Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on Bill C-17, the budget implementation act. In my remarks I will attempt to give an overview of the Reform Party's position or, more accurately, positions on the assortment of measures that constitute Bill C-17 and explain why we will be voting against the bill on third reading.
I will comment on the objections Reform has with certain aspects of the bill, but I will also give praise where praise is due. In fact, many of the measures contained in Bill C-17 are supported by the Reform Party.
Before getting into Bill C-17 I would like to take this one last opportunity to speak of the government's budget and to the concerns my party has repeatedly expressed in the weeks and months since the budget was presented to this House of Commons. Those ideas we feel have not been heard as they should and have fallen somewhat on deaf ears.
I would like to make four points with regard to the budget as I see what has happened in this assembly since February 22. First of all, it is very clear that the government does not have a concrete deficit reduction plan. We find that most of the cuts were done in a haphazard way. There is no an over-arching direction given to those cuts. Most of the cuts are merely a combination of what we call Conservative policies and were a continuation of thrusts that were set prior to the government taking over in the fall of 1993.
Cuts to such programs as unemployment insurance which were so eloquently talked about a few moments ago and the defence policy were taken before any comprehensive foreign policy review or a social policy review were put in place. It was ad hoc in nature at best.
The target that the government has set for itself, what is called the 3 per cent solution, which is supposed to be based on the Maastricht treaty is an aberration of that treaty and not an accurate reflection. It does not measure what is called the net debt as it is in the Maastricht treaty. The Maastricht treaty talks about all of the net debt of a country. In the formula presented here by the government, provincial and municipal debts are not taken into consideration in seeing the difficulties we face as a country in terms of expending money and revenue sources that are available to us.
The actions of the government are not a true reflection of what I would call a meaningful Maastricht treaty 3 per cent policy. I feel there is a gap between what should be done and what is being done by the government.
Second, we feel the economic assumptions that were placed before us have already been thrown off course. As the Prime Minister noted yesterday, the Quebec situation is creating uncertainty and the higher rates of interest in the budget have not been factored in. Interest rates have climbed significantly higher than projected with no end in sight. Certainly the prospects for interest rate declines are out of the question given recent bond downgrades and the Quebec question that is before us in the months ahead.
Most reputable economic firms have downgraded their growth projections after noting the interest rate increases. The growth in revenues that are so necessary to the Liberal plan are in jeopardy. Unemployment is staying stubbornly high and with downgrades in growth projections this key projection also appears to be in jeopardy. The Liberals seem to be making as little progress in job creation as they have made with deficit reduction.
We raise the question, as we have done over and over again as the Reform Party: When will the Liberals realize that in our current situation only meaningful deficit reduction will lead to long term job creation in our nation? That message is clear and becoming more clear each day.
The third point I wish to make is that the second phase of the deficit reduction plan is in jeopardy as it will be overridden by larger political concerns. With the looming Quebec election and the possibility-we hope not-of a victory of the PQ, the political environment for further cuts and serious deficit reduction is seriously in doubt.
The active work of the Bloc in the House and out on the hustings to major changes in the UI system is a bad omen for future deficit reduction. How will the federal government be able to achieve significant savings when every move to do so will be used by the separatists, as they have done in the House already, as further fuel for their fire?
The apparent refusal of the government to clearly lay the groundwork for the separatist debate now can only mean that significant resources that are needed for deficit reduction may be diverted to fight battles with Quebec separatists. That is unfortunate.
If I may make a comment on what the previous speaker from the Bloc said, when the separatists say they are not here to break up the country, the inferences and the actions of that party have already started a turmoil within our economic community. They are reflected in the future lives of not only businesses but individuals, and certainly in the overall public responsibility that we have in the House of Commons.
Reformers have a plan. We are currently developing a comprehensive deficit reduction plan which looks at each department of government with a view to comprehensive cuts and reductions that we know will result in economic confidence and growth. What actions are contemplated and what will we do in the months ahead? First of all, we will have a department by department review to determine expenditure excesses and the elimination of certain functions that government can no longer afford.
