Mr. Speaker, I am altogether sad and happy to speak to this bill. I am happy, because I hope my speech will help to sink it into oblivion, and sad because it shows once again that the federal government has no clue how to interpret the results of the October 30 referendum.
Bill C-96, which became Bill C-11, gives the Department of Human Resources Development new powers that it did not have previously. It was already inappropriate before the referendum and it is all the more so now. However it is almost the exact opposite of what was said in the last throne speech.
Indeed, in the speech from the throne, the government was telling us very humbly: We intend to withdraw from the provinces' jurisdictions. Five or six areas were mentioned, forestry, recreation and manpower, to name but a few. We know what was behind the government's withdrawal in matters of manpower. It was probably a trick to save time.
Despite this announcement in the speech from the throne, we were also told, among other things, that the federal government had no intention of interfering in areas of provincial jurisdiction without the consent of a majority of the provinces. Of course, Quebecers are perfectly aware, in this context, that it will be relatively easy for the federal government to get the consent of a majority of the provinces and that, most of the time, Quebec will lose out as a result of this throne speech promise.
My colleague, the member for Richmond-Wolfe, has explained very capably how the federal government has intruded upon provincial jurisdictions over the last few months. He described how this bill is another example of federal intrusion in Quebec's jurisdiction.
I think it is impossible to improve this bill. That is why the member for Mercier asked that it be brought back to its starting point or at least that it be sent to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development so that the committee can determine if anything can be done with it.
I agree that we should not increase the powers of the Department of Human Resources Development because, in the past, it has abused its powers. A case in point is unemployment insurance reform.
In the throne speech, we were also told that the government would ensure the viability of social programs. So we have two commitments related to the subject at hand: first, the government will withdraw from the provincial areas of jurisdiction and they will not intrude on any others; second, it has committed to ensuring the viability of social programs.
Then, what did the government announce in the throne speech? Among other things, a $7 billion cut in transfers to provinces. What will the impact of such a measure be? It will be remembered that the Canada health and social transfer covers health care, income security and post-secondary education. It is clear that by passing the deficit on to the provinces, the federal government will force them to make drastic and difficult decisions that will not necessarily be in the best interests of the population.
I would like, however, to highlight the impact of those measures on post-secondary education, mainly at the university level. If provinces receive less for universities, the tuition fees will almost certainly go up.
What will happen then? We have to try to find some kind of common thread in all this. If tuition fees increase, young people, in order to make ends meet, will try to get as many hours of paid work as possible.
We seem to be forgetting about the society in which young people live. We live in a consumer society. We cannot ask young teenagers and young adults to live as if they were cloistered, as recluses, excluded from all economic activity. A recent study showed that, in Quebec alone, teenagers spend $1 billion on consumer goods.
Some paternalistic people might say that if they are short of money they should refrain from spending. However, this would be hypocritical because, really, we have chosen a consumer society as our economic model. It means that the money that young people are spending fuels the economy. Therefore we cannot-and it would be stupid to do so-tell young people: "If you do not have any money, just do not consume".
The increase in tuition fees means that young people will increasingly be looking for work. And if they do work more, we can forecast the consequences. I am a former school principal and I know what it means for young people to work more than 15 hours a week on top of their regular school work, which is their first priority. Already, in the last year of high school, where there are virtually no fees, almost half the students work, have paid employment to be able to fit into our consumer society and to purchase what they see advertised on TV and everywhere in the media.
So, young people will work more, will have a little less time to spend on their studies, and we are entitled to think that their grades will suffer and that some of them will not pass. Because they have been unable to spend as much time as they should on their studies, college and university students will have to repeat some courses. In some cases, it will no doubt be more dramatic. They will probably have to also repeat a whole year, whether in high school, college or university.
If we keep in mind that it costs about $10,000 to live while attending university, we realize how an increase in tuition fees is a short-sighted decision. For the federal government to reduce transfers to the provinces when this will result in an increase in tuition fees shows a lack of foresight. Eventually, we will have to pay a price for such measures, in terms of social costs.
Not only will students be sometimes put in situations where they will fail some courses or have to repeat them, but we can also imagine that the need to work more hours will lead to some of them dropping out. Young people who can no longer invest enough time and energy in their studies will lose interest at some point. They will realize they are in over their head will drop out of school.
