Mr. Speaker, I will begin by saying that today, May 14, 1996, the day Bill C-12 will be passed, unless the government finally comes to its senses, will be one of deep shame for the Liberal party.
This party helped give Canada a social security system, not the best in the world, it must be said, no, because overall we are a long way from the social measures generally available in Western Europe, but in North America, our system was the envy of many. Increasingly, this party is aligning its social measures with less progressive measures in the United States.
Bill C-12, this deceptively named act respecting employment insurance, is an attack on the unemployment insurance system so appreciated by most Canadians and Quebecers, as we were reminded by an Angus Reid poll at the very beginning of the new Liberal reign, when it was setting out on what looked like a reform of social programs, a reform to improve social programs. That was before the first budget.
This Angus Reid poll said that 70 per cent of Canadians and Quebecers, almost 80 per cent in the case of Quebec, wanted to keep this unemployment insurance system, and at the same time feared that the announced reforms, despite all the fine talk, were going to hurt those in the greatest need. Canadians and Quebecers were right.
Although it will not be pleasant, I would like to remind members that, in his maiden speech, the Minister of Human Resources Development said that what was needed was a particularly Canadian formula so that, when the social program reform had achieved its goals, Canadians would be proud to be Canadians. He repeated this expression ad nauseam.
Well, what we can say this morning is that, far from being proud, Canadians must be worried, deeply worried, except perhaps for those who have a steady job, who are working over 35 hours a week. But all the others, Canadians and Quebecers must be worried and anxious to hear what form this new system will take.
It must not be forgotten that this bill, which is supposedly about employment insurance, comes in addition to a so-called reform from 1994, Bill C-17. That was a bill implementing the first Liberal budget since their return to power. That budget, that bill, slashed the unemployment insurance scheme by $2.4 billion starting in 1995, of which $735 million were to be cut in Quebec, and $630 million were to be cut, starting in 1995, in the Atlantic provinces.
The effects of this new reform are in addition to those of the first reform. Once again, the word reform loses its meaning. "Counter-reform" would be more appropriate, because in most people's minds, a reform is something that improves a situation.
In the two cases in question, the reform is no improvement. Far from it, it brings cuts. It cuts into the only little bit of security some people in Canada can count on, those who are not so fortunate as to be among those who enjoy total security or who are rich enough to be able to depend on investment profits and do not need to work. For every one else, unemployment insurance represents a bridge, rather a narrow one sometimes, and one that is not as long as it might be, but a bridge nonetheless, between two jobs.
These cuts will total $4.4 billion, if we add up the $2.4 billion and the additional $2 billion of this "new" reform. This will make the Liberal Party of Canada look good the next time they seek a new mandate. They will be able to boast to Canadians and to Quebecers "Look, we have cut UI benefits by $4.4 billion since 1995, and Quebec-I am using the department's figures here-will lose $1.271 billion". Keep in mind, now, that this is the department's evaluation of the figures involved in the amendment. By the way, no one but the department has any figures, so we have to rely on them. According to the department's numbers, by the time the plan matures in the year 2000, the Atlantic provinces will be $806 million worse off than before, every year.
Adding up the two-this is interesting since the Atlantic provinces and Quebec together account for about one third of Canada's population-we get $2.1 billion of the $4.2 billion. And if we look at the portion of the cuts affecting the Atlantic provinces alone, $806 million out of $4.4 is quite a chunk.
These cuts in benefits will mean less money going to the high unemployment areas. This means that one of the objectives when the plan was created after the 1929 depression, which was to have interregional adjustments, has more or less come down to nothing now. In the case of Quebec, Quebecers will figure out what it means, at some point. In this case of the Atlantic provinces, I trust they will draw some political conclusions. In many cases, I think it will be a considerable shock.
I speak as a Bloc Quebecois member, but on this issue, as on many others we worked in opposition on behalf of all of the people of Canada. What is unacceptable about this change is that Canadians and Quebecers see this as a significant alteration to what they consider the role of unemployment insurance to be.
Instead of discussing the disappearance of this interregional adjustment-which academics are demanding, saying that there is none in such and such a country because their constitution does not allow it-the government has decided to forgo discussions, to hold no debate whatsoever, just chopping it completely.
Since this move on the part of the government was obviously in the books, when I was in Toronto during the initial consultations I asked representatives of unions whose membership were in high pay brackets whether they were not fed up subsidizing workers in the Atlantic provinces. They did not say: "Yes, we in Ontario are fed up with paying for the Atlantic provinces". People in Canada, and I think I understand, realize the need for support among the regions. I repeat, this is what the Bloc Quebecois is saying. This example, like others, illustrates that there were no major debates on this reform.
This reform, with even its name looking like some sort of camouflage, means open season. Calling it employment insurance camouflages it. Instead of bringing the unemployed, particularly the unemployed in regions with high unemployment, closer to a job, this reform will move them away from one.
As this is the first opportunity we have had the time to give a decent speech in this House, I will use it to point out that the official opposition was prevented from playing its role at each stage. Here again, I can understand. The government doubtless did not want Canadians to be informed. All the same, a survey in Quebec indicates that the people have not been fooled by what is going on. This will be the subject of my conclusion.
I wish to speak to all of Canada. I want to say that the first reform hit the Atlantic provinces hard. The second one is going to be even harder to swallow. I keep saying that the regions with high unemployment will be the ones hit.