Second, the comprehensive plan will be further developed over the summer and will play an integral role in the Reform legislative agenda for this fall. Third, the comprehensive plan will be presented in detail to the Minister of Finance during the pre-budget consultations also scheduled for the fall. I give full credit to the minister and the government for setting up those consultations. They are a first and the government deserves accolades for taking such action.
Fifth, this plan will be ready for any crisis that may take place in our national finances. It will also function as the Reform platform for suggestions of future government reductions and future government initiatives that lie ahead as a responsibility in this House.
With those few comments about the budget, I would like to turn back to Bill C-17, the budget implementation act. The bill contains many measures which, as I have said, the Reform Party supports. A number of the principles that underlay changes contained in Bill C-17 are compatible with Reform policy, yet we cannot support the bill and will vote against it at the conclusion of the third reading debate.
Let me explain why Reform is voting against Bill C-17 despite supporting much of its content. There are two reasons: the omnibus nature of the bill and the lack of an overall plan or vision of where these changes will lead. Let me first talk about the omnibus bill.
The Oxford dictionary defines omnibus as follows: "serving several objects at once; comprising of several items". What we have before us today is an omnibus bill composed of five distinct pieces of legislation which bear little relationship to one another. This approach is not new and I am sure members have witnessed it many times in the House. Certainly I have in the provincial legislature of Alberta.
Today I am reminded of an event that is somewhat similar as this. Some 12 or 13 years ago the government of the day of which the Prime Minister and a number of his colleagues were members tried to pass another omnibus bill. The loyal opposition fought back the only way it could, by refusing to report for the vote. As a result, the bells rang for days until the government finally agreed to break the bill up to allow members the opportunity to represent their constituents.
The problem with omnibus legislation is that there is no way for an individual member to sort out the wheat from the chaff. One must either hold one's nose and vote in favour, which I suspect a good many of my colleagues on the opposite side will do when we come to the voting stage, particularly those from the east, or members will vote no, thereby risking the defeat of some of the measures that they believe are good, sensible, progressive pieces of legislation.
Of course that is the purpose of omnibus legislation, to allow a government to hide a number of lemons among the Cadillacs. It is a procedural tactic employed to prevent members of Parliament from effectively representing their constituents, a tactic that deprives them of the opportunity to exercise their direction in choosing which policies they support and which policies they oppose.
In the case of Bill C-17, the use of this tactic forced the Reform Party to play politics somewhat, to engage in procedural games in order to represent its constituency. The only way we could express our support for some of the clauses in Bill C-17 while simultaneously expressing our opposition to other parts of the bill, notably the clause granting borrowing authority to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was to table a series of report stage amendments.
This allowed us to break up the bill for the purposes of debate. It also produced a situation in which members of the Reform Party were forced to vote against their own amendments. I know a lot of members were concerned about it and raised that question. However, it was the only way we were able to set up a circumstance where we could vote on individual items in the bill and then be able to express our constituents' will.
The second point I wish to make is with regard to lack of a plan. That is the second reason the Reform Party opposes Bill C-17. While we view many of the measures contained within as a good first step and while we support the general principle and the direction of some of these changes, we are troubled by the absence of any overall vision in Bill C-17. It is similar to the vision we witnessed in the budget as a whole where there was not a vision that was seeking some kind of a plan or a future or an identifiable objective for the country as a whole.
I would like to look at the parts of Bill C-17. It consists of five parts as the House well knows. First, public sector compensation; second, reductions in the Canada assistance plan and the public utility income tax transfers; third, the reduction in transportation subsidies; fourth, CBC borrowing authority; and fifth, the item that is being well aired and vented in this assembly, unemployment insurance and the actions taken thereon.
