, before I was asked to go on sabbatical in the opposition, I was the minister of employment. I have a comparison as to what was happening then and what is happening now. When I was minister of employment about 10 or 12 per cent of those who were on unemployment insurance used the system frequently, every year. Today over 40 per cent of UI users are on that program virtually every single year.
That clearly demonstrates something has fundamentally changed in the workplace. It is not simply a matter of a few people abusing the system. It means there has been an underlying revolution in the way people work in this country. Many of our traditional industries no longer provide the same employment opportunities. They are declining. People are being caught up and are being washed away from the mainstream.
That is why we must make changes. We must help them find ways back into the employment market, find ways back into the labour market. We must equip them with new tools. That is why simply having a benefit program and writing a cheque every month is not sufficient. People need to have opportunities to become more literate, to learn French, English, or mathematics so they can begin to understand the new kinds of work.
All of us get our cars repaired. Have you looked under the hood of your car recently? No longer is it a simple carburettor with a little gas and air going through it. Now there is a computer attached to it. People in the car repair sector say there are 10,000 jobs missing in Canada because we do not have trained automobile technicians with the skills to adapt to that new technology now found in our automobiles.
People ask where the jobs are. Jobs are lost in this country every day because we simply do not have the people to pass the test. Yet on the other side of the ledger there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who want to work but do not have the skills or abilities to pass that test.
People have said to me: "I saw somebody last night from one of the social groups who asked where the jobs are". Last year 170,000 people came into Canada under our immigration program on an employment authorization because there were not sufficient people in this country with the skills we require for our economy.
People I recently met with in the software industry said there are 15,000 potential jobs in this country in the next five years but Canadians are not trained to meet those jobs. At the same time people say: "Don't put a cent into training. Don't transfer resources into where it really counts. Keep people on unemployment insurance". Is that what we really want? Is that the hope for Canadians, to stay on UI year after year? Or do we want to say to them and their kids: "We are going to give you some hope and a chance to get a job that really means something".
In the unemployment insurance system there is an interesting figure we should pay some attention to. Last year 14 per cent of the companies were responsible for close to 40 per cent of the UI payouts. That means that over time because of the existing system a variety of companies, both public and private, have used the UI system not to help people get jobs or make a transition but simply to pad the payroll.
A whole series of layoffs are designed to meet the duration of benefits under the unemployment insurance system. There is a massive cost subsidization taking place from one industry to another, from one region to another. They are basically saying that does not help the other regions develop their economies.
It creates a reliance upon the system and people say: "If we can get 30 or 40 weeks, if we can lay off our workers for June and July-which many school boards do-and we can save some money, then let us do it". What they do not say is that some person down the street, perhaps a short order cook in a restaurant, is paying a premium every week to pay for that layoff when it is not necessary. That is not fair. It kills jobs. As a result, we have seen the premiums double or triple in the last six or seven years.
Is that the kind of system we want to protect? Is that the kind of system those who say not to touch the programs want to maintain, a system that does not reward work but rewards dependency? I do not think Canadians want that. They want us to take a different look at things.
Let us take a moment to look at the whole question of another change going on in our country. Fifty per cent of the jobs over the next five years are going to require a post-secondary education. In fact, statistics over the last year indicate there was a 17 per cent growth in jobs for people who had a post-secondary education or better. On the other side of the coin there was a 19 per cent loss of jobs for those who had less than a post-secondary education.
In the meantime we continue to see dropout rates of 15, 20, 30 per cent depending on the region. Young people who know they are facing a radically different workplace and require radically different skills are dropping out of school. They will become the next generation of people who find themselves pushed to the sidelines.
One of the key issues is how to increase those opportunities in accessibility. That is what the green paper talks about. It talks about that re-equipment. We are saying if we can look at the unemployment insurance system, take money that is exclusively paid for benefits and turn it into an employment service fund, then we can offer those people a chance to go back to school, a chance to become literate, a chance to get good counselling, a chance to have a job corps for older workers, a chance once again to put their talents to work.
We are jointly funding an experiment in New Brunswick. It is the New Brunswick job corps for older workers. Up to now a seasonal worker in that area had no hope, especially when there was no more seasonal work when forestry declined. Now we are putting close to 2,000 workers into reforestation. We are rebuilding the natural resource, creating a wealth and resource base for the next generation. People involved in that project say that once again they have a reason to put their boots on in the morning. They have something that gives real value to what they are doing. That is why we need those resources.
We are saying very clearly in the paper that this will give us an opportunity for new partnerships. As much as we are talking in the paper about changing the programs we are also changing the way government should work. We are saying that the most effective role of government is to put resources into the hands of people and let them make choices. We have an opportunity to develop new partnerships with the provinces, business, labour and local communities.