Once again, we have an example of the hypocrisy of the society we live in. There are campaigns against dropping out, but at the same time, young people are put in a situation where they are obliged to reduce the time they spend on their studies. So, some have to drop out of the school system. To a large extent, it is bad political decisions that are leading systematically to dropping out and, more often than not, even though education comes under provincial jurisdiction, the problem is created at the federal level and transferred to the provincial level, and people are left with the impression that it is the provinces that are making bad decisions.
The budget speech was pernicious, through the $7 billion in cuts to transfers to the provinces, but as if that were not enough, the federal government went further by saying, in a very hypocritical way: "We will reform unemployment insurance". It is not reforming unemployment insurance, it is destroying a system that workers and businesses have paid for from their own pockets, since the federal government no longer contributes in any way to the unemployment insurance fund. It has infiltrated a system put in place by employers and employees and is now busy wreaking havoc with it.
I want to address three aspects of this government's destructive behaviour. If this reform ever sees the light of day despite all the demonstrations and protests in the maritimes, Quebec and else-
where, the government may be persuaded to soften the blow by these demonstrations, which cannot be anything but emotional because people feel affected in their daily lives, knowing the impact this reform will have on their living conditions, their children and so on. It is therefore only normal for them to demonstrate vigorously against this bill.
I wish to draw your attention to two measures in particular provided for in this bill. These two measures revolve around the same figure, $900 million. As members may recall, the government told us in the throne speech about its intention to ensure the viability of social programs. As far as I know, a country that creates social programs does not necessarily do so for the wealthy. Who needs social programs? The most vulnerable in our society, those in a precarious situation. But it is precisely these vulnerable people the government is targeting.
The government tells us it will take $900 million away from seasonal employees, part time workers and, of course, the students I referred to earlier. It is trying to sell them the illusion that perhaps one day, if the context is just right, they may qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. No one really believes this given how hard it is to receive benefits and how high the eligibility thresholds have been raised. Not many people believe those workers in a precarious situation will ever qualify for benefits.
Seasonal workers are being penalized. My colleagues on the human resources development committee have condemned this reform on numerous occasions, almost singlehandedly if I may say so, because of a lack of support from members who should have been more concerned about the rights of their constituents, be they from the NDP or the Reform Party-although it would be somewhat more surprising coming from that side. At any rate, I am convinced that, in the ridings represented by members of the Reform Party, there are workers whose jobs are not secure and who will be hurt by this bill.
Unfortunately, only Bloc Quebecois members were courageous, strong and proud enough to stand up for the disadvantaged and for those whose work situation is precarious.
I would like to say a few more words about students, as they are always on my mind because I was a school principal in a previous life. Students will be particularly hard hit by this reform. Naturally, the government assures us that, in the particular case of students, contributions made by those who did not earn $2,000 will be refunded. But we know that only in 25 per cent or so of the cases will contributions actually be refunded, because nearly 75 per cent of students will earn more than $2,000. Just try to live on less than $2,000 a year while attending university. It is obvious that the $2,000 limit is grossly underestimated and does not reflect the financial needs of students.
As a result, businesses will see their payroll taxes increase. Last week, I treated myself to a meeting of the human resources development committee, where witnesses from Manitoba were saying exactly the same thing as what employers from my riding had told me, namely that raising payroll taxes on small business-the people giving evidence were from the restaurant industry, which, as we know, is particularly vulnerable to competition-will have immediate and dramatic consequences.
Employers required to pay higher unemployment insurance payroll taxes will necessarily be driven to consider reducing the work time they used to distribute among their part time employees.
Consequently, employees will undoubtedly be subjected to more pressure, they will have to give a higher performance to do the same work in fewer paid hours. So, when the government claims that the unemployment insurance reform will create part time jobs, it is indulging in wishful thinking, because it will rather do the opposite.
If the Minister of Human Resources Development really listened to what employers have to say on the matter, he would realize that his dreams do not correspond to reality. The reform will decrease the number of jobs, part time jobs in particular, and workers will be overburdened.
I will conclude now, because I realize that my time is running out. In my opinion, not only did the government wickedly impose a $900 million cut on the most insecure and poorest workers, but it is also taking $900 million from the poor to distribute to the rich.
This is really what the government is doing when it says: "People will stop contributing for the part of their salary exceeding $39,000". Previously, the maximum insurable earnings was $42,500, so lowering it to $39,000 will result in savings of $900 million. This amount equals the one we mentioned before. In other words, the government takes from the poor to give to the rich. This bill is totally unfair, and we should not give more powers to a government which implements such a measure.