Let me deal with each one. The first one is public sector compensation. The Reform Party supports the government's move to extend public sector wage freezes for an additional two years. While we are troubled by some of the inequities that arise from the freezing of pay increments within salary grades, we are prepared to support this in recognition of the government's difficult fiscal situation.
Some people have tried to portray the Reform Party as public servant bashers. This is absolutely unfair. The reason we support the continuation of the public sector wage freeze is because of the recognition that in difficult times, and these are difficult times, everyone must make sacrifices. While it is true that many in the public service have not had a raise in a number of years, the fairness of the wage freeze becomes apparent when we compare what has occurred in the private sector in this last recession.
We need only ask the tens of thousands of private sector employees who have been victimized by corporate downsizing, those who have been laid off as businesses struggled to meet the demands of globalization. We should ask these people if they would have accepted a salary freeze in return for job security. I am sure the answer would have been: "Yes, I am prepared to do that".
However, most of those people were laid off and are out looking for other ways to support their families, their mortgages and their responsibilities. In fact, a considerable number of private sector workers have gone even beyond just salary freezes. They have gone to salary rollbacks in order to save their jobs.
This is not to be seen as a positive development but rather as an acknowledgement that if Canadians are to meet the increasing demands of the global markets then everybody, employer and employee, must be prepared to sacrifice in this partnership that is a responsibility of all of us.
With an equally formidable problem facing the government in the form of our massive debt, Reformers do not see it as too much to ask that the public servants, who according to a recent study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses are paid 14 per cent more than those people in the private sector with comparable jobs, accept the extension of a salary freeze.
We in the Reform Party, in acknowledgement of this difficult fiscal situation, have tried as well within our own party and our own caucus to demonstrate some leadership in this area by taking a voluntary 10 per cent to 15 per cent salary reduction. We are not asking the public service to do anything that we are not prepared by example to do ourselves.
However, while we support the government's action in this area, we also believe that this alone will do very little to bring the government's deficit under control. It is my guess that the government had no idea where to cut or how to deal with the priorities, and it saw the salary freeze of the public service as an easy target and that target was placed before us in the budget.
The next areas I would like to deal with concern the reductions in the Canada assistance plan and the public utilities income tax transfers.
First of all, while we support reductions to the Canada assistance plan, transfers to the provincial governments, we believe that the corollary of this is that the federal government where it has a responsibility must give the provinces more freedom in adjusting to the lower level of funding. They cannot make ground rules that cannot be lived with within their economic means. If we cut funds from the provinces, then we must also change the level of responsibility in order that adjustments can be made at the local provincial level.
If we look back when the Canada assistance plan was created, the federal government used its fiscal powers to intrude into an area that was exclusively provincial jurisdiction. It agreed at that time to pay 50 per cent of costs if in return the provinces agreed to certain national standards. That was the deal. Since both levels of government were happy with this cost shared agreement there was no problem. What we have to do is look ahead and see what happened.
However, after continuous cutbacks of Canada assistance program transfers the federal contribution, for example, in Ontario today is just 29 per cent, about half of what it was in the first commitment that the federal government made. Yet the federal government at the same time insists on the provinces maintaining certain national standards. The government cannot have it both ways. There must be a change in planning, policy and attitude.
If the federal government wants to continue to have the say in the field of welfare, a field exclusive to provincial jurisdiction, then it on the other hand must be prepared to pay its full share. That is not what I am talking about here today, but that is the option that should be open to the government.
We in the Reform Party recognize that the federal government simply cannot afford to maintain such a level of funding. That is why we support a cap on the Canada assistance program. However, as the quid pro quo we are prepared to allow the provinces the freedom which I have talked about that they need to experiment in creating sustainable and efficient income support programs.
My concern with the government's cuts to the Canada assistance program is that they have been made in isolation, with no consideration of the consequences that these measures will have on other aspects of Canada's income security system. This measure does not move the country closer to a permanent solution to our financial crisis; it only offloads the debt from one level of government to the other. We cannot afford to do that in our nation. It is unfair.