Two weeks ago I signed agreements with representatives of the North York Board of Education, Niagara Community College, labour and business representatives in the electrical industry. We are putting up 25 cents of every training dollar-not a full dollar like we pay in other places-which is matched by the employees, employers and the province to provide new apprenticeship places for close to 300 or 400 young people so they can begin getting those new skills.
That is what I mean by partnership. That is what I mean by decentralizing decision making. That is what I mean by once again giving people a chance to make decisions in their own communities: by decentralizing the system, by government working in a different way as a facilitator, an enabler, by breaking down the bureaucracies, the hierarchies and by once again restoring at the local level, the business level and the shop level the chance to make decisions for your own self-improvement, your own self-sufficiency.
That is what this paper is all about. It is about a new way of governing that gives real power to people. It is not power to bureaucracies but real power back to the people to make decisions for themselves.
Some accuse us of taking a centralizing approach. I would like to know what is the basis for that assertion, what page of the document are they referring to? I will tell you what page. On page 27 of the green book, we undertake to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each level of government consistent with the Constitution. On page 40, we propose transferring funds and responsibilities to the provinces.
On page 61, we give the provinces the possibility of opting out in the fields of education and student assistance. On page 73, we propose making social assistance legislation more flexible in order to finance Quebec's APPORT program and relinquish decision-making authority to that province. On page 76, we propose a block fund for social assistance to give the provinces more control and flexibility.
Throughout the document we talk about co-operation, about opting out, about flexibility and decentralization. These are not the words of a centralizing government but the characteristics of a new, dynamic federalism.
Let us focus for just a moment on how that applies to the area of higher education. I have heard certain members wax eloquent about how this is some form of intrusion. It shows that they neither know their history nor have read the document.
Since World War II the federal government has supported the educational efforts of the provinces. We did so because, as the national government, we recognized that good education is one of the foundations of a good economy. We also have to ensure that there is equity in all parts of Canada; that a student in Newfoundland gets the same treatment as a student in Ontario or British Columbia. We also recognize that the provinces which also have a responsibility would need support to expand the system to ensure that there was opportunity.
For example we spend close to $1 billion on student assistance. At the present time, with the clear right to opt out, we would simply transfer the funds and the provinces would implement their own system. Quebec and the Northwest Territories have availed themselves of that. We also have a transfer system that was established in 1977 where we transfer moneys to the provinces by tax points and by cash.
What is happening under the existing rules that have been in place since 1977? As the revenue to the provinces grows because of the growth in the economy and the population, they get more money, they get more revenue. It is an invisible endowment from the federal government to the provinces to help them with education. It is a permanent commitment to support them.
Some provincial treasurers may not be prepared to admit it, because they keep getting $200 or $300 million more every year in additional revenue. That is okay. We made the deal. The corollary is that as the revenue goes up with the tax points, the cash begins to go down because on a constant basis there is an escalator clause.
Under the existing rules we could see the reduction of those cash transfers over the next 10 years. That does not mean a loss in revenue because the revenue to the provinces is going up at the same time. It means that the cash directly attached to students and others disappears into provincial treasuries.
We are saying that before we let that vacuum exist, before the money disappears, before it is reduced, let us see if we can do something creative. Let us see if we can do something to substantially broaden accessibility for students across Canada. Let us recognize that tuition rates have been going up every single year under the existing system by 10 per cent per year. They have doubled over the last five years across Canada. Students need some help to meet that problem.
We also have another major issue. People who are presently in the workplace do not have any financial assistance to go back to school. They do not have a program for them. Unless they are on social assistance or UI there is no training assistance. They have great difficulty getting eligibility for university.
They want to go back to school. The woman today who is a seamstress has a dream of becoming a fashion designer. A car mechanic may want to become an engineer. It is our job to help them do that. We are facing continuous learning. That is why we are saying before the cash transfer ratchets down year by year, let us take hold of it and use it to lever another $3 billion back into higher education.
Let us put a lot more money back in the system. Let us make a much broader, wider system of grants and loans available to students of all kinds everywhere. They can get access to our system on a basis where they can repay the money according to income. It would not be like the present system where they repay like a mortgage system with flat rates regardless of what their income is or if they have income or not, but they should pay according to their income.
That to me is a proposition. It is an idea that we want to place before the provinces. If they want to opt out of that new system that is their business. We clearly say in the paper, even though a few have not read it, that if the provinces want to do it they have the right to do it, no arguments. Let us do something to substantially broaden accessibility for young people.
Let us broaden accessibility for people in the work force. Let us give every Canadian a chance to be continuous learners throughout the course of their lives and therefore substantially enrich and broaden the wealth and experience and knowledge of this country as a whole.
We also have to take a look at the social security system. Once again it seems that people have forgotten their history slightly. We have a cost shared system. The Government of Canada pays about $5 billion for tax benefits directed to children. We also have about $7.7 billion that is cost shared with the provinces to help them pay for their social assistance programs.