I would like to quote the tourism and economic development minister of Prince Edward Island. The province has a population of about 170,000 and is well placed to observe its labour market. So what does the minister of economic development have to say? He says, on the subject of financial repercussions: "The previous stage of the unemployment insurance reform, which surely was not on the same scale as the present bill, has already had a significant impact on our province. In 1995, with the rate of unemployment such as it was, a person who qualified after 12 weeks' work received benefits for 32 weeks, making a total of 44 weeks. There were still, however, eight weeks where the person received no income".
The first demonstrations in the Atlantic provinces were not against the new reform, but against the implementation of the previous reform, which hit them hard. As a consequence of this first so-called reform, people did not have enough weeks of unemployment insurance to get through the year. They had to turn to welfare, which is very complex, because, if you are on welfare, sad to say, it is very hard to return to work.
What does this brief say? It predated the amendments, but if we take off a few millions, a lot of what it says is still true. It says: "In Prince Edward Island, the net loss of unemployment insurance benefits will thus reach $24 million in 2001-2002". So, if we take off the maximum, let us say $8 million-I am being very generous, very conservative-there would be $16 million less.
The minister went on to say: "The economy of Prince Edward Island is, nevertheless productive. We are tops in Canada in job creation and we cannot absorb such a loss". In other words, for all the regions that are not the top job creators in Canada, this reform will be devastating in macro-economic terms. It will widen the gap between the regions where people are relatively well off and the regions where unemployment is high, despite the fact that jobs may be created, but where there is less industry or business.
I talked about the regions, I now want to talk about individuals. Added to the previous reform-which leaves many seasonal workers with too few benefit weeks, forcing them on welfare for the rest of the year-cuts provided for by the present reform create a desperate situation for some.
The workers who came last week from the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands sounded desperate. They were talking about their region, saying that they will no longer be able to keep young people. They are the ones who are leaving and when young people leave, the regions fall apart. The same is true in every region with a high unemployment rate. When young people leave, fewer services are provided. There is a shift in demographics and soon, only aging people are left, villages and towns die. This is what people came here to scream and cry about, saying that it did not make any sense.
When I hear one of my colleagues laughing I think that either he has no heart, which I do not believe, or he has not studied the impact of this bill. It saddens me because people are going to be hit hard. It will affect many people. The impact will be felt by many other than seasonal workers, in spite of the amendments and what the government is claiming. The amendments speak volume about the original bill.
It will affect all workers in the tourism sector, all those for whom one hour of paid work means many hours of unpaid work. They are legions in our society. I am thinking about all adult education teachers, this is true in every region, and all those who, in cities, towns, and villages, entertain, educate or instruct people who, for one reason or another, need such training.
Usually, they are paid by the hour, without any firm contract and, without any exception, they will find themselves in a very precarious situation. Women will also be affected. The Fédération des femmes said that, yes indeed, 5 per cent more women working part time would be covered, but being covered means that they will be paying, but as far as being entitled to benefits, that is a different
story. On the other hand this bill will be very harmful for 25 per cent of those who now work 15 to 34 hours a week.
And I have not yet mentioned artists, artisans and all those who barely survive on government programs, as well as pilots and flight attendants. There would not be time enough, 40 minutes would not suffice to name all those who will be affected.
It is a radical transformation we are witnessing here and that transformation is contrary to the intention which prevailed when the unemployment insurance program was created. I would like to quote part of the speech Prime Minister Bennett made, in 1935, when he first tabled that bill. He said: "To meet new needs, we will have to modify our capitalist system-we were just coming out of the great crash of 1929-and make it into a more useful instrument for the people. You will be studying measures creating a global plan which will reduce the present social and economic inequalities and distribute the benefits of the capitalist system more equitably among the various classes of our society and among the various regions of the country".
Since the 1971 reform, we have witnessed a continuing reduction of benefits. I must say that it started under the Conservatives and the most serious change was cutting the system off from the consolidated revenue fund. That was bad enough.
Researchers came before us and told us that an unemployment insurance system has an important stabilizing effect and we realize that when we look at others around the world. It has an economic stabilizing effect benefiting society as a whole, and it also has a redistributing effect. Over time maternity benefits and health benefits were added to the system. They are now adding in this so-called reform training benefits, which will no longer be paid from the consolidated revenue fund, but by the unemployment insurance fund. When we consider all of this, we wonder, we do not understand why the government reduced the maximum insurable earnings.
It is not difficult to understand. It means that from now on, workers who make over $39,000 a year, will no longer contribute to unemployment insurance after that limit. They will pay on the first $39,000, but nothing after that. This is totally illogical. This is exactly the reverse of what we are doing with income tax.
With income tax, the more you earn, the more you pay. For unemployment insurance contributions, the more you earn, the less you pay. Companies which are able to pay salaries of $39,000 or more are the ones receiving this gift. A gift of some $500 million a year is not inconsequential. Which employees and businesses will pay for the equivalent of this gift? Employees who work from one to 15 hours per week and small businesses.
It is not surprising small businesses are against these provisions. They agree with the reduction of maximum benefits, and we can understand their viewpoint, since a social viewpoint is something else. But this reduction of maximum insurable earnings does not make any sense.
Many researchers came to tell us as well that this did not make any sense. It does not make sense because it reduces the pool of contributors. It does not make sense either because, while the government is making a huge gift to big businesses-a gift that totally eliminates premiums when salaries are over $39,000-it reduces by 0.05 per cent the premiums of contributors as a whole.
If we look at what this means in concrete terms, for a small business, it will mean about $7 less per month for each worker if his salary is $200, while the gift to big businesses is total elimination of premiums. That goes against common sense, as is the case for a major part of this bill.
Mr. Speaker, could you tell me how much time I have left?