As a senior government we have to take a parental responsibility and understand that we cannot unload the debt on our children, that we have to deal with the circumstance here in this assembly as adult, parental, responsible persons in charge of the program across this nation.
We must remember in doing this that there is only one taxpayer and if we keep loading it down from one government level to another that taxpayer is going to be suffocated in this transfer of funding responsibility.
I would like to now talk about the reductions in the transportation subsidies. The Reform supports the principle of reducing transportation subsidies but we question the wisdom of making these cuts in isolation from other measures which would address the various serious transportation problems facing the country.
Supporting reductions in the grain transportation subsidies is not an easy thing for me to do. I am a grain farmer and many of the voters who sent the Reform Party to Ottawa have benefited from the Crow rates. However, we must be realists. I realize that the federal government simply cannot afford to continue subsidizing western and Atlantic transportation costs at their current level. Last year alone federal subsidies for the Crow benefit totalled $720 million.
Unlike the government the Reform Party does have a plan. The Reform approach is to eliminate transportation subsidies and redirect the funds to the Reform Party's proposed comprehensive safety net programs which will defend Canada's food producers against matters over which they have very little control.
In order to create a genuinely competitive transportation environment we will deregulate the rail transportation system and will consider privatizing the Canadian national rolling stock.
Unlike the Liberal government's insensitive, across the board approach to reducing transportation subsidies, the Reform policy is a balanced one which provides support to those who truly need it while laying the foundations for an efficient and market driven transportation system that will carry Canadians into the 21st century.
The next subject I would like to deal with is CBC borrowing, the borrowing authority that is given in this bill. It is the first borrowing authority to be provided to that crown corporation by the government through legislation.
I want to say very clearly that the Reform Party is strongly opposed to the provisions in Bill C-17 that would amend the Broadcasting Act to allow borrowing by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. CBC representatives have told us that this $25 million would be used for a purpose that would provide a more business like flexibility to the organization. We in the Reform Party see this as nothing more than a back door way of
providing the CBC with additional funding. Rather than coming through the front door as a subsidy or a grant from government it is another way it can access funds outside of the purview of the House of Commons. That is not correct.
On a more fundamental basis, Reform feels it is time to re-examine the purpose and the mandate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. First, in this new age of satellite dishes and information highways, of cable TV and pay per view, is it realistic to expect the CBC to retain a sizeable viewing audience? By the CBC's own admission this audience has already declined to just 13.3 per cent of viewing share. It has diminished significantly.
Second, is it fair to allow the CBC to straddle the line between market player and crown corporation? While some have called on the CBC to act like any other private sector business, this is not possible. In the private sector you have to earn a profit or you die.
The CBC does not have to confront this discipline of the marketplace. It does not matter if it loses staggering sums of money. At the present time as Canadians we are subsidizing it. Many Canadians do not realize that $1.1 billion is going directly out of the public purse to subsidize the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. That is the way it is. The government has always been there to bail it out when necessary.
We are in a period of time when this is a legitimate question. How can a private network like CTV be expected to compete against a company which has billions of dollars of government money behind it? This question must be addressed.
Communication and technology are so different today than ever before. People who did not have access to television or radio at one time in our history today have that access. Anywhere in the world you can project television, anywhere in the world you can project radio or communication systems. We do not require a subsidized organization to meet that communication demand that was there at one time.
I recall my stint at the University of Alberta where one of my colleagues, the Right Hon. Joe Clark, and other colleagues I spent time with debated this issue. At that time I supported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the basis that there were places in Canada unable to receive this communication of television or radio and we needed the corporation for that purpose. I supported it at that time. That reason is gone today. We have to look at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation running on its own two feet on a non-subsidized basis from the Government of Canada.
The last item I would like to deal with is the unemployment insurance question which has been discussed in this assembly. The Reform Party supports the direction the Liberal government has taken in the principles it has embraced in the changes to the unemployment insurance plan.