One of the problems is that over the years a whole system of rules has built up. The rules say that if somebody on social assistance wants to go back to work, have their chance at a job-it may be a minimum wage job, a starting job-we ask that we tax back 75 per cent of their income. They are only provincial rules, but under the Canada assistance plan rules, we do not permit provinces to invest in learning, job creation, training as a result of CAP.
It may have been a rule that made sense back in the sixties when social assistance was only dealing with a small proportion of the population, but we are talking about three million people now. We are talking about half of those on social assistance being employable. We are not talking about the most vulnerable
who have no opportunity at all. We are talking about half the people on social assistance, people who are employable if they are given a chance, if they are given some support.
That is why one of the key proposals in our paper is to provide new flexible rules so provinces can begin to establish their programs to enable people to go back to work. Over the summer we have been signing a series of strategic initiatives with six or seven provinces in a spirit of co-operation to provide them the ability and the resources to innovate.
In my province of Manitoba we have a new program for single parents where they will run the program, not the bureaucrats or social workers. They will have their own centre where they will develop their own child care programs, their own training programs, their own employment programs. Once again it is based on the principle of decentralizing, putting resources in people's hands, working in partnerships.
In Rimouski a couple of weeks ago we, as the federal government, became a partner with a women's group, Ficelles, the local CEGEP, and the local regional development authority, to provide a new centre of resource for women on social assistance to create their own jobs, to create their own employment, to start their own businesses.
Once again we have presented a new principle. It is not the federal government, not provincial government landing on top of them. We are partners with them in the small town of Rimouski where we have said to these women that they will be responsible for their own development and we will give them resource and help.
We will make job creation easier. We will make it easier to develop new approaches to job creation. This is the way the government should work in the future.
That is why we proposed changes in the way we deliver our social security system and in particular to look at the way the rules apply to those with disabilities. Why should they have to declare themselves as unemployable. Just think of the enormous number of job opportunities there are out there for people who have incredible skills but have to sign a piece of paper saying they cannot put any of that to use.
Disabled organizations across the country are saying that benefits should be split from social services and something different should be done. We are putting that on the table for discussion with the provinces.
Our own vocational rehabilitation program is one way of getting away from the sheltered workshop and into giving resources to individuals to make that change.
Similarly, we say this is an opportunity, and maybe the most important opportunity, to come together as a country to take care of children. Let us begin to mobilize all resources; federal government, provincial governments, business, labour, community organizations, people that say they are no longer prepared to accept a million children living in poverty.
Let us give ourselves a goal to bring the provinces together in co-operation to bring that level down 30, 40, 50 per cent in the next 10 years. Let us really go to work.
Through the proposals in this paper there is a way, partly by giving their parents a chance to work. The best way of dealing with child poverty is a job for the parents. Give them the resources to find that job. Break down the rules that prevent them from getting jobs. Create work out there that they can find.
Another way we present in the green paper is the new program of child support. We can work again federally and provincially to make sure that those parents who have been separated and no longer receive support from non-custodial parents have a much tougher enforcement system. If that does not work let us take a look at the program now being introduced in other countries for a minimum basis of child support and let government help people to get those payments back. We could reduce our social welfare costs by 10 or 15 per cent if we had a decent, effective support system.
My colleague, the Minister of Justice, within a matter of weeks will be presenting the results of federal-provincial discussions to initiate a new child support system and I hope all members here will support that initiative.
Finally, we must also look at how we can begin to put together a program or a system that will enable us to provide an income base for children partly because they do not receive enough. The combination of federal-provincial benefits does not give children enough support.
There is an interesting conference this weekend, Prime Minister, that I know you are interested in, where we have groups of child specialists from across the country who have clearly established the connection between early child development in the first couple of years, and what happens to an adult later on.
We can directly relate nutrition to bad health when we are adults. We can directly relate nurturing and support to problems in the court. When we have great arguments in this House about getting tough with young offenders, we should start with children who are two or three years old because many of them are not getting it due to lack of income.
I recall meeting with people from the National Association of Food Banks. I asked what is the one single thing that we can do for children in this country. The answer was get some more money in their hands. That is why we have to combine those benefits and go to work to do it.
I understand this will not be easy. We have to really rely upon full scale co-operation by all levels of government. That is why we will be appealing to our colleagues. For those governments that say they do not want to participate they are condemning the children of those provinces to serious problems in the future. They are creating problems for the future. That is why it is going to be so essential that we spend the next couple of years mobilizing a good will and tapping into the potential for goodwill which I think exists in this country. I think Canadians want to help their kids. I think we have now come to a recognition that it is time we made this a national priority.
This government will take the leadership with our provincial colleagues to put that first on the agenda and make sure that the next generation of children will not suffer the same problems as this generation of children.
That is the point of this debate. That is the reason for getting ideas out and getting a dialogue going. I welcome them. I do not expect everyone is going to agree with us. I would be surprised if they did. However, there are some good examples.