First, Reform congratulates the Liberal government for reducing the unemployment insurance premium rates. It has long been the Reform Party's position that the most effective job creation tool available to government is to reduce the tax burden of individuals and of businesses.
Second, Reform fully supports changes designed to improve the link between work history and unemployment insurance benefits. These changes move the unemployment insurance plan back toward a true insurance program, as it was intended to be in the first place. As I will argue later, many of the other policy goals UI is currently serving would be better accomplished through other government programs.
Third, Reform supports changes to the qualifying period, the benefit rate and the benefit period, all of which reduce some of the program's disincentives to work. While we have some concern about changes making it easier to allow voluntary quits to collect benefits, the general direction of the changes is to encourage people to find employment, whether it is self-employment or employment with another individual or another business firm.
In another area, while Reform is glad to see the Liberals abandon the principle of universality by moving to a two tier benefit structure which targets those most in need, we believe that such means tested criteria are not suitable for an insurance program. Such goals should be met through other government programs.
While we in the Reform Party support these actions in and of themselves we are disappointed that they were not part of a comprehensive review program, the comprehensive social review program that is currently going on. We feel that as with the rest of Bill C-17, the changes proposed in the bill are indiscriminate, ad hoc measures taken with little or no consideration as to the impact these changes will have on the broader network of Canadian social programs.
The government seems to have forgotten that the income security system of our country is not a crazy quilt of piecemeal programs, all existing independent of the other. Rather it is an intricate series of interdependent programs consciously designed to complement and strengthen one another to meet a broad range of needs faced by Canadians in their daily lives.
In the last portion of my speech I will address the vision of the Reform Party of the unemployment insurance program and its proper place within the broader family of programs that constitute Canada's social safety net. It is instructive to look at the government's approach to UI reform, for it is representative of
the government's overall approach to the budget: ill planned, disjointed and demonstrating little sense of an overall objective or goal.
I was struck during the finance subcommittee hearings on Bill C-17 by the confusion and the concern of witnesses surrounding one small provision of the bill, that dealing with allowing the government to experiment with pilot projects. Group after group denounced the provision.
Some union briefs portrayed it as a back door thought to institute workfare or to supply business with cheaper labour. Others asked what criteria were being used to monitor the success of the pilots or even whether there were any guidelines on what qualified for consideration as a pilot project. A number asked what right the government had to appropriate moneys from the UI fund, moneys paid 100 per cent by employers and employees to develop programs that seemingly had little to do with providing insurance to those who had lost their jobs and were needing support on a temporary basis.
The confusion became so persuasive that the hon. parliamentary secretary for finance felt it necessary to have a clarification of the criteria for pilot projects and how they would be funded read into the record of our meetings.
While I am not completely satisfied with the government's assurances, the principle of the pilot project does not trouble me very greatly. Reform has always supported the idea of experimenting with new and innovative ways of updating and improving our social programs. What troubles me is the reason for all of the confusion in the first place.
There was no consultation into these provisions and we witnessed that very clearly in each committee meeting. Where was the input of the people who were to be directly affected by these somewhat innovative measures? There was none. None of the business or labour organizations appearing before the subcommittee had been consulted on what the experimental initiatives should be.
It was a top down exercise controlled by bureaucrats and departmental officials rather than from the bottom up involving the program's true stakeholders, the employers and the employees who fund the UI program. That was a major neglect of government in this process.
What were all the witnesses appearing before the subcommittee really saying to us? They asked whose program it is. The question from them was a good one. After all, unemployment insurance is completely self-financing. The government theoretically contributes nothing to UI, neither toward the payment of benefits nor toward the cost of administration. Yet it still controls the program.
Much of what ails the UI program, the $6 billion debt, the inefficiencies and the allegations of abuse, stems from the simple fact that the original purpose of UI has been compromised by politicians and by bureaucrats who distorted the program to perform a number of functions for which the UI program was never intended and which it is relatively ineffective in performing.
Let us look back to the 1930s and 1940s, which is far in one sense but not so far in another sense depending how old one is, when the concept of unemployment insurance was first originated. In those years people had in mind that it should be a pure insurance program, one that would provide temporary income support to unemployed individuals and would entitle contributors to benefits commensurate with their contributions.
Unemployment insurance, if we look at it today, is far from that ideal. Over time changes have been introduced which created inequities based on where one lived and caused a disproportionate share of benefits to flow to workers engaged in seasonal industries, to those who live in high unemployment regions and to those who live in areas with a relatively weak attachment to the workforce.
I look back at the Forget commission 1985 report. In the report it was argued that the program's provisions for regionally extended benefits amounted to an income supplemental program rather than an insurance program. It was noted that in 1985, nine years ago, the program's original objectives were off track. What has led to this drift of first principles? A conclusion was reached in the Forget commission report:
The innumerable modifications to the program over the years were political compromises. A review of the history of the unemployment insurance program reveals that the major influences on this policy since 1940 have been the result not of negotiations between the employer and the employee interest but rather of political and bureaucratic interventions.
It is government that caused the distortions, not those really paying the bills.
We in the Reform Party believe that ownership of the unemployment insurance program must be given back to the people who founded it and are the stakeholders in that plan: the employers and the employees. The case of the unemployment insurance is the extreme example of the phenomenon alluded to earlier of the federal government continually trying to have its cake and eat it at the same time.
We have seen this in other areas of social assistance where the government freezes its contributions to the Canada assistance plan yet insists on continuing to have a say in how the program is being run. We have seen this in the area of health where the federal component of health care funding has eroded to the point where it is now in the neighbourhood of or on average 22 per cent of health care spending. Yet the federal government insists
at the same time it has the right to tell the provinces how medicare should be run.
We have said in the House in question period and through other mediums that the whole format should be changed so that the provinces can react to their own individual needs and circumstances under the economic situation that may prevail in their respective areas of the country.
In the case of unemployment insurance the government does not pay a full share of the cost. It pays none of the costs. Yet it legislates changes which amount to expropriating moneys paid to the contributors, arbitrarily transferring them into certain categories of contributors at the expense of other categories of workers, or to experimental pilot projects as I mentioned a few moments ago.
It is unfair. It is inefficient. It certainly should not continue. This program needs review like every other social program that is the responsibility of this assembly.
The federal government must decide whether it is in or whether it is out. If it wants to continue controlling the principles and the administration of UI programs, and if it wants to continue using UI to perform other social policy objectives, it has a moral obligation to become a full partner in terms of funding the programs.
If the federal government is not willing to assume its share of financing it should relinquish ownership of the programs to employers and employees, the stakeholders who are paying for and should be benefiting from unemployment insurance.
In conclusion, the Reform Party's position is that government should return UI to its original function as a true insurance program and allow employer and employee groups to administer the program. This is not a new idea. Nor is it a radical idea, as I listened to the variety of groups that made presentations to us. It is an approach which both employer and employee groups appearing before the finance committee supported. These grassroots groups supported the concept the Forget commission recommended to the government of that day.
We should listen to those representations and to what is being said by the private sector. It is time for government to trust others in terms of responsibility, to trust the provinces in terms of meeting some of our economic goals, and to work in partnership. We cannot do it alone. Nor can we take away the funds from those who carry out legislated responsibilities for us, such as provinces, such as municipalities, such as the unemployment commission, and so on. We have a grave responsibility.
I appreciate the time I have had to spend on Bill C-17. As I said earlier even though the Reform Party supports a number of initiatives, because of the omnibus nature of the bill and because we feel the bill and the budget have not presented to us as Canadians and as legislators a good vision we have an obligation to vote against Bill C-17 at third reading.